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Choosing the Mainboard

At the time of this writing, the big question in choosing a motherboard is deciding whether or not to go with NVIDIA’s 680i SLI chipset. This advanced specification promises a number of powerful features, including support for two x16 PCIE graphics cards at full bandwidth. In addition, there are a number of other features promised; however, at the time of this writing there are few boards that take advantage of this specification. And the ones that do are a bit overpriced.

The main reason to choose a mainboard based on NVIDIA’s 680i SLI chipset is if you’re planning to run an SLI configuration. However, in contrast to last year’s article, we will not be building or recommending an SLI configuration this year. The reason we went with SLI last year is because we were able to use completely fanless GPU cooling via passive heatsinks on our twin graphics cards. This was important for quiet computing, because it meant that we were able to keep some of the noisiest fans off of the system.

However, this is probably no longer possible. It is difficult to have a fanless, passively cooled video card anymore. The state of the art of video cards has pushed the baseline performance expectation upwards. Thus, to keep up with current technology, you are simply going to need a faster card than we used last year—and in most cases this is going to require a fan on your GPU to cool it. So as long as we are using a GPU fan, we can actually buy a single card that will perform almost as well as an SLI configuration, at a significant savings in price (and a savings in precious real estate space on the motherboard).

For this reason, we decided to go with a P965 motherboard from Intel. The P965 chipset provides a lot of advantages for running a Core 2 series processor, particularly in terms of overclocking ability and memory stability at higher clock frequencies. Following last year’s design, we were very eager to find a fanless mainboard. That’s because the Northbridge cooling fan is typically the loudest and squeakiest single annoyance on the entire computer. We were delighted to see that GigaByte has come out with the GA-965P-DQ6 model, which is packed with solid copper heat pipes, cooling fins, and bonus copper heat sinks—all of which mean massive mainboard component cooling without the use of a single fan (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2 This mainboard is a riot of heavy copper heat pipes and cooling fins.

The GA-965P-DQ6 is one of the more expensive models, but includes a number of enthusiast level features that makes it worth the price. Features include a 12-phase (quad-triple) power regulator as well as a quad BIOS that can be updated while booted into Windows. It is also one of the few mainboards in its class that supports two PCI Express x16 graphics cards.

An interesting feature of the GA-965P-DQ6 is the unusual solid copper heat spreader block that screws into the underside of the mainboard (shown in Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3 CrazyCool is a solid block of copper used to evenly distribute heat and prevent hotspots.

This is the CrazyCool feature, which is a thick copper plate that is designed to avoid hotspots on the mainboard's CPU and Northbridge components. Note that CrazyCool adds little to overall component cooling, because it has very little airflow under the mainboard. However, if you have ever cooked with a solid copper skillet, you know the huge advantage of copper as a conductor. For example, you have to be an arsonist to burn anything that you sauté in a solid copper pan. That’s because copper does a superb job of dissipating heat evenly throughout its mass. In a similar manner, the CrazyCool heat block will help avoid hotspots on the critical mainboard components, thus enhancing system stability. The only drawback to the CrazyCool backplate is that you have to remove it to install some aftermarket CPU coolers, including the large Zalman models. However, it works fine with the Arctic Freezer Pro CPU cooler that we chose earlier (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4 The Arctic Freezer Pro cooler installs easily on our mainboard, without having to remove the CrazyCool heat block.

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