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Intel Compatible Motherboard Buying Guide
Table of contents
When discussing computers, certain parts such as the CPU, memory and video card are usually the focus of attention. For instance, you might hear someone say, "I have a Pentium D 930 processor with 1 Gigabyte DDR2 667 memory, and an ATI Radeon X1900XT video card". Sure, this info gives a quick and general impression of what someone has, but it also does not communicate what plays a significant role in making all these parts work together properly: the motherboard.
Consider the CPU as the brain of a computer, and the motherboard the body. Then connect all the other devices and components. It's easy to simply grab a motherboard after choosing a CPU - maybe the one that adheres to the budget better or costs less. That isn't the recommended approach because the motherboard roughly determines the type of system that can be built and directly affects the type of parts and devices that can be installed in the system. Rather importantly it also determines the upgradeability of the system.
It is also important to know that a motherboard change is one of the tougher modifications to accomplish physically, so we don't recommend doing it very often. When building your system from the ground up make sure that choosing the right motherboard is at the top of your to-do list – it is a very important task, if not the most important.
A motherboard is composed of many components and choosing one is therefore a very complicated process when compared to almost any other single part or device in the computer system.
1. The chipset, which determines the functionality, compatibility and connectivity of a motherboard, and
2. The CPU support, since users typically choose a motherboard in order to support their choice of CPU, rather than the other way round (unless you are upgrading the CPU).
The term "chipset" (sometimes called core logic) often refers to the two main chips on the motherboard: the Northbridge and the Southbridge. The Northbridge (or MCH in Intel chipsets) often refers to the chip that handles communications between the CPU, memory, AGP or PCI Express and the Southbridge. The Northbridge often includes the memory controller. Some models will also contain an integrated graphics unit (they are called the GMCH in Intel chipsets).
Intel Compatible Desktop Chipset Guide
You should consider two things when it comes to the CPU support of an Intel compatible motherboard: the chipset and the CPU socket type. The CPU socket or slot is the interface of both the processor and the motherboard. The processor's socket type must match the motherboard's CPU socket to be installed properly. This means that an LGA775 processor must be installed on an LGA775 motherboard.
With the exception of certain Pentium 4 & Celeron D models still utilizing the Socket 478, most Intel processor products like the Celeron D, Pentium 4, Pentium D, Pentium Extreme Edition and the latest Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme are currently on the LGA775 socket. There are also specialized motherboards designed to support the Pentium M processor and Core Duo processor, and they utilize the Socket 479 or other special socket types.
Since most Intel desktop processors utilize LGA775, when choosing a motherboard, most of your attention should fall on the CPU support, which is determined by the chipset. Different chipsets provide support to different processors. For example, the Intel 915/925 chipsets do not support dual-core Pentium D processors, and the Intel 945 chipset will support Pentium D processors but not Pentium Extreme Edition processors.
The motherboard you choose must feature the chipset that can support the CPU you have chosen. Moreover, it is extremely important that you check and make sure your CPU will be supported by the motherboard you are planning to buy.
Although the process of choosing a motherboard is complicated due to the various functions and connections motherboards provide, it can become much easier to find one that meets your requirements once you know what to look for.
On Intel compatible motherboards the memory controller is contained within the Northbridge chipset. This means that the memory support - defined by memory type, memory channels, memory speed and memory capacity - is determined by the chipset.
There are two types of graphics support on motherboards: onboard graphics (or onboard video) and the video card interface/slot. Many desktop motherboards utilize chipsets with integrated graphics units which are not quite as powerful as most discrete (add-on) video cards in terms of 3D rendering power in games and other 3D applications. These motherboards are perfect for basic business and general home usage, however, since the user does not have to invest more for a discrete video card.
The PCI slot offers the maximum bandwidth of just 133MB/s. It has been in use for a very long time and is no longer the mainstream interface for video cards.
The AGP interface was the replacement for PCI and has been developed over the years to encompass the AGP 1X (266MB/s bandwidth), AGP 2X (533MB/s bandwidth), AGP 4X (about 1GB/s bandwidth), and AGP 8X (about 2GB/s bandwidth) interfaces. AGP 8X is the fastest and is downwards compatible with AGP 4X; while AGP 4X is downwards compatible with AGP 2X, and so on. Currently, PCI Express is rapidly replacing AGP as the former provides higher data bandwidth.
The PCI Express standard can be broken down into the PCI Express x1 (500MB/s bi-directional bandwidth), x4, x8, and x16 standards, with PCI Express x16 (8GB bi-directional bandwidth) used mainly for video cards.
Expansion slots are used to install add-in cards such as sound cards, TV tuner cards, network interface cards and HDD/RAID cards. These add-in cards add additional functionality or connectivity to your computer. If you plan on using these cards, make sure the motherboard provides sufficient expansion slots for all your cards. One thing to remember is that PCI Express slots and PCI (PCI is not equal to PCI-X) slots are different and are not compatible with each other. Installing a PCI card into PCI Express slot is not possible, and vice versa.
