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Hard Choices: Motherboards

How I Met Your Motherboard

With CPUs, GPUs and screens (x2) in the bag, it's time to put the RPS spotlight onto that most mysterious of PC components, the motherboard. By some metrics, mobos are pretty easy to pick these days. For starters, there aren't many chipset vendors to worry about. Only AMD and Intel are really left in the game. But Intel, in particular, has plenty of marketing tricks up its sleeve. It's always worth knowing your Z77s from your H67s. So, let's begin.

Now, I've never been a card-carrying motherboard aficionado. It's a lot easier to get excited about crazy clocks speeds, lots of cores or a shit-load of shaders than it is all-solid super caps and 8+2 power phasing. It's also true that chipsets and in turn motherboards have become less critical as ever more features have migrated onto the CPU itself.

Above: A gaming PC, yesterday

Your typical mainstream Intel CPU, for instance, now has an on-die memory controller, PCI Express bus and even graphics, though the god-awful performance of the latter makes it inconsequential in a gaming context. What's more, today's motherboards are a pretty consistent in terms of quality and stability. General shonkiness and sensitivity to component specification is much less of an issue than even five years ago. I hack about with an awful lot of kit and it's become pretty unusual to find, say, a motherboard that spits its dummy with a particular brand of memory DIMMs. Things tend to just work.

You might, therefore, think that it's simply a case of toting up the spec list, observing the price and pulling the trigger. To an extent, that's true. But there are a few foibles worth knowing about. Anyway, just picking the right chipset isn't an entirely trivial task, especially if you're on a tight budget.

Let's start, then, with some general issues that apply to all motherboards. Overclocking has always been a headline grabber. Personally, I find the extreme overclocking scene – liquid nitrogen and all that jazz - pretty tedious. But I do get a kick out of quick and dirty overclocking that delivers a cheap-going-on-free performance boost.

Above: This, folks, is extreme overclocking. Extremely silly, that is.

In the bad old days, choosing the right motherboard was critical to achieving decent overclocks. These days, nearly all overclocking is done via the CPU multiplier. That means little or no stress placed on the processor bus and in turn other components like memory. So all the motherboard really has to do is provide a reliable power supply to your CPU. That's where power phases come into the equation.

For a full explanation of what power phases are and how they work may I refer you to Google with the caveat that it's really not that interesting. The simple version is that the more you have of them, the longer they'll last and the better they'll cope with extreme loads – overclocking in other words. The prevailing wisdom is that you want a minimum of eight phases for decent overclocking performance and stability.

The only other feature I like to see regards overclocking is some kind of automatic facility in the BIOS. That's not because it delivers spectacular results. Typically it doesn't - probably because the motherboard makers are terrified of frying your CPU and being held liable. But what it can do is hit on some nice numbers for the various voltage settings, saving you the trouble if you can't be arsed or simply haven't a clue.

Above: Boring old-school BIOS. UEFI is superficially much sexier, if you care about that sort of thing

Vis à vis the BIOS, in the context of gaming PCs my view is that the range of features and options is unlikely to be an issue for any board from a big brand worth considering. It's rare to find a really shonky BIOS. I'm also not hugely won over by fancy features like quick-booting Linux OSes.

However, the broader issue bandwidth is something worth thinking about. On the storage side, you want to see as many 6Gbps (rather than 3Gbps) ports as poss to guarantee you’ll get the most out of any hard drives and particularly SSDs. Support for USB 3.0 is probably less critical for gaming, but for general PC usage it will only become more important, so the more ports the merrier. SSD caching is also a nice feature to have, more on that in a moment.

Above: You'll want plenty of 6Gbps ports to keep these puppies happy

Then there's multi-GPU support. As I've said before, I'm not a huge fan of multi-GPU. If that's just an opinion, what isn't open to debate is that the returns you get going from one card to two evaporate when you add a third. Most motherboards and chipsets support at least two cards. Any more is academic.

Also, now that NVIDIA has largely pulled out of the chipset market, it can no longer tie down SLI support to its own chipsets. That said, licensing fees are still involved, so there remain cases where two boards share a chipset but only one supports SLI. You can assume that multi-GPU support means AMD Crossfire support. You can't assume the same for SLI.

Oh, and as for form factors, well, boggo ATX is always the safest bet. But don't be afraid of microATX boards. If the spec list fills your check boxes they offer great value for money. The only thing they usually miss out on is multi-GPU support beyond two cards.

