Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice for choosing the right one.

There's something very appealing about creating your own custom-made PC. You can specify it exactly the way you want ensuring you don't have to make any compromises. The most important component is certainly the motherboard but with a huge range of prices and specifications, which one should you buy?

We've put together a list of the important aspects to consider when purchasing a motherboard, from processor speeds to memory and performance, to ensure you'll get exactly what you need for a price that suits your pocket.

The big picture

In many ways, the motherboard is the heart of the modern computer system, as it affects almost every other component. Choosing a motherboard is a fairly complicated task since you have seven to nine different factors to consider, of varying importance.

Take some time to think about how you'll use your system. Someone with a power meter that requires a serial port will care a lot more about the peripheral features than the average user will, while the hard-core gamer will probably focus on the graphics processing unit (GPU), central processing unit (CPU), and chipset while ignoring peripherals and form-factor issues.

Key motherboard features

CPU

The CPU, commonly referred to as the brains of a PC, is one of the key components (if not the key component) of a modern system. You have several mainstream options for your CPU. Intel currently has the highest-performing processor lineup, with the Core 2 Duo and the Core 2 Quad (which use the LGA775 socket). As the names imply, the Core 2 Duo is a dual-core CPU, while the Core 2 Quad is a four-core processor.

AMD uses the AM2 and AM2+ socket and offers the Phenom (quad- or triple-core) and Athlon 64 (dual-core) CPUs. AMD's products are solid, but they generally provide lower performance. A lesser-known third player, Via Technologies, produces the low-power C7 processor; the C7 is a much less common option since it offers dramatically less performance than mainstream processors from Intel or AMD do.

NEXT PAGE: Further features to consider when buying a motherboard

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

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Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice for choosing the right one.

Chipset

If the CPU is the brains of the PC, then the chipset is the spinal cord, responsible for tying together all of the different devices in the computer, and moving data among them. The chipset determines which CPUs, memory, and other devices can be used, and it can strongly influence performance.

The chipset is the single most important component of a motherboard. Since motherboards using the same chipset will usually have identical performance (barring serious design mistakes), they're differentiated by other features, such as the expansion slots, storage options, and other discrete chips that may be included.

Chipsets typically employ two different chips referred to as the northbridge and southbridge. Generally speaking, the northbridge is responsible for dealing with high-performance devices, while less-sensitive devices tend to cluster around the southbridge.

The northbridge traditionally includes the memory controller, plus integrated graphics or an interface for discrete graphics. (Note that AMD has the memory controller integrated into the CPU, rather than the chipset.) The southbridge includes networking, storage, audio, general peripherals, and other devices. The major options for chipsets consist of Intel, AMD and nVidia, though SiS and Via have alternatives.

Memory

Selecting memory for your PC is usually a simple decision: you just pick a reliable brand that's as cheap as possible (unless you like overclocking, but that's a whole different story).

Every so often, however, memory types undergo a transition and one happens to be going on right now. Most chipsets use DDR2 memory at up to 800MHz (PC2 6400), but newer chipsets from Intel may also use DDR3. DDR3 offers more bandwidth (1066 to 1600MHz), consumes less power, and will be mainstream in a year, but for the moment it is more expensive. DDR3 is more likely to be useful for later upgrades, but it will carry a price premium until some time in 2009.

Telling a DDR3 board from a DDR2 board without the manual or box isn't particularly easy, since both slots use 240 pins. The difference is that the key (a small gap between the pins) is closer to the centre of the DIMM (the memory module) for DDR2, while it is closer to the edge of the DDR3 DIMM. Remember: if the memory module doesn't fit into the slot, don't force it!

NEXT PAGE: Graphics hardware and audio

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

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Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice for choosing the right one.

Graphics hardware

The graphics hardware (the graphics processing unit, or the GPU) is the third-most-important component of a system, right after the CPU and chipset. The main considerations for graphics are cost, performance and upgradability.

