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How To Build the Ultimate Gaming System on a Budget, Part 2: Choosing the Motherboard

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Cyrus Peikari continues his step-by-step account for building a wicked cool game system. This time around, he chooses a mainboard and RAM.
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a 4 part series. Here are links to part 1, part 3, Choosing the Graphics Card, and part 4, Putting It All Together. And when you're ready to put your system to the test, see what Cyrus had to say about the Doom 3 experience at Quakecon 2004.
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Our last article began by describing the design goals for building our ultimate high-end gaming machine on a budget. We picked out a black aluminum case from Aopen. We're on a budget, but that doesn't mean we won't splurge in some areas; we just have to pick the right areas in which to spend. In this way, we can build a machine that has a better "feel," and costs at least $2,000 less than you would pay at retail.

How a computer "feels" is something not easily quantified by benchmarks. It's like reading sports car specs. Regardless of what the manufacturer puts on paper, until you personally push it to its limits, you can't judge the vehicle's quality. A computer is the same way. By choosing quality components, you'll have an ineffably better experience.

One of the places to splurge is the mainboard, also known as the motherboard. It's truly the soul of your machine. The mainboard can be either your best friend or your worst enemy. Right now, the 875P chipset provides the best performance for the money. And since we're going to drop a staggering $200 on just the mainboard, that had better mean a lot of performance!

For the highest-end P4 mainboard with the 875P chipset, I've found that the choice right now comes down to the Gigabyte 8KNXP version 2.0 versus the Abit IC7 Max3. I actually like the Gigabyte 8KNXP version 2.0 a little bit better; its features are ever so slightly richer. However, remember that we're also thinking about aesthetics. In this case, the Abit IC7 Max3 can't be beat. This is primarily because of its sexy, radial chipset fan (see Figure 1). It's guaranteed to make your friends jealous.

Figure 1Figure 1 The radial chipset fan from ABIT will add a touch of class to the esthetic design of our case mod.

In addition, the Abit IC7 Max3 has a special mosfet ventilation subsystem which not only keeps the components cool, but looks incredibly cool. This special cooling system is backlit with three spaced green LEDs for visual emphasis, which adds a nice touch. These two extras—the radial chipset fan and the mosfet cooling channel—alone are enough to justify the extra price for the Abit IC7 Max3 over the base Abit IC7.

Key features of the Abit IC7 Max3:

  • The power regulation mosfets and capacitors (the hottest part of a mainboard) have a unique, custom cooling channel with a special external ventilation fan.

  • Enhanced 800 MHz front side bus speed is supported, which is our target for a high-performance system.

  • Dual DDR module support. This board supports up to 4GB of single/dual-channel DIMM modules, delivering a bandwidth of 6.4 GB/sec. We'll need to run two DDRs in parallel at 400 MHz each, to achieve 800 MHz front side bus speed.

  • Integrated Gigabit LAN card, right on the board, so you don't have to buy a network card or upgrade to gigabit speed later.

  • Six-channel audio and S/PDIF in/out interface is built right into the board. This lets you enjoy six-channel audio without having to buy advanced sound cards.

  • USB 2.0 supports speeds up to 480 Mb/sec, approximately forty times faster than conventional USB 1.1 (i.e., faster than FireWire). This board has room for eight USB ports right on the motherboard headers, which is key for peripherals. If you've ever tried to use splitters to daisy-chain multiple USB devices, you know this can create severe performance problems. This board lets up to eight devices drink right from the source.

  • ABIT SoftMenu™ Overclocking. The overclocking functions include CPU frequency, Vcore, multiplier, and memory-voltage adjustment to maximize your system performance.

Abit IC7 Max3 mainboard cost: $188.

Choosing the RAM

The RAM is another place where we'll really splurge. You'll never go wrong by investing in high-performance RAM. I've found that spending more (a lot more!) for RAM will pay off big dividends in performance. It's one of the tricks that allows me to build custom systems on a budget that have a better performance and "feel" than stock machines that cost $2,000 more.

Because of this, for many years now I've used only high-performance Mushkin RAM. Even their budget RAM is better than most high-end RAM you can buy elsewhere. As mentioned above, to achieve 800 MHz FSB speeds, we need to run two 400 MHz sticks in parallel on a board that supports this configuration. The sticks also have to be identical, and for this reason you often see DDR SDRAM sold in convenient twin packs. PC3200 RAM will work with almost any modern mainboard, and in this case we will opt for RAM from Mushkin.com.

Mushkin offers several tiers of quality, all the way up to their highest-end Black line, but their Blue line is designed for excellent stability and quality while still costing less than an engagement ring. The Mushkin Blue line uses a custom-built six-layer PCB with matched trace lengths, gold contacts, and a fine-tuned resistor network. Mushkin Blue memory comes with an installed heat spreader to eliminate localized hotspots, improving stability and performance. Heatsink color may vary, but in this case we requested blue heat spreaders since we're going with a cool blue UV design for our case lighting (see Figure 2).

Figure 2Figure 2 Mushkin Blue PC 3200 RAM installed in a dual 400 MHz channel configuration that provides a total of 800 MHz speed.

Be sure to check that whatever RAM you buy is compatible with your board. In this case, the RAM has been tested and certified for use on the 875P chipsets, and is further carefully described by Mushkin to work with our chosen mainboard. We want to make sure to get a full GB of RAM to start with. This will allow us to do most processes entirely in RAM, such as advanced video processing and capture (a very RAM-intensive process). With enough RAM, the video-editing process becomes almost transparent in speed.

CAUTION

To reach the 800 MHz FSB goal, put the RAM in slots 1 and 3, or 2 and 4 (but not 1 and 2, or 3 and 4). Otherwise, the board won't interpret the configuration as a dual-channel setup, and you'll lose speed.

Mushkin 1GB PC3200 DDR Blue dual pack (2x512) RAM cost: $199.

Retail is $249, but you can save $50 by finding an authorized reseller on eBay.

In Part III of this series, we finish our component choices, focusing on where to save money while still getting the highest performance.

Next: Part 3: Choosing the Graphics Card.

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