Above: Three-way SLI. Triply pointless

If those are the key generalities, let's tour some of the main chipsets. Then I'll roll out a few of my current favourites regards actual motherboards. Intel has just rolled out the first of its new mainstream 7 series chipsets, the Z77. Mercifully, Intel has decided to stay with the LGA1155 socket for the new 22nm Intel Ivy Bridge CPUs – the ones I mentioned in the CPU guide and due out later this month – so, that means the Z77 sticks with LGA1155, too. I've had a good play with a few of the first Z77 boards and they're very promising indeed.

It'll soon be joined by the Z75 and H77. For the record, the Z77 and H77 support Intel SmartResponse SSD caching tech (I'll cover that in the upcoming SSD post, but it's an interesting and effective tech, so keep your scanners peeled), the Z75 does not. Meanwhile, the Z75 and Z77 have full access to overclocking features, while the H77 does not. Other than that, there's little in it. Also, the differences are not down to the hardware, it's just Intel trying to stratify the market by artificially locking certain features to specific chipsets via firmware and software. Intel loves that kind of lark.

Above: My Core i5 2500K fave drops straight into the new Z77 chipset

More critical is the fact that my early testing has shown that the Z77 can release both extra overclocking headroom and better stock performance from existing Intel Core i5 and i7 processors. That's particularly intriguing given that I'm not expecting the 22nm Intel Ivy Bridge CPUs to be terribly exciting. Trust me on that one. Hint, hint.

The 7 series also brings native USB 3.0 support but unfortunately no blanket SATA 6Gbps. Natively, you still only get a pair of 6Gbps sockets. In gaming vernacular, that sucks. Regards the older H67, P67 and Z68 chipsets, again the differences aren't huge. The P67 and Z68 have the full overclocking feature set, while the H67 and Z68 provide access to the integrated Intel graphics cores and thus QuickSync. Oh, and the Z68 uniquely supports SSD caching.

My take on all this is that if you can stretch to the Z77, do it. It's a nice chipset and it will give you the best chance of longevity and future proofing as Intel releases new CPUs.

As for AMD clobber, we're talking 7, 8 and 9 series chipsets. In reality, there's very little difference between the chipsets, so it's a case of focussing on board specification and also the socket. At this stage, even if you're not going with a Bulldozer FX CPU, I'd still get a board with AM3+ support just in case. But that still gives you plenty of options.

All of which means you're going to want some example boards to buy. Of the Z77 crew, I'm a big fan of the new Asus Sabertooth Z77. It's not heaving with pointless features like voltage measurement points. Instead it's got everything you actually need, it's an overclocking beast and it's covered in protective cladding, which might help with cooling and will definitely reduce the chance of dust building up in nooks and crannies, thereby killing the thing.

Above: Ooh er, check out the cladding

It also comes with the LucidLogix Virtu MVP software which promises goodies like anti screen-tear tech (google LucidLogix Virtu MVP to find out more) and support for using the QuickSync transcode engine alongside a discrete video card, both of which are good news for gamers. The Sabertooth Z77 isn't quite on sale yet, but will probably cost around £150 or maybe a little more when it hits the shelves.

I haven't tried the Asus P8Z77-V or its Pro and Premium cousins, yet, but they look like interesting Z77 options on a slightly tighter budget. The Pro model packs more power phases and theoretically better overclocking support, just FYI.

Above: This, people of RPS, is a Deluxe motherboard

In the context of the imminent Z77 chipset arrival, I certainly wouldn't spend a ton on any 6 Series board. But some of the cheaper models certainly appeal. The Asus P8Z68-V LX is only £75 but packs the Z68 chipset and therefore SSD caching and QuickSync support along with a couple of USB 3.0 ports. The only obvious corner cutting involves the lack of are SLI support (it'll do Crossfire) and the slightly skanky 4+2 power phases.

Above: £75 for a Z68 board? That'll be the Asus P8Z68-V LX

If you're going with AMD kit, it also makes sense to keep the cost in check. The MSI 970A-G45 is £75, fully Bulldozer optimised and packs six SATA 6Gbps ports and a pair of USB 3.0 sockets. It also supports Crossfire, but not SLI. OK, the 4+1 power phases don't exactly make for overclocking nirvana. But at this price point, something's gotta give.

Above: MSI's 970A-G45 gives you AMD 9 Series action at a decent price

Finally, if any of you are bonkers enough to go with Intel's high end LGA2011 socket, I reckon the Gigabyte X79-UD3 is a good option. It's £180-ish, which is cheap for an X79 motherboard, and it gets the job done just fine. Good day and good luck with those motherboards!

Above: Gigabyte's affordable X79 board is the sensible way to tackle Intel's crazy LGA2011 platform

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