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?
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.
A cpu will be inserted into a socket. Depending on the cpu that you chose, you will need either a socket:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
Intel Platform Chipsets
Single Card setup, ATI or Nvidia or Integrated
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