TR's 10th: The morphing motherboard market, more winners

Motherboards have been my beat since the very beginning here at TR. They made up most of my first reviews and the bulk of products to pass through the Benchmarking Sweatshop ever since. Decent enthusiast boards were hard to find back in the day, with few offering meaningful tweaking and overclocking options. Those that did rarely had such features accessible through the BIOS, forcing users to manipulate onboard jumpers to make even minor adjustments. Actually finding a motherboard that was stable running at faster-than-stock speeds was a daunting challenge back then, too, especially if you also wanted one with a decent array of integrated peripherals.

Asus was the motherboard market leader at the time, by quite a margin. But Abit was arguably the preferred choice among PC enthusiasts. A much smaller player in the industry, Abit won over enthusiasts by providing robust overclocking and tweaking controls in the BIOS with the original SoftMenu. It also produced what may be the finest enthusiast board ever: the BP6, which let users pair a couple of easily-overclocked Celerons on a single board, bringing the creamy smoothness of SMP well into the realm of affordability.

Today, Abit is entirely absent from the enthusiast motherboard market. One might call it a casualty of consolidation, although the company's failure to innovate continually surely bears some of the blame. Other manufacturers were quick to copy Abit's enthusiast-friendly approach, and you can probably credit the original SoftMenu for the wealth of overclocking and tuning options that now come standard on just about every motherboard that isn't a budget MicroATX model from a lower-tier manufacturer.

The fact that today's core-logic chipsets integrate almost all the peripherals one might need has made it even more difficult for motherboard manufacturers to differentiate their products. When mobo makers do tap third-party silicon for audio, networking, or auxiliary storage, they often end up using the same chips. As a result, most modern motherboards have comparable—if not identical—core feature sets.

Asus has managed to maintain its position atop the motherboard market, but in recent years, Gigabyte has risen from the middle ranks to nip at its heels. The war is no longer being waged over which boards offer the most integrated peripherals or the best overclocking options. Now, it's more about which is loaded with more power phases, weightier copper layers, and higher-grade electrical components. The latest enthusiast-oriented motherboards from Asus and Gigabyte are largely equivalent on those fronts, too.

So why, then, have we recently recommended Gigabyte motherboards over their Asus counterparts? It's simple, really. With both offering comparable performance, features, and overclocking potential, it all comes down to price. Gigabyte boards have generally been cheaper than their Asus equivalents, and by more than a few dollars. Plus, Gigabyte has a tendency to equip its boards with Realtek ALC889A codec chips that can perform SoundStorm-esque real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding—a feature absent from most Asus designs.

Enthusiasts are bargain hunters at heart, so Gigabyte's recent popularity should come as no surprise. Neither should the impressive string of awards that the company's motherboards have racked up over the last few years.  Even our system guides have been littered with Gigabyte mobos, so it's only fitting that a bunch are included in our tenth anniversary giveaway. We'll be giving away eight motherboards today, all based on Intel's lastest P55 Express chipset: one GA-P66-UD6, one GA-P55-UD4P, one GA-P55-UD3R, and five GA-P55M-UD4s. Plus, 50 gaming mouse pads. Check out the goodness:

Today's winners are Kirk Blasko, Nick Botto, Christopher Fontaine, Pete Tuttle, Brad Tooman, Tom Baxter, Kyle Chessman, and Jesse Pifer, in that order. We're awarding these prizes on a first-drawn, first-served basis, so Kirk gets the first crack at this bounty of motherboards. Winners should have email waiting for them at the addresses they used to register for the giveaway—simply reply to claim your prizes.

In addition to donating over $1,300 worth of motherboards, Gigabyte has also kicked in 50 of its GP-MP800 gaming mouse pads. Each of our randomly drawn winners this week will be getting a mouse pad with his prize. Also, 20 mouse pads are up for grabs for the first 20 folks who post a comment below. After you've posted, please send a private message via the forums to TR's biz guy, Adam, whose forum nick is Inkling. The mouse pads will go out on a first-come, first-served basis. And no, you don't have to live in North America for this one.

As if motherboards and mouse pads weren't enough, Gigabyte also sponsored our 10th anniversary podcast and the grand prize, which will be drawn Saturday. The grand prize consists of all the components you'll need to put together a reasonable approximation of the Sweeter Spot build from our most recent system guide, including a Core i7-860 processor, GA-P55-UD4P motherboard, Gigabyte GTX260 Super OC graphics card, Caviar Black 640GB hard drive, Samsung DVD burner, Lite-On Blu-ray reader, Xonar DX sound card, Corsair TX650W PSU, and 4GB of Crucial DDR3-1333 memory all wrapped up in one of Gigabyte's 3D Mars enclosures. All told, those components ring up at over $1,200, so be sure to sign up for the giveaway if you haven't done so already.

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