General Motherboard Features
Controllers here refer to virtually any secondary chip that controls some aspect of the system's features. For example, a network controller that manages the LAN ports. Although many chipsets have many of these controllers integrated in them, motherboard manufacturers often add additional controllers to provide even greater functionality and expansion options, especially in higher-end motherboards.
However, that does not mean you should go looking for a motherboard with the most controllers. Let's run through the common add-on controllers. You have to ask yourself if you require their additional functionality. There's no point paying extra for features you will never use.
Hard Drive Controllers – I usually prefer motherboards with additional hard drive controllers. These controllers allow you to add more hard drives, or compatible storage devices like a DVD writer, to the system. They can either be a Serial ATA or the old-fashioned IDE controller, with the former a far more common addition these days. Most motherboard chipsets have integrated hard drive controllers but they usually support only a limited number of hard drives (commonly two to four). Tacking on additional controllers will give you the ability to add more hard drives. Some hard drive controllers also help reduce CPU usage during data transfers as well as provide additional features like support for RAID. However, if you do not know what RAID is, or need it, you can skip such features.
Network Controllers – Most motherboard chipsets support at least one LAN port, so you generally will not need a motherboard with extra network controllers unless you're planning to bridge two networks with your PC or use it in a router. There's no need to bother with extra network controllers, unless you really really need them. Most users end up using only one LAN port.
Wireless Network Controllers – Now, this is something I really like in a motherboard. They allow you to connect to wireless networks without adding a PCI wireless network card. They are great if you have a wireless network and hate cables. The downside is, this feature is usually found only in high-end motherboards, and that means you will need to pay quite a bit for it. Such integrated solutions do come with AP (access point) software which allows you to use your PC as a wireless access point. So, it is still a nice feature to have if you do use it, and can afford the price levy.
FireWire Controllers – FireWire is also known as the IEEE 1394, or if you are using a Sony product - i.Link. There are three main uses for FireWire in a PC - support for DV/HDV camcorders, connecting old iPod models and fast external storage access. If you need it, then make sure you get a motherboard that supports it. Otherwise, it's a nice feature to have, but not a necessity.
Audio Controllers – There will be entire section dedicated to it later in the guide, but let's cover a few basic things.
First of all, there are two kinds of motherboard-based audio - one that is based on an actual DSP (digital signal processor) and one that's nothing more than a software-based codec. The first method uses the DSP to process the audio data, while the second method uses the processor to handle the work. Naturally, most manufacturers implement the cheaper software method. If I recall correctly, the only manufacturer to implement a dedicated audio DSP on their motherboards is MSI and then only in their high-end Platinum line (they use an Audigy 2 ZS-class chip).
Next, there are two ways to physically implement the audio solution. The manufacturer can either add the chip and its ports onto the motherboard itself, or they can use a riser card where the chip and its ports are fitted onto a small, separate card. What's the difference? Although having the audio solution integrated onto the motherboard sounds like an elegant, space-saving solution, it tends to pick up interference and electronic noise from other motherboard components in close proximity. This degrades audio quality. Therefore, if you can, select an audio solution that uses a riser board. For example, ABIT's AudioMax and DFI's Karajan riser boards.
Finally, I'm quite sure you've heard the name Azalia thrown around quite a bit when you go shopping for a motherboard. What exactly is Azalia? Is it a chip that delivers super fast gaming sound? Well, Azalia is like THX. No, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean that Azalia produces THX-quality audio. Azalia is similar to THX only in the sense that they are both standards, rather than actual hardware implementations. Just like ISO9001 certification, a motherboard with "Azalia audio" merely means that the motherboard's audio solution has met the standards of Intel's Azalia certification program on audio quality. Do note that Azalia is officially known as “Intel HD Audio”. To summarize, it's better to have an Azalia-qualified audio solution than one that is not qualified.
The BIOS (Basic Input Output System) is software that allows your PC to initialize and boot up. But it does more than just that. It also controls the settings of your motherboard chipset. These settings can be changed in the BIOS setup menu although the number of BIOS options available vary from motherboard to motherboard.
Hardware enthusiasts prefer more options to be available because this allows them to tweak the motherboard for better performance and stability. Overclockers would be most interested in BIOS options that control memory timings, voltages and clock speeds. Some BIOSes also come with the option to save different settings. For example, DFI's Genie BIOS allows you to save up to 4 different profiles.
Needless to say, the large number of BIOS options can overwhelm the newbie. However, you have nothing to fear. We have a very comprehensive BIOS Optimization Guide that will show you what each BIOS option do and what you should set them to.
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