No one gets the chipset award this year because, well, all of the chipsets released in 2005 presented problems for enthusiasts. The closest we have to a winner is NVIDIA's nForce4 series. The nForce4 was definitely the most popular enthusiast-oriented chipset of the year, but it was plagued by intermittent issues with ActiveArmor Gigabit Ethernet acceleration. Much of the nForce4 line also lacked support for anything other than basic AC'97 audio, and many users still complain about NVIDIA's IDE drivers. Otherwise, the nForce4 was great, but it's hard to dole out a best chipset award when major problems persisted through much of the year.
Of course, NVIDIA wasn't the only game in town when it came to enthusiast-oriented chipsets. ATI made a big core-logic play in 2005 with its Radeon Xpress 200 series chipsets. Unfortunately, they relied largely on ATI's SB450 south bridge, a chip that lacks key features like Native Command Queuing, 300MB/s Serial ATA transfer rates, and support for RAID 0+1/10 arrays. The SB450 also has some serious I/O performance problems that we've seen limit USB transfer rates, and the performance of PCI-based Gigabit Ethernet, Serial ATA, and even Firewire peripherals. These problems are too serious and persistent to ignore, effectively knocking ATI out of contention.
Much of ATI's chipset woes stemmed from problems with the SB450 south bridge, but the Radeon Xpress 200 has long been capable of working with south bridge chips from ULi. We've been impressed with ULi south bridge implementations in the past, and the ones we saw paired with ATI north bridge chips offered up-to-date features and competitive performance. Availability was an issue throughout the year, though. Only a handful of motherboard manufacturers elected to use ULi's south bridge offerings over the SB450, and there weren't many Radeon Xpress boards in the first place.
A lack of widespread availability in enthusiast-oriented products also takes ULi's complete chipset offerings out of the running for best chipset. That's really a shame, since ULi did some interesting things in 2005. Most notably, the company's M1695/M1567 chipset hung a real AGP 8X interface off the south bridge. That allowed motherboards to be built with full-bandwidth AGP 8X and PCI Express x16 slots, providing plenty of flexibility to upgraders. Unfortunately, the chipset was only available on bargain-basement boards that lacked many of the features and BIOS options that enthusiasts have come to expect as standard.
The availability issue also keeps any of SiS's numerous chipsets taking the best chipset of 2005 award. Many of the company's chipsets offered competitive performance and up-to-date features, but to actually get one on a motherboard, you had to go with budget brands like ASRock and ECS. Not that there's anything wrong with budget boards, but they hardly offer the features, tweaking options, fan speed control, and overclocking potential that enthusiasts desire.
VIA's chipset problems in 2005 are well-documented enough that it should be clear why none of the company's chipsets even crossed our mind when considering the best core logic of 2005. In terms of real, honest-to-goodness products, the only thing VIA had for enthusiasts was the K8T890, a chipset that relied on the antiquated VT8237 south bridge. VIA did demo a number of chipsets that never made it to market, but we'll tackle that in a moment.
With chipsets from ATI, NVIDIA, SiS, ULi, and VIA all disqualified for various reasons, we're left with Intel. Intel was hardly a minor player in the core logic market in 2005, and its chipset sales dwarfed those of the competition. In fact, were it not for the comparatively poor performance of Pentium processors, Intel would have this award locked up. Over the course of the year, the company released several second-gen PCI Express chipsets, none of which suffered from the issues that plagued other vendors. Intel also debuted the ICH7R south bridge, which features a robust Serial ATA RAID controller, impressive peripheral performance, and HD audio. Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that the CPU interface is a key component of any core logic chipset. The CPU interface on Intel's chipsets only works with Pentium and Celeron processors, and since neither were attractive options for PC enthusiasts, Intel's chipsets suffered the same fate.
If we named a best chipset of 2005, we'd really just be naming the least unattractive chipset. That won't do, so we'll hold the chipset award for safe keeping until next year. By then, NVIDIA's acquisition of ULi will be complete, ATI will have a new south bridge, and Conroe should give Intel a more competitive desktop processor. Let's hope that somewhere along the way, a high-performance, feature-rich, problem-free chipset emerges on enthusiast-oriented motherboards.
We haven't picked a best motherboard of 2005 because our system guide makes our favorites pretty clear. However, we would be remiss not to highlight some of the more unique BIOS features offered by mobo makers in 2005. Abit's uGuru stands out as the winner here, with far more extensive hardware monitoring and fan speed control than any other BIOS. It was the only BIOS that offered fine-grained temperature, voltage, and fan speed monitoring with alarm and shutdown conditions for each. Couple that Abit's FanEQ fan speed control, which allows users to set individual fan voltages, high/low temperature thresholds, and reference temperatures for all onboard fan headers, and you've got a fantastic BIOS for enthusiasts looking to lower noise levels and keep and eye on their hardware. uGuru isn't exactly lacking when it comes to performance tweaking and overclocking options, either.
Although Abit takes home the hardware this year, DFI's BIOS innovations come a very close second. The LANParty line made big strides in 2005, and DFI's motherboard BIOSes offered a couple of great features we couldn't find anywhere else. The first of these was the integration of Memtest86+ right into the BIOS of the LANParty NF4 series. Memtest is one of the best ways tools for testing memory stability, and having it right there in the BIOS is incredibly useful for overclockers seeking the highest stable clock speed their hardware could sustain. Speaking of overclocking, DFI's Max Hammer FID BIOS setting also allows users to run processors faster than stock under load while still benefiting from Cool'n'Quiet. This marriage of speed and clock throttling is great for enthusiasts who want a little extra horsepower under load without sacrificing lower power consumption at idle.
If we had our way, a BIOS that offered the best of Abit and DFI's innovations would have been available in 2005. No such luck, but we're keeping our fingers crossed for 2006.
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