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Onboard peripherals
The chipset defines many of a motherboard's core features and functionality, but manufacturers often add peripheral chips to provide additional features and capabilities. Motherboard designers can also implement a chipset's features in different ways. The chart below is a quick summary of the specs of each board, including the chipset used, expansion slot layout, and additional peripheral chips.

Abit AL8 Abit AW8 MAX Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe Asus P5WD2 Premium Gigabyte GA-8I955X Royal Gigabyte GA-8N-SLI Royal Shuttle SD31P
Chipset Intel 945P/ICH7R Intel 955X/ICH7R NVIDIA nForce4 SLI/MCP04 Intel 955X/ICH7R Intel 955X/ICH7R NVIDIA nForce4 SLI/MCP04 Intel 945G/ICH7R
Expansion slots 1 PCI Express x16
3 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
1 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz
1 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
3 32-bit/33MHz
2 PCI Express x16
2 PCI Express x1
2 32-bit/33MHz
1 PCI Express x16
1 PCI Express x1
Auxiliary storage Silicon Image 3132 SATA Silicon Image 3132 SATA Silicon Image 3132 SATA ITE IT8211 PATA
Silicon Image 3132 SATA
ITE IT8212F PATA
Silicon Image 3132 SATA
Promise PDC20779 PATA/SATA None
Gigabit Ethernet Broadcom BCM5789 2 Broadcom BCM5789 Intel Pro/1000 Intel Pro/1000
Marvell 88E8001
2 Broadcom BCM5751 Marvell 88E8111 Broadcom BCM5789
Audio Realtek ALC880 Realtek ALC882M Realtek ALC850 Realtek ALC882D Realtek ALC882M Realtek ALC850 Creative P17
Firewire Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A Texas Instruments TSB82AA2 Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A Texas Instruments TSB43AB22A Texas Instruments TSN082AA2 Texas Instruments TSN082AA2 VIA VT6307

There's a lot to cover here, so we'll start near the top. Note how each motherboard maker chooses to distribute PCI and PCI Express slots. The Shuttle XPC SD31P's small form factor limits it to only two slots, but the other platforms offer plenty of expansion capacity. As you'd expect, the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition boards each have a pair of PCI-E x16 slots. Asus' 955X board also has a second x16 slot, but Abit and Gigabyte's 955X boards do not. A second x16 slot can come in handy for more than just SLI; with the right pair of graphics cards, users can easily power a pair of DVI displays, or four monitors.

We've already seen that both Intel's and NVIDIA's south bridge chips offer loads of storage options, but most of the platforms here also add auxiliary storage controllers to the mix. Silicon Image's 3132 Serial ATA controller proves to be the most popular. The chip has a PCI Express interface and serves up two Serial ATA ports with support for 300MB/sec transfer rates, Native Command Queuing, and RAID. A couple of boards also use ATA controllers from ITE, with the IT8211 offering a pair of ATA channels, and the IT8212 adding ATA RAID to the mix. Unfortunately, both ITE controllers are stuck on the relatively pokey PCI bus. Gigabyte's GA-8N-SLI Royal is the only board in the bunch to use an auxiliary storage controller from Promise Technologies. The PDC20779 offers a single ATA channel and two Serial ATA ports with support for 300MB/sec transfer rates. RAID is also supported, but the chip's performance may ultimately be constrained by its PCI interface.

On the Ethernet front, we have a mix of chips from Broadcom, Intel, and Marvell. With two exceptions—the Asus P5WD2 Premium's Marvell 88E8001 and the Intel Pro/1000 on the Asus P5ND2-SLI Deluxe—all of the GigE implementations take advantage of PCI Express. We'll see how the PCI GigE chips perform relative to their PCI-E competition soon.

Unlike the diverse collection of Ethernet chips, the audio front is dominated by Realtek codecs. The crab's working on quite a monopoly. Among the swath of Realtek chips, we have ALC880 and ALC882 codecs for those boards that support Intel's Azalia High Definition Audio standard. Both of the nForce4 boards use Realtek's ALC850 AC'97 codec, which doesn't support high-definition sampling rates and resolutions. The most interesting audio implementation of the bunch comes from the Shuttle SD31P, which eschews its ICH7R's audio controller in favor of a Creative P17 audio chip. The chip identifies itself in Windows as a SoundBlaster Live! 24-bit.

A single company also dominates the Firewire front. Texas Instruments nearly sweeps the board, although there are a few different chips in play. The most important distinction among them is support for 1394b, otherwise known as Firewire 800. 1394b offers twice the theoretical bandwidth of 1394a, and only the TSB82AA2 and TSN082AA2 support the faster Firewire standard, giving the Gigabyte boards and the Abit AW8 MAX a potential edge in the Firewire department.