** Introduction **
When I bought my current desktop PC two or three years ago, I felt that none of the ready-made computers easily available offered me quite the combination of components that I was looking for, and so for the first time I went down the custom route. For the most part, I knew pretty much what I wanted already (in particular, the excellent-value Intel E6750 CPU), and so speccing the machine was a breeze, but when it came to motherboards I was somewhat clueless. Although I have no problem rooting about inside a PC case to do routine tasks such as fitting RAM or changing a graphics card, motherboards have always slightly intimidated me, partly because so much else depends on them.
After a lot of humming and hawing, I decided that on the budget I had the rather cumbersomely-named ASRock ConRoe1333-DVI/H (which cost about £80 then) was the best choice. It was by no means the poshest of the options that the seller (Cougar Extreme, who I was generally very happy with) offered, but I didn't have an unlimited budget and as I wasn't intending to do any really heavy customisation, overclocking etc there didn't seem much of a need to buy a motherboard that was more than solid and adequate. ASRock began life as a budget-brand spinoff from Asus, one of the best known and longest established motherboard manufacturers, so it's not some fly-by-night operation.
** What you get **
When I got the PC, the compact (mATX form factor) motherboard was already fitted - it wasn't *that* much of a do-it-yourself job! - but I was given the retail box with all the associated paraphernalia. This was, um, Taiwanese, not in language but in the way it plastered graphics all over the outside advertising its compatibility with all manner of processors and memory, its PCI Express ports (still not quite universal when I bought it) and the fact that ASRock was "an Expert in Windows Vista". (Is that really something to boast about? Ah well.) For some reason there are also a couple of futuristic spaceships hurtling across the cover.
The back of the box was all about ASRock's green credentials. Oh yes: "What efforts ASRock has done [sic] to protect the earth?" Not that this is entirely answered: we're simply told that it's a company with "the combination of technology and humanity" and that "the earth pollution is getting deteriorated". I swiftly moved on to the box contents: no board of course (it was already fitted, remember!) but instead the usual array of driver CDs, badly printed information booklets and mysterious cables: SATA and IDE drive cables (even a floppy disk one!) and a DVI riser card.
** Setting up **
ASRock cards are intended for no-frills, straightforward use, so it's not really surprising that the BIOS is light on customisation options. There is limited overclocking capability, but even this is not really terribly useful: are you *really* going to want to put the front-side bus up to 500 MHz on a board like this? I think not. Slightly more practically, there's a reasonable if unexciting array of options for RAM: the ConRoe accepts DDR II memory, but the maximum speed is 667 MHz; if you want to run 800 MHz RAM then you'll need to look a little bit further up the scale. That said, none of this paragraph is particularly likely to bother those who just want to use their PC normally.
More relevant to most will the board's connectors: there's just the one IDE plug, but four SATA(II) sockets. Only two RAM slots are provided, which shouldn't bother most but may mean having to sacrifice some perfectly good sticks if you upgrade; each slot can accept up to 2 GB. There *are* onboard sound and graphics, but both are limited: the Realtek ALC888 sound will be okay for basic use, but the Intel GMA950 graphics chipset is antiquated by modern standards, and if you want to do any sort of gaming with a ConRoe-based PC you will absolutely need to get a proper graphics card - though bear in mind that there is only the one PCI Express x16 port, so you won't be able to use a dual-card setup.
When you're fitting the power supply, you may find something rather odd: this board has a 20-pin power connector, not the 24-pin version that in theory supplanted it years ago. This doesn't cause any trouble if you choose your PSU carefully (I use a Corsair VX450 and it works like a dream) but what might is the placement of the connector: it's weirdly placed right in the centre of the motherboard, exactly where it can get in your way the most when wiring up other things! On the back plate is a fairly standard array of ports, though again there's an old-fashioned feel since as well as four USB connectors there are parallel and serial ports; handy if you have any old hardware you still use.
** Verdict **
It's hard to judge the performance of a motherboard without having access to the sort of testing equipment the PC magazines have, so perhaps I should just fall back on the traditional non-reply of Rolls-Royce spokesmen when asked about their cars' power output: "adequate". However, I can say that the board has never given me any trouble, and that it just sits there and runs all the components I throw at it, whether sound cards, graphics cards, memory or PSUs. I wouldn't recommend it for hardcore gamers or tweakers, but for those with more modest ambitions for their computers I really can't see anything wrong with this - though not at the £130 one seller is currently trying to get!