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I like to build my own desktop PCs, and I happen to know that I've got a rockin' processor and graphics card both, so my system definitely has some punch to it. I also know that I didn't get the best motherboard on the planet.

I know that the motherboard houses the various buses that the processor uses to communicate with all the other various hardware on the board, and I'd like to know how the speed of those buses affects the overall performance of the PC. In other words, what are some common "gotchas" to watch out for, and where to I really not want to skimp out on general motherboard performance?

This is not a "which motherboard is the greatest" question, I'm not looking for a specific model, I just want to know which features I should watch out for when shopping on my own. In the same line of thought, this is also not an "is an Intel better than an AMD motherboard" question, under the same line of thought.

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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The primary bottleneck has traditionally been front-side bus speed. Several years ago AMD moved the memory controller onto the CPU, so the front-side bus was running at clock speed. Intel finally followed suit with Nehalem (Core i7). The next point of contention is the speed to the RAM itself, where higher is better.

Now we get to the expansion slots. What is best for you depends on what you want to build. Are you planning to run a single graphics card, or two? The number of PCI-Express slots varies between motherboard models, and the capabilities vary too. Some motherboards have a single PCI-X16 slot, others have two. How many PCI-X4 slots do you need? PCI-X1?

Most people don't think about this, either because they don't know or don't care, but the slots closer to the CPU are slightly faster. The difference is very small. If you want your sound card close to the CPU, you'll want a board that has a PCI-X1 slot at the top of the stack.

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In a nutshell, motherboards, or specifically chipsets have "tiers" - just like CPUs (Celeron, Pentium, Core 2, Core i7 etc.).

Currently, Intel chipsets are G41/31 43, 45 and X58. Shopping for features is secondary for searching for the right chipset. After you decide which chipset you want, you're selection will be between very similar models, varying mainly by manufacturer (avoid something other than the big 3 - Asus, Gigabyte and MSI), form factor (ATX/mATX, etc.) and minor features (dual HDMI/3 eSata)

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Since you already have a fast processor and video card, the best way to improve the system performance is to max the storage I/O throughput. The biggest bottleneck is your hard drive. So you'd want a motherboard with an extra PCIe slot for your hard drive controller add-in card.

So, once you have the motherboard:

  • Connect your OS drive to the chipset with the highest I/O bandwidth.
    • The best option would to run the OS drive off of an add-in card connected to the PCI Express bus.
    • The less hops from the drive to the CPU and Memory, the better.
  • Run OS partition from the fastest hard drive configuration you can afford.
    • Use current fastest hard drive standard (3 Gb/s SATA) drives with the highest performance you can afford (such as WD Raptor)
    • Run RAID0 or RAID0+1 (have a good system backup scheme, though, because RAID0 isn't fault tolerant)
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In most cases, a motherboard with integrated graphics is a warning sign... it typically caters for the 'budget' market and will compromise system components.

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