The lowest-cost option is a chipset with integrated graphics. Integrated graphics processors (IGP in industry parlance) are intended for basic 2D and 3D functionality and often use system memory instead of dedicated graphics memory. All of the major vendors (AMD, Intel, nVidia and VIA) offer integrated graphics with some chipsets. An IGP is a fine choice for users interested in a little multimedia, office work, and other lighter workloads.

Integrated graphics will work fine for about 60 percent of the world, but the technology almost always lacks the performance necessary for gaming. For users who want to play on their PC, the next step up is a motherboard with a single PCI Express x16 slot, which accommodates a discrete graphics card from ATI/AMD or nVidia.

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PCI Express comes in two flavours, Gen 1 and Gen 2. The difference is that Gen 2 PCI Express slots run at 5GHz, twice the speed of the previous generation. That distinction doesn't particularly matter for current GPUs (or most other peripherals), but it will be an issue for upgrading in the future. For a motherboard that you expect to outlast the GPU you pair it with, springing for a faster PCI-E slot makes the most sense.

If price is no object and maximum gaming performance your goal, your selection is a bit different. True multi-GPU support is a very high-end feature and is priced accordingly. The only options for multiple GPUs are SLI (for nVidia cards) or CrossFire (for ATI cards). Given that nVidia is the clear performance leader, SLI is the superior choice for now; note, though, that SLI works only with nVidia chipsets and Intel's Skulltrail motherboard.

A separate but related concern is the graphics interface. You have three major alternatives: VGA, DVI, and HDMI. VGA is the traditional 15-pin analogue monitor connector, designed for CRT displays. DVI is a digital connector specifically intended for use with LCD monitors, and HDMI is a variant of DVI with the DRM (digital rights management) technology required to play Blu-ray and other high-definition media.

Sound

Integrated sound, which comes in two major flavours, will meet the needs of all but the most selective users and audio enthusiasts. AC97 is an older audio standard that has been superseded by HD Audio (or 'Azalia'). You really have no reason to settle for the older standard, although the newer tech might carry a modest premium. For the dedicated enthusiasts who would benefit from a discrete sound card, an extra PCI-E slot is easy enough to find.

NEXT PAGE: Considerations you need to make regarding storage, networking and memory

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

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Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice on choosing the right one.

Storage

Like memory, basic storage tends to be relatively straightforward, but it gets tricky with some of the various options and platform transitions. In the past few years, storage experienced a transition from Parallel ATA to Serial ATA (Sata) and then to 3gbps Sata. 1.5gbps versus 3gbps Sata can make a bit of a difference in performance, but typically only in video editing and other media-heavy workloads.

Most hard drives use Sata, while some older DVD+/-RW drives use Parallel ATA. Most motherboards support four or more Sata ports (even as many as 10), which is sufficient for most users.

eSata is a relatively new standard for connecting external drives via Sata instead of FireWire or USB. eSata offers higher performance than the other two, and also supports reliability and manageability features such as Self Monitoring And Reporting Technology (SMART). eSata is not nearly as common as USB 2.0, but going forward it is likely to be more widely adopted, and it is certainly a better interface.

The other real storage issue concerns RAID, which is standard with many modern motherboards. You can use RAID 0 or 1 with two hard drives; the former increases read and write performance, while the latter increases reliability and read performance. RAID 5 requires at least three drives, and RAID 6 (which is really for businesses only) needs at least four; both are oriented around increased reliability and read performance, with acceptable write performance and less overhead than RAID 1.

Most systems simply don't need that many drives, so in many ways 6 is a nice option but hardly a requirement. For video editing and other multimedia-rich tasks, basic RAID 0, 1 or 5 will do the trick and should be a requirement.

Networking

Wired networking is dead simple, as any worthwhile chipset will have at least one integrated gigabit ethernet port. For the most part, Wi-Fi is not necessary for desktops, and most motherboards tend to avoid it simply to cut down costs; it's an optional feature.

