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Choosing A New Motherboard

The basics of evaluating motherboard features

So you need a new motherboard. Your old PC takes forever to load and run that great new game you just bought (or maybe it won't run at all). Or you want to upgrade to the latest version of Windows but your motherboard is too out of date. This guide will help you choose the best motherboard for your money. It may even help you decide to purchase your new motherboard pre-installed in a new computer.

Should I upgrade the motherboard or buy a new PC? 

The first thing you need to determine is whether you would be better off replacing your motherboard (also referred to as a main board or system board) or simply buying an entirely new machine. The issue is more complicated than simply choosing a motherboard and installing it.

Factors to consider before deciding to upgrade your motherboard:
  • How old is your current PC? If it's more than a couple of years old, you'll likely have to replace more than just the motherboard. For example, a state-of-the-art motherboard probably won't be able to use your system's existing memory, video card, or hard drive very efficiently (or at all). This negates the benefits that you're purchasing the new motherboard for in the first place. Therefore you'll need an entirely new computer instead of a new motherboard.
  • Can your computer case accept a standard ATX style motherboard? Almost all new motherboards come in the ATX form factor. Many older cases (and even newer proprietary ones) were designed to use motherboards with different (or non-standard) form factors. If you're unsure, consult the manufacturer's website. In the "support" section, verify the style of your existing motherboard model.
  • How much has your old computer been used? If you've been using it for 5 hours a day for 2 years, it is probably ready to be replaced anyway. Components fail over time and with use. Disk drives (hard drives, DVD-RW drives, etc.) are especially prone to failure, usually without warning. Installing a new motherboard will be an exercise in frustration if the rest of your components are ready to fail.
Asus-P4C800-E Motherboard
Asus-P4C800-E Motherboard

Things to consider when selecting a motherboard:
  • Chip sets - Different motherboard manufacturers use different chip sets. On a practical level, motherboard chip sets can be divided into two camps: those that support CPUs made by Intel or AMD.
    Different motherboard chip sets also support different hardware varieties. These include support for specific types of memory, bus speeds, and peripherals such as integrated video, audio, and network controllers.
    There are really only four main suppliers of motherboard chip sets: Intel, Via, SiS, and NVidia. Many different motherboard manufacturers use the same chip sets to build their motherboards, so do some research about what each chip set includes so that you can evaluate the differences between otherwise very similar motherboards.
  • Memory type(s) supported by the motherboard - Different motherboards (and CPUs) support different memory types.
    Motherboards utilizing an Intel CPU will likely support Rambus DRAM (RDRAM). RDRAM is very robust and it adds to the overall performance of the system. But it's also very expensive when compared with other memory types which can be a significant factor if you're working on a tight budget.
    Motherboards that use an AMD CPU usually support other types of memory, including SDRAM (Synchronous DRAM) and DDR (Double Data Rate SDRAM). I recommend that you choose a motherboard that supports DDR instead of SDRAM since DDR is twice as fast.
  • Components integrated onto the motherboard - Virtually all new motherboards include one or more components built right onto the motherboard itself. These usually include video, sound, and/or network controllers.
    I recommend that you purchase a motherboard that does not include an integrated video controller. A stand-alone video card will usually provide a significant overall performance advantage over an integrated video controller. A stand-alone card can also be easily replaced in case of failure or if you decide to upgrade at a later time.
    Integrated sound is fine as long as you aren't a serious audiophile. The average user will get along just fine with an audio controller that is built into the motherboard. But if you require the latest and greatest in top-quality audio, you'll want to go with a stand-alone sound card.
    Integrated networking support is fine for most everyone. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't even consider a motherboard without it. Networking circuitry that is included on the motherboard works just as well and is just as fast as a stand-alone LAN card, so choose a motherboard with networking built in and spend the money saved on more memory or other enhancements.
  • Relative motherboard and CPU speeds - As a guideline, I recommend buying a motherboard that supports the fastest CPU currently available along with a CPU that is a couple of notches from the top in terms of speed. With all modern CPUs, there is little noticeable difference between the fastest CPU and those one or two speeds below it.
    But the difference in price can be enormous! By selecting a CPU along with a motherboard that supports CPUs that are a couple of notches faster, you can upgrade your CPU later (when you really need the extra speed) without spending the premium required to get the very top speed today.

You must make several decisions when it comes time for a faster, more powerful motherboard. If you choose your new motherboard wisely (research!), you can extend the life of your current PC and ensure room for easy expansion in the future.

The web has lots of great information on motherboards and everything that goes along with them. Visit the websites of the major motherboard retailers and read the specs on their latest motherboards. Filter that information using what you have learned here and you're sure to be happy with your new motherboard after you get it installed.

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