Intel’s Core i7 may be ontop, but with AMD’s Phenoms really coming along and Penryn prices dropping, fans of both chip giants might look for value elsewhere. Unfortunately, with Intel’s 45 nm chips not running on older motherboards, and only some manufacturers of AMD boards taking advantage of the fact that Phenoms are able to run on older chipsets with only a bios revision, will that new Primadonna, be she a young Phenom or having a narrow 45nm waist, be willing to work in that old theater of yours? It might be time to lease a new building or, to end my indulgence in metaphor, get a new motherboard. With the absurd nomenclature and amount of features crammed onto these boards, not to mention the sheer number of boards available, it is easy to spend money on something that won’t do what is expected or to spend too much money on functionality one doesn’t need. How do we narrow the options to find the best chipset value for our requirements?
Choosing a chipset is a big decision. The most important part of a motherboard is the chipset; a mother board without a chipset is arguably a piece of plastic that holds your system’s components firmly inside the case. The chipset is responsible for most of the communication that takes place between the parts you choose for your system; having the top of the line CPU, GPUs, memory, drives, etc. on a dated, mainstream chipset is like being the mayor of a town that only allows super high-end sports cars on its roads, and then leaves said roads unpaved. Check this article if you need further basic information about what a chipset is and what it does.
One might decide to go right to the cutting edge of chipsets in the name of future proofing, but both AMD and Intel CPUs face issues there. Intel has released its Nehalem chips, which finally part ways with the LGA775 socket. It was assumed that these CPUs would be very expensive even for the base model, particularly as the bulk of Intel’s 2009 line-up is Core 2 based, but they are under $300 in entry level guise Nehalem. AMD was pretty late on their Phenoms, and though a cost effective option, it certainly failed to make Intel or its users quake in their boots, so AMD was eager to move on to the 45nm Phenoms codenamed Deneb. The good news is that it appears they will run on current chipsets and be out by year’s end. It looks like the performance will not be enough to overtake Intel’s Penryns, let alone Nehalem. AMD will try to have Fusion and Bulldozer chips out by the end of 2009, and those will require a new motherboard. With a maximum of one more year of running the best reasonably priced chips available from either the Red or Blue team, the motherboard you buy tomorrow has upgrade potential that might be more of a stop gap than a road map.
So we’re going to have a look at all of the newer chipsets out there; choosing one or a few that strike you as appropriate allows you to reduce the plethora of motherboards from which you have to choose, to a far more reasonable number.
We will begin with chipsets for Intel CPUs, broken down by whether they are mainstream or enthusiast, be they from nVidia or Intel itself. We then move to the AMD side, again organizing by mainstream or enthusiast, including AMD’s and nVidia’s chipset line ups, before wrapping up the loose ends. Depending on how far along you are in your purchasing decisions, you may want to read everything or skip to your preferred products using the table of contents below. Either way, the information will help you get the most out of your motherboard dollar.
Update April 09
It’s funny how some things happen pretty much as expected, like the Nehalem and Core i7 roll out, and some things change radically, like AMD pushing Bulldozer to 2011, and sticking with backward compabitble AM2+/AM3 sockets, working on improving Phenom. Phenom II is indeed quite the improvement, giving Intel stiff competition across the board from $300 on down. The thought you might be able to get in on yet another generation of Phenoms next year before AMD touches the socket makes their boards very attractive.
Intel fans are actually faced with a worse variation of the decision we thought they would face: tried and true LGA 775 Core 2 or a new Nehalem with an LGA 1336, was enough of a poser already. But Intel wants to segment the CPU market, forcing you to choose one of three sockets for Nehalem.
So if the socket conundrum has you holding off on jumping all the way to Nehalem, the information in the links below will be plenty of use in figuring out what your existing motherboard can do and what else is out there. If you just have to scratch that Nehalem itch, your only option is an X58 based motherboard.
Table of Contents
By Intel (P, G and Q; 3 and 4 series)
By nVidia (nForce 630i, 650i, 750i)
By Intel (X38 and X48)
By nVidia (nForce 680i, 780i, 790i)
By AMD (770, 780G, 780V)
By nVidia (710a, 720a, 730a, 750a, GeForce 8 series)
By AMD (790X, 790FX)
By nVidia (780a SLI)