The secrets of choosing the right Motherboard

| April 16, 2009 | (8)

Series: How to Choose PC Parts – Part 2 – Motherboard

Are you lost when it comes to motherboards? Or do you think that you know everything about them? Not so quick! Read on as I share insider knowledge with you!

Wait…What is a motherboard?

Also known as the mainboard, system board or logic board and sometimes casually shortened to mobo, the motherboard is the central Printed Circuit Board (PCB) found on one of the inside side of the PC. It’s easy to recognize because nearly every hardware components plugs into it in some way.

How do I choose the right motherboard?

Form factor:

The first thing you should figure out is the size factor of your motherboard that you want. The two main standards are:
Micro ATX: 9.6″ x 7.6″
ATX: 12.0″ x 9.6″

This is mostly important when you  will pick up your case. Note that Micro ATX motherboards tend to cost less, but also offer less features, due to space limitations. If you’re looking to get Crossfire or SLI, ATX is the way to go.

Platform: AMD or Intel?

Before you go any further, you should know whether you will use a cpu made by AMD or by Intel. Why? Because they require different motherboards, meaning that an AMD cpu will only work with a motherboard designed for an AMD cpu and vice-versa. Have no idea what cpu you want? Check out the first part of this series: How to choose the cpu that offers the best bang for the buck.

Going with an AMD cpu? Read on.
Intel cpu? You may want to skip to the Intel part.

AMD platform:

Different sockets:

A cpu will be inserted into a socket. Depending on the cpu that you chose, you will need either a socket:

  • AM2
  • AM2+
  • AM3

This is clearly indicated when you buy the cpu. For example, if you buy a Phenom II X3 720, you see that it is based on the AM3 socket. Simply verify this before buying the motherboard.

Backward compatibility:

However, some AM2 motherboards do support AM2+ cpus and most AM2/AM2+ motherboards do support AM3 cpus. You may need to update the BIOS in order to get backward compatibility or support for newer cpus. Keyword here: SOME motherboards do support backward compatibility, not all of them. Sometimes, it is also limited to only up to 95W cpus.

Reasons for no support may include but is not limited to: No BIOS update, motherboard not designed for new power requirements. Etc. Usually, you will find a list of compatible cpus on the motherboard product page. It’s always good to contact the seller or the manufacturer when in doubt.

DDR2 vs DDR3:

With the newest socket, AM3, AMD introduced the DDR3 RAM standard to its platform. Does it bring anything to the table vs DDR2? Yes, higher frequency speed, but at the costs of higher latencies. Meaning that the performance is the same for DD2 800/DDR3 1066 and DDR2 1066/ DDR3 1333.  If anything, my recommendation is to get a good well known AM2+ motherboard and to use it with a AM3 cpu.

If you’ve read the AMD section, you may choose to skip to the Features section.

Intel platform:

Different sockets:

With Intel, it’s simple right now. If you want any Pentium, Core 2 Duo or Core 2 Quad cpu, you will be using the socket 775
If you want a Core i7 cpu, you will be using the socket 1366.

DDR2 vs DDR3:

With the newest socket, 1366, Intel introduced the DDR3 RAM standard to its platform. Does it bring anything to the table vs DDR2? Yes, higher frequency speed, but at the costs of higher latencies. Meaning that the performance is the same for DD2 800/DDR3 1066 and DDR2 1066/ DDR3 1333. In this case, if you have a socket 775 platform, you’ll be using DDR2 most probably. Core i7 cpu? DDR3 for sure.

Alright, we’re done with AMD and Intel, for now. Let’s move on to:

Features:

When choosing a motherboard, pay close attention to features that you want, as each motherboard model will offer different features. The form factor, chipset and price of the motherboard will determine what features you’ll get. Here’s a list of the most common ones:

Integrated peripherals

Memory controller: Getting phased out, as its integrated in all AMD cpus currently available, same goes for Intel’s Core i7. The memory controller is only used on Socket 775 motherboards.
Disk Controller: for a floppy disk drive, up to 2 PATA drives, and up to 6 SATA drives (may include some form of RAID support)
Integrated Sound Card: Most integrated sound card include 5.1 surround sound with respectable sound quality. Will include some form of output/input on the rear panel.
Integrated Video Card: Not designed for heavy 3D gaming, more for display or multimedia purposes. WIll include a or some form of outputs on the rear panel.
Ethernet network controller: Used to connect an ethernet cable to your PC, in order to access your network/Internet. Maximum speed varies from 10Mbps to 1000Mbps.
USB ports: Used to connect tons of devices. Numbers included varies from 2 to 10, with an additionnal one or two on-board USB, to connect to your case usb ports.
PS/2: Used to connect mouse and keywords, slowly getting phased out.
Fan Headers: Used to power up cpu/case fans, to cool down the system.
E-Sata: Used to connect external storage device, usually hard drives.
Firewire: Used to connect external storage device, usually hard drives.
And many others…

Peripheral card slots

A standard ATX motherboard will typically have 1x PCI-E 16x connection for a graphics card, 2x PCI slots for various expansion cards and 1x PCI-E 1x which will eventually supersede PCI. This varies depending on the brand and model.

SLI/Crossfire

Nvidia SLI and ATI Crossfire technology allows two or more of the same series graphics cards to be linked together to allow faster graphics-processing capabilities.