Assorted peripherals

On a motherboard, the peripherals can include USB 2.0, FireWire, PS/2, serial and parallel ports, and a floppy drive. Of those options, USB 2.0 is an absolute necessity and FireWire can be nice, but the rest are pretty much obsolete unless you need a specific peripheral device.

Form factor

The final aspect of the motherboard you need to consider is the form factor. This is ultimately an aesthetic choice that the chassis for the system determines. Most motherboards use the ATX form factor, with the microATX design meeting the needs of space-conscious users. Quite a few other variants (which are beyond the scope of this article) are available for users with particular requirements, however.

NEXT PAGE: motherboard specs explained

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

Related articles:

Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice for choosing the right one.

Motherboard specs explained

In the end, the key to building the right system is to understand how you will use your PC. As we mentioned before, the needs of an office worker are totally different than those of a video-editing wizard or a gaming fanatic.

Important consideration: the processor

When it comes to performance, the sweet spot for most users is Intel's dual-core CPUs, as there aren't yet enough advanced applications to make a quad-core a must-have. We recommend a 3GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, specifically the E8400, unless you use applications (video editing, for example) that are better suited to a quad-core processor.

Somewhat important: chipset

The best companion for the Intel E8400 is a motherboard based on the P35 chipset. You should choose the specific motherboard according to your desired storage, audio and memory options.

Important consideration: memory

A modern desktop PC should have at least 2GB of memory, possibly 4GB for more demanding applications (not to mention Windows Vista).

Important consideration: graphics

Even if games aren't a consideration, you might want to spend a little (£50) on a midrange GPU such as the Sapphire Radeon HD 365, which offers a nice variety of video-output options. For gaming, a more powerful graphics card, such as something from nVidia's 8800 GT family, would be appropriate.

Somewhat important: storage

Building a nice system but running out of storage space is frustrating. Given the way hard-drive pricing works, using a 500GB hard drive makes sense. Larger models cost much more, and smaller models won't save you enough money. Make sure your DVD drive employs Sata so that you will be able to use it in the future.

NEXT PAGE: Motherboard shopping tips

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

Related articles:

Whether you're building a new PC or overhauling an old one, a new motherboard is the place to start. Here's our advice for choosing the right one.

Motherboard shopping tips

Ready to buy a motherboard? Here are our recommendations.

Pick the chipset first, then the motherboard

The difference between chipsets can be significant, but two motherboards with the same chipset will be nearly identical in performance. First figure out which chipsets will work for your system, and then compare the different motherboards with that chipset.

Understand what kind of system you are building

Are you going for an affordable media PC, an office machine or a gaming monster? These usage models all suggest different things about the features you'll need. Focus only on the features that are important to you.

Avoid SLI/CrossFire unless you absolutely need it

Enthusiasts always pay an arm and a leg for their hardware, and SLI and CrossFire technologies are for enthusiasts only. Simply buying a new video card instead of going from one card to multi-GPU is much more sensible.

Stay with DDR2 memory unless you need the extra bandwidth and performance

DDR2 is vastly cheaper than DDR3. Unless you are planning to upgrade and reuse the memory in the near future, you should buy DDR2 now and wait for DDR3 prices to drop for a future system.

Unless you really know what you are doing, avoid overclocking features

Quite a few motherboard vendors try to differentiate their products by having them support faster-than-specified memory or other exotic features. Remember, though, that such boards are targeted at enthusiasts and are priced accordingly.

Make sure you have at least one high-performance PCI Express slot

Even if all you want right now is integrated graphics, buying a board with an extra x16 PCI-E slot costs very little, and could save you £50 down the road.

  1. Key aspects to consider when buying a motherboard
  2. Further features to consider when buying a motherboard
  3. Graphics hardware and audio
  4. Choosing storage, networking and memory
  5. Motherboard specs explained
  6. Motherboard shopping tips

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