Which Board do I Buy?
That was certainly a lot to look at! Recent CPU’s and plans for the future at AMD and Intel, major innovations in on-board graphics, Radeon GPUs landing a solid 1-2 punch to nVidia in the upper midrange, and everything else discussed combine to impact your chipset decision.
People on a budget have a lot of suitable options. With AMD CPUs topping out just over $200 and competing effectively on a price/performance basis with Intel CPUs, both choices make sense, though one could argue that the ability to upgrade to a nicer CPU makes Intel the winner. While you won’t see the next generation Nehalem CPU’s on boards available today, there will still be plenty of Core 2’s to choose from through the next year, complete with falling prices. The 45nm Phenoms, called Deneb, will likely run on current chipsets for AMD CPUs, but they don’t appear to quite close the gap with Intel’s Penryns.
On the Intel side, boards based on the P35 offer a wide variety of options, allowing builders to find one that has everything they need without breaking the bank on features they don’t. The weak point of the chipsets for Intel CPU’s is definitely the on-board graphics. For those who don’t use discrete GPU’s but would still like some graphics ability, Intel’s G prefixed chipsets (the ones with on-board graphics) and nVidia’s offerings can’t keep up to the chipsets that support AMD processors.
Better Graphics from AMD and Nvidia
Both nVidia’s GeForce 8 series and nForce 7 series chipsets on the AMD side (save the 710a) offer on-board graphics farmed from its entry-level discrete chipsets, as well as Hybrid SLI. These graphics are in the same league but not quite as good as those that come on AMD’s 780G chipset which offers similar Hybrid CrossFire technology based on entry-level Radeon graphics. The 780G chipset is also a big winner in terms of power consumption, so for a quiet home theater unit that plays your Blu-Rays, or a mini-pc with decent graphics without having the room or power to spare for a graphics card, the 780G is a revelation. Just make sure you find one with a SB700 southbridge, not its SB600 predecessor. Another caveat about the 780G chipset is it generally won’t run AMD CPUs with Thermal Design Power requirements of 125 watts or above. This is also true of AMD’s 770 and nVidia’s 710a, 720a, and 730a chipsets.
People who want to run 125w AMD processors need to step up at least to an nVidia 750a SLI or AMD 790X. At prices around $140 and $100 respectively, an AMD fan that wants to run a couple of graphics cards could make a case for these. Again, if you are going with AMD’s 790X, look for a board with an SB700 or SB750 southbridge, not an SB600. nVidia’s 780a SLI and AMD’s 790FX are very nice chipsets (providing, yet again, one avoids an SB600 equipped offering) that start to become too expensive and provide for too elaborate multi-GPU support to bother coupling with AMD’s conservatively priced CPU line-up for all but the most dyed-in-the-wool AMD fan.
Conclusion and July 2009 Update.
Most performance hungry builders will go the Intel route, and use at least a P35 equipped with 1600 MHz FSB support. The newer P45 is a bit too pricey right now to justify its advantages, but multiple-GPU aficionados will want to consider Intel’s enthusiast level chipsets, the X38 and X48, as well as nVidia’s 790i SLI or its Ultra variant. For people currently neutral on the Radeon vs. GeForce front, which isn’t a strange place to be right now with the former having really delivered with its 48×0 cards, the X38 is the bang for the buck winner amongst top end boards. This is particularly true of the many board models based on it that officially support 1600 MHz CPUs, as the X48’s big advantage according to Intel is 1600 MHz FSB support. Compare X38 and X48 based boards to find what you need at the best possible price.
The Intel based boards also benefit from nicer, newer, southbridges; so particularly for people who are more or as worried about hard disk and RAID performance as they are about their graphics, Intel takes it again.
The 790i SLI and Ultra SLI do however provide GeForce fans with a very powerful way to run 1, 2 or 3 cards and a gorgeous and even larger functional software tool that lets you do all kinds of neat stuff without ever visiting a bios.
Before settling on a chipset and beginning to pick out your new motherboard, remember that both AMD and Intel have CPU’s coming soon that will need you to get another board when you decide to upgrade to them. Consider heading to the manufacturer’s Website, finding your motherboard, then see what CPU’s it can run. Maybe you are better off getting a nicer processor for your existing board and saving the mobo portion of your upgrade budget for when the new CPUs and chipsets become available.
Update July 2009
All of the info in this series is still valid, except that AMD’s newer Phenom II CPUs are pretty sharp, thus making their chipsets mor attractive. Also, Intel’s 4 series chipsets have fallen in price, and some video cards actually make use of PCI-E 2.0’s extra bandwidth, so it replaces the 3 series as recommended. Other than that, the big difference is the presence of Intel’s Core i7 chipset, X58, and plans for future Nehelem chips to replace Core 2, which make the LGA 775 socket on which these chipsets are based less attractive.
On the AMD side, there is a good deal of backward compatibility in sockets AM2, AM2+, and AM3 (see this article for more info).
Previous articles in this series
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)