Obviously, you will require a compatible motherboard with at least two 16x PCI-Express slots, unless you get an X2 card. Crossfire is available with AMD chipsets and opened in 2006 to also be available on Intel’s chipsets. As for SLI, it requires a motherboard with Nvidia’s own NForce chipset series, with the exception of Intel’s X58.

Solid capacitors vs Electrolytic capacitor

In the last few years, many people reported problems with Electrolytic capacitors leaked, breaking down early or simply exploding. This is caused by cheaply made electrolytic capacitors made by “no-name” companies in China. While this has been corrected and is now rarely a problem, some people swear by solid capacitors that are in no way affected by the same problem.

Personnally, I think that for most systems, good quality electrolytic capacitors will do, but solid capacitors are desirable for high-end systems, especially with quad-core cpus.

How to choose the right chipset

Simply choose the one that offers the features that you want. However, you may want to keep in mind any future upgrades that you may want to perform, for example if you want to combine two Geforce card in SLI in the future, I’d suggest getting a motherboard that does support that feature.

Some recommendations of mine

Here are some of the best motherboards you will find, for different type of setups, starting with the AMD platform, then the Intel one. According to me that is ;) Enjoy!

AMD Platform Chipsets:

Single Card setup, ATI or Nvidia or Integrated:

Budget Micro ATX Geforce 7025ASRock N68-Sd
Budget ATX Geforce 8200
EVGA 113-M2-E113

SLI setup

Mainstream ATX nForce 750a SLI (8X, 8X): ASUS M4N72-E
High-end ATX Nforce 780a 3-Way SLI (16X, 16X, 8X)
: ASRock K10N780SLIX3-WiFi

Crossfire Setup

Budget ATX AMD 780G Crossfire (16X, 8X) ASRock A780GXE
Mainstream ATX AMD 790GX Crossfire (16X, 8X):
ASRock AOD790GX
High-end ATX AMD 790FX Quad-Crossfire (8X, 8X, 8X, 8X): ASUS M4A79 Deluxe

Intel Platform Chipsets

Socket 775

Single Card setup, ATI or Nvidia or Integrated

Budget Micro ATX G31: Foxconn G31MV-K
Budget ATX P31: GIGABYTE GA-P31-ES3G
Mainstream Micro ATX G41: GIGABYTE GA-EG41MF-S2H

Crossfire Setup

Mainstream ATX P45 Crossfire 2 x 8X: ASUS P5Q Pro
High-end ATX X48 Crossfire 2 x 16X: DFI LP DK X48-T2RSB PLUS

SLI setup

Mainstream ATX Nforce 750i SLI (16X, 16X): ASUS P5N-D
Mainstream ATX Nforce 750i 3-Way SLI (16X, 8X, 8X): MSI P7N SLI Platinum
High-end ATX Nforce 780i 3-Way SLI (16X, 16X, 16X): EVGA 132-YW-E178-A1

Socket 1366

High-end Micro ATX X58 Crossfore or SLI (16X, 16X): ASUS Rampage II GENE
High-end ATX X58 Crossfire (16X, 16X):GIGABYTE GA-EX58-UD3R
High-end ATX X58 SLI or Crossfire(16X, 16X):GIGABYTE GA-EX58-UD3R-SLI

Category: Choose PC Parts, How to, The Best Computer Parts For Your Money

About Mathieu Bourgie: HR Founder - Computer expert with 13 years of experience in building, fixing and modifying PCs. Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for PC hardware and now I enjoy helping others build their own PCs! In April 2008, I launched Hardware Revolution and ... Read more at my about page .

  • Willem

    You forgot to mention that if you use a regular ATI-videocard, getting a motherboard with Hybrid Crossfire gives you that little extra bang for the buck.

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  • jwpowers5

    Don’t forget to check whether adding graphics or other expansion cards will block or be inhibited by heatsinks or SATA headers. IDE, Floppy, and most other headers won’t be a problem because the cables don’t stick out very far. Watch out for those SATA headers though!

  • Darthtigger

    a lot of the boards above are no longer for sale at NewEgg

    • http://www.hardware-revolution.com/ MathieuB

      Darthtigger,

      Makes sense, since I posted this article over a year ago. I won't update it for some time, probably not until next year when Intel and AMD release their new platforms.

      I'd take a look at our Computer Builds for a variety of motherboards for different uses, at different price points.

      Take care,
      Mathieu

  • Moonzuk

    Hey buddy.
    I've shortened my P4v800D Asus while powering up “manually” by shortening these tiny pins. I believe I connected “speaker” and “5v” or “Ground” and “5v” incidentally.
    No, it was not due to stupidity. I am pulling this MB for a few years and little by little it starts falling. Several month ago it stop functioning via front buttons, so I've opened side panel and use a screwdriver. By shortening “reset” pins I usually get it work. Today I touch the second row , I guess.
    There was a spark and system is booting up with no video and no DVD drive.
    CMOS already done a couple of times, ATX cables off – no result. Is there anything to kinda “reset” in this case?
    Thanks for any input.

  • Ed

    Excellent advice, i’ve been looking for a site that clearly explains each individual bit of a board, this fits it exactly. Thanks

  • khalyl Townsend

    So Im planning on building a computer, but I have no clue what platform chipsets are. Anybody want to help me understand this?