Buying a new computer can be an expensive ordeal. When you go to a big box retailer or manufacturer, you often pay for components you don’t need or get overcharged for the ones you do. The best solution is to build your own computer. What most people don’t realize is it’s actually surprisingly easy to do. To help you design your next computer, or just to become familiar with what to look for, WorldStart is doing a 10-part series on the components you’ll need to build your own computer.
In each part, I’ll offer recommendations on the components discussed. I’ll recommend parts to accommodate those both looking for value and those looking for high performance. Since manufacturers are always updating styles and features, your final decision should be based on your own judgment, aided by the knowledge you gain from these articles. You know what you want from your PC, I’m here to help you design it.
Part Five: The Motherboard
The motherboard may not get all the glory, but a good one can mean the difference between an easy build and a frustrating experience. Choosing the right motherboard means understanding the options available for different motherboard models.
Socket: The socket is where the processor plugs in and must match the style of processor you decide to purchase. Be careful because it must exactly match, an 1150 is not the same as an 1155.
Chipset/Northbridge: The chipset or northbridge controls many of the functions of the motherboard. The higher numbered chips usually indicate a more recent version. For current Intel processors look for Z87 or H87 and for AMD look for A series processors a A85X or FX series processors a 990FX.
Memory Slots/Supported: This specification will let you know the maximum number of memory slots and the supported sizes and speeds of memory. The minimum you want to look for is 4 slots with 16 GB maximum supported memory at DDR3-1600
PCI-E/PCI Slots: The PCI-E is a connector slot used on the motherboard to attach (primarily) video cards. The newest boards will support PCI-E 3.0. The x number, example x16, indicate the speed of the ports. PCI slots are for some legacy add-in cards and it’s good to have at least one. You want at least one x16 PCI-E 2.0 or 3.0 port per video card you intend to use.
SATA Ports: SATA ports are used to connect hard drives and optical drives to your motherboard. SATA comes in higher speed SATA II (6 Gb/sec maximum) and SATA III (3.0 Gb/sec maximum.) Make sure the board you buy has at least 1 SATA III port for each hard drive you intend to use and one SATA II or III port for each optical drive.
Onboard Video: If you intend to use a processor’s built-in video functionality, it’s important to verify your motherboard has the type of connectors you want to use. A good suggestion is to look for one with at least one DVI or VGA port and one HDMI port.
Onboard Sound: If you don’t want to purchase a separate audio card, many motherboards have a built in audio device. Some models offer multiple-channel surround sound or name brand sound devices such as SoundBlaster. Look for the audio connectors you need for your speaker system.
Connectors/Headers: If your case has front mounted USB or sound ports, make sure the appropriate header is listed on the specifications. These may also be listed as front panel connectors.
Extras: This is a catch-all for things like built in Wi-Fi network adapters, Bluetooth, copper heat sinks, military grade capacitors or other items. While many of these things are nice to have it’s a choice you have to personally make about what you’re willing to pay for, as the bells and whistles quickly cause the price tag to jump up.
My recommendations will include only one AMD board since I don’t recommend the FX line CPU’s from AMD and the price between a high quality and a budget board for AMD is not significantly different.
AMD Motherboard – GIGABYTE GA-F2A85X-UP4 FM2 – $119.99
This Gigabyte board featuring the A85X chipset, 4 DDR-3 1866 memory slots, 7 right angle SATA III ports, HDMI, DVI, Display Port and VGA Out along with almost every connector I can think of. If I had to complain, it doesn’t feature PCI-E 3.0 ports (no AMD boards currently do though it does have 3 PCI-E 2.0 ports running x16/x8/x4) and there isn’t a CMOS reset switch on the rear. For 119 bucks you would be hard pressed to find this many features anywhere else.
Budget Intel Motherboard – MSI Z87-G41 PC Mate – $109.99
This MSI board proves you don’t need to pay big dollars for the features most people want. This board features the latest Z87 chipset, 4 DDR3-1600 (or higher with overclocking), 6 SATA III ports, VGA, DVI and HDMI video out. The board has 1 PCI-E 3.0 x16 port and one additional PCI-E 3.0 x4 port along with standard two PCI and two PCI-E x1 ports. The high-end components it does have are important ones such as Military Class 3 (MSI branding) high quality capacitors and built in automatic overclocking. It’s a stable high-quality board with some premium features for a not so premium price.
Premium Intel Motherboard – MSI Z87 MPOWER Max – $249.99
Have you ever wanted a motherboard with everything? Let’s just run through the list: Z87 chipset, 4 DDR3-1600 (Up to DDR3-3000 when overclocking), 8 SATA III ports, 3 PCI-Express (x16/x4/x4) 3.0 ports, 4 PCI-E x1 ports, KillerNic network adapter, built in 802.11N Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, two HDMI and one DisplayPort, Military Class 4 capacitors and chokes, one button overclocking, specially designed separated audio for crystal clear sound, debug LCD’s… the list goes on! It’s a fantastic board that gives you one of everything you might ever need or want. Complaints? It’s yellow.
P.S. “Hey you didn’t mention the Asus Maximus VI or other random $300+ motherboard.” OK, while I would love to own one I can’t in good faith recommend a product I’d NEVER buy. The ultra-premium motherboards may be fantastic, but the money you have to spend greatly outweighs the benefits you gain from them. It’s your money, but I’d never spend over $250 on a motherboard.