Just about every system I've built in the last decade has used a full-sized ATX motherboard. Back in the day, you pretty much had to go ATX to get a decent board with the sort of features, BIOS options, and overclocking headroom expected by savvy enthusiasts. MicroATX offerings were largely budget fare, providing little more than the bare minimum required for basic desktops. Plus, they didn't have enough board real estate for dual CPU sockets. After embracing the creamy smoothness of SMP early on, I wasn't about to go back to a single core.
These days, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single-core desktop processor for sale. Dual- and quad-core CPUs have become commonplace, and they'll easily drop into the single sockets available on MicroATX motherboards. Today's micro mobos are much improved over their ancestors, too. Some models offer the same features as enthusiast-oriented ATX boards, including loads of integrated peripherals, identical BIOS overclocking and tweaking options, and even support for CrossFire and SLI. Plus, you can get versions with LGA1156 sockets primed for Intel's latest Lynnfield-powered Core i5 and i7 processors.
For the first time, well, ever, I'm actually contemplating a MicroATX build for my next desktop. But should you? We've rounded up a couple of MicroATX P55 motherboards from Gigabyte and MSI to help answer that question, and you might be surprised at what we've found.
Gigabyte's GA-P55M-UD4 motherboard
Micro without compromise
Gigabyte's stable of P55 motherboards currently houses two MicroATX models: the GA-P55M-UD2 and the GA-P55M-UD4. The former is remarkably affordable at just $110 online, but as one might expect from a budget variant, it's not exactly stacked with the latest and greatest. You'll need to shell out nearly $35 more for the UD4. In return, you'll get a board that, at least on the surface, appears to be completely free of compromise. It's almost as if Gigabyte took one of its enthusiast-oriented ATX boards and chopped a couple of inches off the bottom.
The UD4 even looks the part, with the same turquoise, blue, and white color scheme as the rest of Gigabyte's recent motherboards. I like the simple palette, particularly since it maintains the company's trademark turquoisey-blue board color. However, the mismatched "racing stripes" on the heatsinks look a little odd, as does the single orange expansion slot. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Like other members of Gigabyte's P55 family, the UD4 has a two-ounce copper layer and fancy electrical components, including solid-state capacitors, ferrite-core chokes, and lower RDS(on) MOSFETs. The board itself is four-layer design, just like the ATX-sized GA-P55-UD4P.
Interestingly, the UD4 actually has more power phases dedicated to the processor than its ATX cousin. Gigabyte packs 12 phases around the UD4's socket, while just eight ring the UD4P's LGA1156 Land Grid Array.
LGA1156 sockets have come under increasing scrutiny recently, with some suggesting that Foxconn-built units don't make adequate pin contact with Lynnfield CPUs. The UD4's socket is indeed made by Foxconn, as is the one on the MSI board. However, I didn't experience any problems with either. Of course, I also didn't engage in the sort of extreme, liquid-nitrogen-fueled overclocking that's apparently scorching the offending sockets.
One might think that the six Serial ATA RAID ports available in the P55 Express chipset would be sufficient for a MicroATX motherboard like the UD4. Or not. Gigabyte adds a GSATA-branded JMicron storage controller that provides two more SATA ports and an IDE connector. Heck, there's even a floppy port, if you're stuck in the dark ages.
The edge-mounted SATA ports do a good job of avoiding clearance conflicts with longer graphics cards, but you might run into problems with tighter enclosures that leave little room around the motherboard tray. Serial ATA cables with right-angle ports might not help on that front, either. All the ones I have are oriented so that the cable would end up pointing down, toward the motherboard tray, if plugged into the UD4's edge-mounted ports.
Gigabyte squeezes four expansion slots onto the UD4, including a pair of physical x16 slots that can be configured in a dual-x8 setup for SLI or CrossFire. The x4 slot is notched to accommodate longer cards, too, making it possible to run three PCI Express graphic cards, provided they all have single-slot coolers.
Having four expansion slots is still a little limiting when you're looking at losing two to a double-wide graphics card, but then the UD4's payload of integrated peripherals doesn't need much embellishment. The board employs Realtek's ALC889A audio codecour current favorite for its ability to encode Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the flyand offers two flavors of S/PDIF output alongside the usual assortment of analog audio jacks. Gigabyte also includes a hybrid eSATA/USB port capable of powering compatible external Serial ATA devices without the need for auxiliary cables, which is all kinds of awesome.
If you're familiar with the BIOSes on Gigabyte's high-end motherboards, you'll feel right at home with the UD4. The layout and tuning options are all but identical to what's available on more exotic ATX models, offering enthusiasts plenty of tweaking and overclocking potential. However, Gigabyte continues to have some of the most barren automatic fan speed controls in the business. Users can identify whether they're using a three- or four-pin CPU fan, but that's about it. Such a simplistic toggle switch is a stark contrast to the overabundance of fine-grained clock speed, memory timing, and voltage controls available elsewhere in the BIOS. I've been harping on this issue for a while now, and have brought it up with Gigabyte on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, the company's BIOS division seems entirely uninterested in developing more extensive fan speed options.