IDE/PATA/SATA Device Ports
Some Southbridge chipsets feature RAID support. RAID (Redundant Array of Independent/Inexpensive Disks) is a way of using multiple hard drives together for data storage. A RAID system with multiple hard drives appears as a single drive to the operating system. Depending on the RAID level, the benefits provided by RAID is one or more of the following: better throughput, fault-tolerance or capacity (or something else) when compared to single hard drive.
1. RAID level 0 (or RAID 0) is known as striping, where data is striped across multiple hard drives. RAID 0 provides the most advanced throughput and capacity, but offers no fault-tolerance.
2. RAID level 1 (RAID 1) is known as mirroring, which stores the exact same data within at least two hard drives, this method shows excellent fault-tolerance and reliability, but delivers less capacity efficiency.
3. RAID level 0+1 and RAID 1+0 are both striping and mirroring, providing good fault-tolerance and throughput all at the same time. There are other RAID levels available too, such as RAID level 5 and RAID level 6.
PS/2 ports connect the keyboard and mouse to a computer and are usually color-coded on today’s systems - purple for keyboards and green for mice. Most desktop motherboards still provide PS/2 ports, but an increasing number of keyboards and mice are using USB ports.
The USB port is the most popular I/O interface standard used for connecting computers and peripherals or other devices. It is capable of supporting up to 127 daisy-chained peripheral devices simultaneously. The latest USB 2.0 specification can deliver 480Mbps data transfer bandwidth.
Also known by the trademarked names of FireWire and i.LINK, IEEE 1394 is a standard for high-speed transfer of digital information. It is one of the most popular standards for connecting computers and other digital devices to various components and peripherals, such as external hard disk drives, scanners and digital video camcorders.
Most motherboards provide the "AC' 97" or "HD Audio" codec onboard sound solution. AC '97 is the audio standard/architecture developed by Intel in 1997. It delivers multichannel 16-bit, 48 KHz recording and playback, with optional support of 18-bit and 20-bit resolution sound and up to 96 KHz sampling frequency (stereo). HD (High Definition) Audio was developed by Intel as well, and was released in 2004 and is meant to replace the AC '97 specification. HD Audio-based hardware can deliver up to eight sound channels at 192 kHz/32-bit quality, which is an improvement over AC '97.
1. Coaxial or RCA jack, digital audio information is transferred in the form of an electronic signal.
2. Optical or "TOSLINK", all information is transferred in optical signal form.
Almost all contemporary motherboards provide integrated LAN functions, rated either at 10/100Mbps or 10/100/1000Mbps. These numbers show the theoretical maximum throughput of the network interface card (onboard LAN controllers in this instance). Some high-end motherboards even provide two LAN ports for users connecting more than one network device without needing an add-in card.
As an addition/expansion to the Southbridge chipset, some manufacturers integrate additional hard drive controllers onto certain motherboards (especially high-end products) to provide more PATA/SATA connections. Some of these controllers support RAID functions as well.
In computing, form factor is an industry term for the size, shape and format of computer motherboards, power supplies, cases, add-in cards and so on. Here we will focus on the size and layout of the motherboard. It is important to choose a computer case that accommodates the motherboard form factor.
BTX is a newly developed form factor. BTX motherboards utilize new layouts for better heat dissipation and airflow. There are also smaller sized BTX from factors as well, such as microBTX and picoBTX.
The ATX form factor is still the mainstream form factor currently. Only a few retail motherboards utilize the BTX form factor. All AMD compatible motherboards are currently ATX motherboards.
As there are a lot of issues or factors to consider when choosing a motherboard, it is almost impossible to provide specific recommendations to meet the infinitely varied requirements out there. Our recommendations here are principles and guidelines that stress particular features/specifications to look for seriously depending on your applications/requirements. Please read the above sections of this buying guide to be sure of your own requirements.
As we've already stressed above, your motherboard must support your choice of processor. For tips and advice on processors, and the CPU that best suits your requirements, please see our CPU Category Intelligence coverage. Do not rush into the motherboard selection process before you decide what processor to use. When choosing the motherboard, make sure your processor is in the support/compatibility list of the motherboard. Thereafter, make sure the motherboard supports your other requirements.
Memory Support: DDR2 memory support is mainstream for contemporary Intel motherboards. If you are not upgrading with DDR memory from an older system, our recommendation is that you go for a motherboard supporting DDR2 533/667 memory or higher. The number of memory slots should also be taken into account. For most users, we recommend dual-channel memory support as a default.
Pay Extra Attention to…
ECC Memory/Maximum Memory Capacity: if you are a workstation user. ECC memory support is a requirement for workstation motherboards. Moreover, you should pay attention to the maximum memory capacity supported by the motherboard, since workstations may need enormous amounts of memory. Desktop motherboards only support up to 4GB or less.