Where to start?  Lost in a sea of options the first question that will probably pop into your mind when looking for a new Socket-7 motherboard is just that: "Where do I start?"  In which case, the best place to start would probably be with what you plan on using your system for. 

Processors

For those of you planning to use your system strictly for purposes of Net Surfing, Business Applications such as Microsoft Office and other such office suites, and so forth your options are as open as the skies above you.  Any Socket-7 processor would really suit your needs in that case, with the top two options being the Intel Pentium MMX and the AMD K6 as your top two options for future use in the months to come.  If you aren't limited by a processor choice then your motherboard choices are just as broad, unfortunately very few of us are blessed with so many choices...which leads us to the next topic. 

Once you add more advanced applications and therefore more demanding ones, you begin to limit your choices of processors, and in turn you limit your motherboard sample set.  For quite some time the only real option for a gamer or someone looking to get the most out of their 3D games was a Pentium MMX or a Pentium II (more recently the Intel Celeron), however since those days things have dramatically changed.  AMD now poses a major threat to Intel's gaming throne with their next generation K6 processors running at clock speeds in excess of 266MHz, and with their K6-2 processors able to produce Pentium II levels of gaming as well as Business and High End performance.  For the user that wants it all, yet doesn't have all that much to spend, the best overall option (provided you are an avid gamer) would be a K6-2 + Super7 motherboard combination.  With the Pentium MMX as a secondary choice if you already have a processor and are simply looking for a motherboard upgrade. 

Chipsets

With the processor decided upon, you must decide what chipset you want to have on your motherboard.  The chipset is basically the communication medium for the entire motherboard, it is what allows the processor to "talk to" the rest of the components on the motherboard such as the Memory (RAM), Video Card, and other such devices.  The chipset essentially deems which luxury options your system will support once it is complete, for example, only certain chipsets support the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) and only certain chipsets support the Ultra-ATA Hard Disk Specification.  All of the chipsets featured on the motherboards compared here boast full AGP compliance and support the UltraATA specification.

Among other things, the Chipset also partially sets something known as the Cacheable Memory Area.  The cacheable memory area is the maximum amount of system RAM installed on the motherboard that will be 'cached.'   The benefit of caching memory is primarily performance, if you are making use of memory that is entirely cached by the Level 2 Cache subsystem on your motherboard then performance is at its peak.  One you step outside of the cached memory area your system must go directly to the system memory to fetch data instead of using the L2 cache as a middle-man (much like asking someone next to you for an answer vs asking someone across the room).  The cacheable memory area is entirely dependent on three things: the chipset, the size of the L2 cache, and the size of the Tag RAM (the latter two terms are defined and explored in greater depth in the AnandTech RAM Guide).  The cacheable memory area on all Super7 boards reviewed equipped with 512KB of L2 cache (based on the VIA MVP3 chipset) was 128MB, those based on the same chipset but equipped with 1MB of L2 cache was 256MB, double the original figure.  

When dealing with motherboards based on the ALi Aladdin V chipset things are made a bit more complex, the current revision of the chipset found on the only Aladdin V board that made it in time for the comparison (Iwill XA100) featured 512KB of L2 cache with a 128MB cacheable memory area.  While this number may change with Aladdin V motherboards to come, 128MB is the base cacheable memory area to expect from all Super7 motherboards, a limit which is more than enough for most users. 

The Socket-7 AGP arena is a bit more complex (yep, it gets worse).  The VIA VP3 chipset, although on paper  supports a full 512MB cacheable memory area, when placed on a motherboard with 1MB of L2 cache it will cache a full 256MB, naturally boards equipped with 512KB will cache half that amount, or 128MB. 

The SiS 5591 chipset, originally thought to be the World's First Super7 Chipset, actually a Socket-7 AGP Chipset with unofficial support for the 90MHz Front Side Bus speed, features a 128MB cacheable memory area when found on motherboards equipped with 512KB of L2 cache, the limit is doubled to 256MB when you pair it up with a board featuring 1MB of L2 cache.   

Back to the Super7 end of things, the two competitors there, VIA Technologies and Acer Labs Inc., both have chipsets that are pretty much equal in terms of performance.  Although the ALi Aladdin V does feature an integrated 16K x 10-bit Tag RAM and 16K x 2 L2 Cache SRAM (a feature which decreases cost and increases performance), the scale is tilted in favor of VIA by the MVP3's ability to run the SDRAM (Memory) Clock at the same speed as the AGP Clock, in theory allowing you to avoid shelling out the extra cash for PC100 SDRAM just so you can take advantage of the 100MHz FSB.  If neither of those features impress you, then simply aim for the motherboard with the best feature-set for your needs.

Index What to look for (cont)

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