Nvidia nForce 570 SLI for Socket AM2
Last year, we couldn't find a chipset we liked enough to name the Best Chipset of 2005, so no one took home the award. We were much more impressed with 2006's crop of core logic chipsets, and we managed to find two worthy candidates for our Best Chipset of 2006 award. But there can be only one winner, and Nvidia's nForce 570 SLI for Socket AM2 edged out Intel's P965 Express.
Cue fanboy whining.
Intel launched the P965 as a mid-range chipset for Core 2 processors, but with a more advanced 90nm fabrication process and additional south bridge Serial ATA and USB ports, it looked more like a successor to the high-end 975X Express than a cheaper sidekick. The line between the 975X and P965 became even more blurred this fall when ATI announced that the P965 would pick up official support for CrossFire multi-GPU configurationsa capability previously exclusive to the 975X Express. But really, who could blame ATI? Motherboards based on the P965 were everywhere in the second half of the year, and the chipset did an admirable job of scaling from budget $100 boards for mainstream users to $200 screamers built for overclockers and enthusiasts.
While the P965's versatility and popularity are impressive, there are two things we really don't like about the chipset. First, it doesn't include integrated Gigabit Ethernet networking. Intel makes some fine networking controllers, and we'd really love to see one integrated into at least the company's high-end "R" south bridge chips, if only to provide a more consistent user experience. As it stands, motherboard makers are free to use whichever GigE chips they please, and we've seen performance vary quite a bit.
The P965's lack of integrated networking would be easier to forgive if Intel hadn't also dropped "parallel" ATA support from the chipset's ICH8 series south bridge chips. Don't get me wrongI'd love to ditch clunky IDE ribbonsbut the summer of 2006 was too early to drop ATA support from such a mainstream chipset. Serial ATA optical drives were still few and far between, and they're only now becoming available at reasonable prices. The prevalence of ATA devices forced mobo makers to resort to third-party ATA controllers, many of which lacked proper DOS support, creating compatibility problems with older boot CDs and even some versions of Ghost.
In essence, the P965 Express has become a leaner, meaner, and slightly lighter version of the 975X. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't have the makings of the best chipset of 2006. For that honor, we have something even more versatile: Nvidia's nForce 570 SLI.
Nvidia has a habit of sharing chips across multiple chipsets, and the nForce 570 SLI made its way into about a bazillion different configurations. First, it was available as a single-chip implementation known as the nForce 570 SLI for Socket AM2 processors. That very same chip was also paired with a north bridge component as a part of the nForce 590 SLI chipset, which was available for both AMD and Intel CPUs. As if that wasn't enough, the 570 was pressed into service again as the nForce 680i SLI's south bridge.
Ok, so maybe we're short of a bazillion, but you've gotta give Nvidia props for picking a pony and riding it. The nForce 570 SLI is really more of a thoroughbred, and a juiced up one at that. Nvidia managed to squeeze a 1GHz HyperTransport interface, 28 PCI Express lanes with SLI support, six Serial ATA RAID ports, 10 USB ports, "Azalia" High Definition Audio, and two Gigabit Ethernet controllers with TCP/IP offloads into just one chip. The hardware-accelerated Gigabit Ethernet even works this time around, and Nvidia also added outbound packet prioritization to the mix.
With so many integrated features, the nForce 570 SLI and its couplings were able to offer more consistent peripheral performance than their competition. But there was still a catch: power consumption, or more specifically, the resultant heat output. The nForce 570 SLI runs hot, whether it's acting on its own as a single chip or working under an assumed name with a north bridge riding shotgun. Heat output is a far cry from Prescott levels, but it's forced many motherboard makers to employ elaborate heatpipe networks in order to achieve passive cooling.
Fortunately, heat is the only problem we have with the nForce 570 SLI, and it's really not that big of a problem at all if you consider the issues that plague other chipsets. If that's the price we have to pay for great peripheral performance, widespread availability on a variety of mid-range and high-end motherboards, great extras like the nTune system utility, and a consistent overall user experience, we'll pay it gladly.
Asus P5B Deluxe Wifi-AP Edition
A lot of great motherboards passed through the Benchmarking Sweatshop this year, but Asus' P5B Deluxe Wifi-AP Edition was the best, in part because it enjoyed so many firsts. This was the first Core 2 motherboard we got our hands on, and one of the first enthusiast-class P965 boards on the market. The P5B Deluxe was also the first to offer Core 2 multiplier control in the BIOS, and it was the first P965 board to support CrossFire multi-GPU configurations.
Oh, and did I mention that the P5B Deluxe was the first Core 2 motherboard we were able to overclock to a front-side bus speed well beyond 400MHz? Yeah, that too.
Our P5B Deluxe's excellent overclocking performance underscores the fact that this board's appeal reaches beyond its ability to beat the competition to market. Asus put together one heck of a package with the Deluxe Wifi-AP Edition, including silent heatpipe cooling, just enough expansion slots, an ICH8R south bridge, eSATA connectivity, onboard 802.11g Wi-Fi, plenty of BIOS-level overclocking and fan speed options, and a handful of useful extras. More importantly, the P5B Deluxe Wifi-AP pushed the envelope and offered things you don't often see from even a high-end motherboard. That makes it the best motherboard of 2006.
Unfortunately, even the best motherboard can't escape annoying quirks. The board's BIOS is a little finicky when it comes to flashing, and a flash gone wrong can render the board unable to POST. What's worse, Asus hasn't used a standard BIOS chip, so you can't just pop in a replacement after a failed flash. Recovery is still possible, but the whole issue puts a bit of a smudge on what would have otherwise been a pristine award.
Abit shared this award with DFI last year. uGuru continued to shine throughout 2006, but DFI's BIOSes failed to consistently implement some of the unique features we really liked about last year's LANParty boards. No oneincluding Abitreally went above and beyond in the BIOS department in 2006. That allowed Abit to enjoy the nice lead it built itself with uGuru, which still offers by far the most complete array of BIOS-level hardware monitoring and automatic fan speed control options. No one else even comes close.
Monitoring and fan speed control may be the backbone of uGuru's appeal, but Abit's BIOSes also offer a bevy of tweaking and overclocking options, including multiplier control for Core 2 processors and plenty of memory bus dividers and voltage options. That's exactly what enthusiasts need in order to wring the best performance and highest overclocks from their systems, making Abit's uGuru an easy choice for the best BIOS of 2006.
Of course, we can't give this award away without taking a crack at Abit's one attempt to break new ground in the BIOS realm. In 2006, Abit decided that typical blue or grey BIOS color schemes had to go, and the company served up alternatives in black, red, and pink. The black and red schemes worked well, but the pink was, well, pink. Please remember your market, Abit; enthusiasts and overclockers aren't so much into pastels.