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Upgrading and Repairing PCs Tip #4: Motherboard Selection Criteria (Knowing What to Look For)

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In this excerpt from the 22nd edition of Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs, Scott offers a simple motherboard selection checklist.

Find more tips from Upgrading and Repairing PCs here.

From the book

I am often asked to make recommendations for purchases. Without guidance, many individuals have no rhyme or reason for their selections and instead base their choices solely on magazine reviews or, even worse, on some personal bias. To help eliminate this haphazard selection process, I have developed a simple motherboard selection checklist.

It helps to think like an engineer when you make your selection. Consider every aspect and detail of the motherboards in question. For instance, you should consider present usage as well as future uses and upgrades. Technical support at a professional (as opposed to a user) level is extremely important. Check for manual and driver downloads: Are they easy to find and up to date? The following list includes some of the most important criteria to consider when selecting a motherboard:

  • Motherboard chipset—The motherboard chipset is the backbone of a system and is perhaps the single most important part of the motherboard. Compare the features of the available chipsets to ensure that the board will do what you want. For example, some chipsets include support for faster memory, PCIe 2.x or 3.x cards, SATA 6Gbps drives, and optional RAID capabilities. I spend the most time deciding on my next chipset because it affects and influences virtually every other component in the system. I recommend using chipsets that support the latest and fastest Intel or AMD multicore processors per your preference, such as Intel 9x or AMD AM3+ or FM2+ chipsets.
  • Processor socket—The processor socket on a motherboard dictates the specific processor makes and models you will be able to install. In most cases you will have a given processor in mind, so choose a motherboard with a socket that supports the processor you want to use. The main sockets in use today on new systems include Socket AM3+ and FM2+ for AMD processors and Sockets LGA1150 and LGA 2011-3 for Intel processors. Refer to Table 4.6 (which lists CPU socket specifications) to see which types of processors are supported by each socket. Also check the motherboard specifications for the specific processors supported by a given motherboard.
  • Memory—The type and amount of memory compatible with a system depends on the motherboard you choose. Most motherboards today support DDR3 memory, in single-, dual-, triple-, or quad-channel operation. The number of memory sockets, supported speeds, and other variables also depend on the motherboard, so check the board specifications to see exactly what is supported. DDR4 SDRAM, a faster version of DDR memory, will not be in systems until late 2015.
  • Form factor—The form factor indicates the size and shape of the board and must be compatible with the chassis or case and power supply. For maximum flexibility, performance, reliability, and ease of use, I recommend motherboards based on the ATX and microATX form factors. Larger form factors such as ATX offer more slots and room for additional integrated components and features. Smaller variations on ATX are also available, but in the end you need to ensure that the motherboard is compatible with the case and power supply you have chosen. I recommend mini-ITX or smaller versions for home theater or similar dedicated or embedded system requirements.
  • Bus slots—Current systems offer from one to five or more PCI and PCI Express slots (depending on the form factor). Some boards have more than one PCIe x16 (video card) slot, which you might want if you are running multiple video cards in an SLI or Crossfire arrangement. Make sure the board you choose has the number and types of slots you require. Keep in mind that PCI is disappearing on some motherboards, so if you want to use existing PCI cards, be sure you choose a motherboard that has enough PCI slots or has integrated ports that replace the functionality of your PCI cards.
  • Onboard ATA interfaces—All motherboards on the market have included onboard Serial ATA interfaces for some time now, but not all are equal. Look for boards that include at least four to six SATA connectors, with support for 6Gbps operation, at least one eSATA port (if you have eSATA drives or enclosures), as well as optional RAID functionality (if desired). Note that most late-model systems no longer support Parallel ATA . With the low cost of Serial ATA optical drives, it’s probably better to replace existing Parallel ATA with Serial ATA optical drives in your next system build so you can select a motherboard that has the maximum number of Serial ATA ports.
  • Other built-in interfaces—Ideally, a motherboard should contain as many built-in standard controllers and interfaces as possible. Most boards feature integrated USB, sound, and LAN (look for those offering gigabit Ethernet), whereas others also have integrated video, FireWire, eSATA, dual LAN adapters, and more. Motherboards with the latest generation of USB (USB 3.x) and SATA (6Gbps) are likely to cost more than boards using USB 2.0 and SATA 3Gbps, but by the time you add expansion cards to gain these features, the total cost of upgrading a board lacking these features added to the original motherboard cost usually makes the board with faster ports a better buy.
  • BIOS features—If you want to overclock your system, you need a BIOS that provides access to CPU clock multiplier settings and voltages as well as memory timings and voltages. If you want to use virtualization, make sure the BIOS supports Intel VT-x or AMD-V settings for hardware-assisted virtualization. To use 3TB or larger hard disks, be sure you use UEFI BIOS (these typically have a graphical UI that can be controlled with either a mouse or the keyboard).
  • Documentation—Good technical documentation is important. Documents should be easy to download from the manufacturer’s site and should include information on any and all jumpers and switches found on the board, connector pinouts for all connectors, specifications for other plug-in components, and any other applicable technical information. Most vendors provide this information in electronic form (using the Adobe Reader PDF format) on their websites, so you can preview the information available for a given motherboard before you buy.
  • Technical support—Good online technical support goes beyond documentation. It includes easily downloadable driver and BIOS updates, FAQs, updated tables of processor and memory compatibility, and utility programs to help you monitor the condition of your system. In addition to these online support features, ensure that the vendor can be contacted through email and by phone.

Most of the time I recommend purchasing boards from better-known motherboard manufacturers such as GIGABYTE, ASUS, Foxconn, and Intel. These boards might cost a little more, but they come with a warranty (typically three years) and there is some safety in the more well-known brands. That is, the more boards they sell, the more likely that any problems will have been discovered by others and solved long before you get yours. Also, if service or support is necessary, the larger vendors are more likely to be around in the long run.

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