If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.
Create a dream machine with this simple guide
The motherboard is one of the most important components inside a computer – it allows each of the individual components to communicate with one another and, as such, dictates the main functionality of your machine.
The motherboard doesn't just house the physical slots and connectors to plug in all the different components. It also manages how these different elements communicate with one another via its chipset. The choice of chipset is dictated by the processor; once you've decided which processor you're going to use, you'll be able to find an appropriate motherboard to house it.
The brain of your system
It's physically impossible to use an Intel processor in a board meant for an AMD chip, because the motherboard and processor use different sockets.
Intel Core 2 processors currently use a connector called Socket 775 or LGA 775, which refers to the number of contacts on the bottom of the processor. AMD chips use two different connectors, although the older Socket 939 is largely being replaced by the newer Socket AM2. With this in mind, you're better off choosing an AM2- rather than a Socket 939-compatible motherboard as it will provide greater future upgrade potential.
AMD has also recently introduced AM2+. This is physically identical to AM2, but if you want to use one of AMD's latest Phenom chips, you'll need a board that supports AM2+.
Once you've decided on the physical connector, the next item you need to choose is the chipset. You'll find there are many different chipsets available, but your choice of processor will help rule out some unsuitable models.
For Intel processors, your choice is largely split between Intel's own chipsets or those made by nVidia. The chipset needs to be able to support a certain front-side bus (FSB) speed, which dictates how fast the processor can communicate with the chipset.
Intel processors generally need an 800MHz, 1,066MHz or 1,333MHz FSB, but for future-proofing it's wise to choose a chipset that can work with at least a 1,333MHz FSB. Such chipsets include Intel's X38, X48 and P35, plus nVidia's nForce 650i, 680i, 750i and 780i. At the top end, a handful of the latest processors require a 1,600MHz FSB. However, there are few of these and they're also very expensive; 1,333MHz support is probably sufficient for now.
There are fewer restrictions when it comes to choosing a chipset for an AMD processor, and you'll find many options available from AMD itself (these are actually ATI chipsets) and nVidia. As we mentioned above, a board with an AM2+ socket is necessary to support the new features of AMD's new Phenom chips. Otherwise, you can simply opt for an AM2 board.
If you're looking to increase the 3D performance of your machine by installing two graphics cards, you'll need to take this into account when choosing a motherboard. If you plan to use nVidia's scalable link interface (SLI) system then you'll need a compatible nForce chipset, while ATI's Crossfire requires a suitable Intel or AMD chipset.
The motherboard also provides a vast array of connectors, so it's worth having a quick check whether there are any particular features that you want. All will come with USB, for example, but some can support up to eight or more sockets, which cuts down on the need for external hubs. Hard drives now connect via SATA, but you'll also find removable drives that use external SATA (eSATA), which is faster than USB or FireWire.
PCI Express is the current standard for expansion cards and supports a number of different slot sizes. However, you'll generally find long x16 slots, which are used for graphics cards, and short x1 slots, which are suitable for other cards. You may also find a PCI slot for older expansion cards.
Next page: Processors & memory
- Build your own PC: price vs performance
- Build your own PC: tips on assembly
- Build your own PC: selecting a motherboard
- Build your own PC: processors & memory
- Build your own PC: hard disks & optical drives
- Build your own PC: graphics cards & monitors
- Build your own PC: power supplies, fans & cases
PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components