Integrated interfaces

Increasingly, chipset manufacturers are incorporating graphics, sound and networking controllers into the board itself, obviating the need for add-in cards. These can be beneficial depending on the use you make of your system, for instance, the level of support offered may not be enough for the types of applications you want to run on your system. Therefore, it's important to look at which features have been integrated into the chipset and motherboard before you make your purchase.

Integrated graphics

After a spurt of popularity, integrated graphics support on the motherboard has become increasingly rare. It obviates the need for a separate graphics card but doesn't always offer the highest quality in 3D games performance. If you are planning to use your setup for office applications only, an on-board graphics chip should suffice. The 3D support of integrated graphics chips, however, tends to lag way behind that of dedicated cards, so diehard gamers will probably find the built-in support inadequate, and should consider installing a dedicated card.

Intel's 915G chipset for instance, offers Intel's integrated Graphics Media Accelerator 900, which supports both 2D and 3D graphics and uses a chunk of the computer's main memory for graphics processing. Other chipset manufacturers such as VIA Technologies and SiS also offer 2D/3D graphics engines built into the chipset with similar capabilities.

In many cases, motherboards with integrated graphics will still have an appropriate AGP or PCIe slot to insert a graphics card. If you opt to use this slot, then the inserted graphics card will "override" the motherboard's integrated graphics.

Sound Support

The story of integrated sound support is a little different. Nearly every new motherboard you will buy today has some form of integrated sound processing capabilities, sparing you the need to go out and buy a separate sound card.

The on-board sound in recent motherboards has actually become quite sophisticated, in some cases rivaling card-based solutions and offering six or even eight-channel sound.

A motherboard with integrated sound will have speaker, line and microphone sockets on its backplate, accessible to the exterior of the PC.

Some boards also ship with proprietary utilities that allow you to tune into FM radio and play music CDs without having to load up the operating system.

It is important to note though, that onboard sound uses your systems CPU to process sound. This means performance during gaming or other intensive applications could be compromised as the CPU processes this sound. A separate sound card, such as a Creative Audigy2, is well recommended if you are a multimedia and gaming enthusiast as the sound card will take the sound processing load off the system's CPU and do all the processing onboard. Likewise, most integrated sound chips have a much lower signal to noise ratio than most current sound cards. Signal to noise ratio is basically the amount of signal that can be heard relative background noise and is measured in decibels. A higher number is better.

On-board networking

Another interface which has become more common on motherboards over the past 12 months is the on-board LAN (Local Area Network) controller. Almost all new motherboard come with 10/100 or even Gigabit network controllers these days, and some high-end motherboards even come with 2 Gigabit ports!

On-board LAN can come in a variety of types, but the most common on desktop boards is integrated 10/100Mbps Ethernet (Fast Ethernet). This is the most widely installed type of LAN.

"10/100Mbps" refers to the speed at which the PC can retrieve data from the network. 10/100 is a switchable network interface that can be used with either of the two most commonly installed Ethernet systems: 10BASE-T or 100BASE-T. Most new motherboards also now support Gigabit Ethernet (1000BASE-T) networking natively. Gigabit Ethernet is backwards compatible with Fast Ethernet, so Gigabit motherboards can connect to Fast Ethernet networks.

Some new motherboards are also coming with wireless ("Wi-Fi") networking built in, most commonly 802.11g. Wireless networking allows you to communicate with other local PCs through a wireless access point or wireless router. 802.11g supports communications at a theoretical 54Mbps (some implementations even support up to 108Mbps in "turbo" mode, using the 802.11g protocol). If you plan on using wireless networking, integrated Wi-Fi can save you $70 or more on an expansion card.

On-board Bluetooth support

As well as providing on-board support for LANs, motherboard manufacturers are also delving into personal area networks (PAN) via on-board Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth can be used for wireless control of peripheral devices like printers, handheld PCs and mobile phones.

MSI 845E Max2 motherboard

Integrated Bluetooth solutions can be used for either Point to Point or Point to Multi-Point Wireless transmissions between the PC and the Bluetooth devices within a 100m range.

Optional interfaces

A wide array of new interfaces are popping up on motherboards as optional extras, which concentrate on specialised peripherals coming into the market.

For example, a selection of motherboards offer on-board Memory Stick, Smart Card, CompactFlash and Secure Digital card interfaces as extras. These are basically dedicated socket points (also known as pin headers) for you to connect your smart card reader or SD card reader to your PC. Motherboards with these interfaces do not usually come bundled with cable connectors, however, so if you are planning to connect through any of these technologies to the motherboard you will need to invest in the cables separately.

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