Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Mother of All Boards

Continuing my quest for a new desktop PC / workstation, I find myself searching for the perfect place to mount all the components. Since I decided to go with what I know, including anecdotal proof of why AMD is the right processor for me, I now have to find a compatible motherboard to mount it to.

This is one of those areas that I have to again decide to "go with what you know." The dizzying array of vendors, makes, and models of motherboards would confuse even the most technocratic junkie among us. The spectrum has to be narrowed and the easiest way to do that is to go with a recommended brand name. I have built two PCs in my days, both lasting over 5 years before becoming obsolete (with component upgrades along the way), and each time I chose an MSI motherboard. I have had no complaints to speak of, but there have been a couple sporadic issues that I haven't been quite able to pin down. One recent issue, though, is that a memory slot got lose, making it unusable. Since this motherboard requires matched pairs of memory, I'm short two slots and therefore only have half the memory capacity I want. (Of course, my computer is over 5 years old and I've been making period memory upgrades. The lose slot could have been self induced.)

This time around, based on recommendations from friends who also build PCs, I'm going to try a Gigabyte motherboard. Hopping over to Newegg, I start searching for Gigabyte motherboards that are compatible with AM3 chips (the Phenom II that I selected earlier). This narrows my choice down to 12 motherboards.

Narrowing the choices from this point are pretty easy. For example, USB 3.0 is the latest standard. I expect my computer to last a while, so I want it. I use an ATX form factor for my mid-size tower. Those two options narrow my selection down to 3 choices, which I can easily compare.

There are many specifications to motherboards. In all honesty, most of them won't make much difference to the average user. A few key features:
  • Front Side Bus (FSB) Speed - this is a bit of a misnomer, but still is somewhat representative of how quickly the components mounted to the motherboard communicate with each other. Because of changing chip technology and processes performed on-chip, comparing FSB between vendors or Intel vs. AMD can not always be done 1 for 1.
  • North Bridge - This will take research because unless you follow the PC industry closely, the code names on North Bridge (and South Bridge) will mean just as little to you as the code names for the CPUs.
  • South Bridge - see North Bridge.
  • Memory Standard - Shows how fast your memory is. Faster usually equate to better performance and you have to make sure you buy memory sticks that match.
Even if you have an AMD CPU, you can still get a motherboard with an nVidia (North Bridge) chipset. When I started looking at the technology behind the bridges, mainly by researching Gigabyte's, Intel's, and AMD's website, I noticed something new.

In the past, since I was more comfortable with nVidia graphics cards, I chose a motherboard with nVidia chipsets. They should "communicate" better with each other. What I've noticed, though, is that there is still a bit of lag, or incompatibility, or other sporadic issue with my setups that wouldn't allow me to squeeze out all the possible performance I should be getting. That's why this time around I spent more time and looked into using an AMD chipset with an ATI graphics card (and the fact that ATI has greatly improved since being purchased by AMD). My thoughts, keep it all in the family and everything should run smoother.

The latest chipset on the market for AMD is the 890GX. The price difference in motherboards between the earlier 790-series and the 890 is not too bad, so it is worth buying the latest tech if I want this computer to last. I tried comparing the options to an nVidia North Bridge motherboard and there really was no comparison. This was the final straw that put me over the edge to buy a complete AMD/ATI system instead of an AMD/nVidia hybrid. Using an AMD CPU, and AMD chipset, and an nVidia graphics card is really not a wise decision for high performance, stable computers, capable of being overclocked. It was time for me to really take a close look into ATI graphics cards. Not only was I surprised at how well the tech level of ATI compared to nVidia (not something you hear very often in the market), but I was also able to find a contact at AMD that answered my technogeek questions comparing nVidia technologies to ATI technologies and open standards.

If I haven't said it enough already, AMD and ATI has really surprised me. My default line of thinking has been shifted and I am switching sides for a while - assuming my wife lets me buy a new computer. Here's to competition and seeing the best of technologies coming from both sides of the field.

(I would like to continue this to expand on what I learned from my contact at AMD, but I will deviate as I cover some interesting highlights from COFES 2010. Stay tuned.)