How to navigate the motherboard minefield

AMD or Intel?

So, while we sniff enthusiastically around a couple of X58 (Intel's initial 1366 chipset) boards, if we're honest, you should really leave it six months before boarding the bus to i7ville. There'll be a far larger choice of boards and they'll be much cheaper without a shadow of a doubt.

Matters are rather simpler if we take a visit over to AMD's beleaguered corner. While its agreeably priced processors seem forever stuck on a performance back foot compared to Intel's bewilderingly mammoth Core range, upgrading isn't as fraught with dangers.

The recent quickfire jumps from Socket AM2 to AM2+ and now AM3 make it look pretty scary from afar, but there are two hard and fast rules to simplify it all.

Firstly, generally speaking any AM2 chip will work in any AM2+ board, and vice-versa (the exception being when the motherboard manufacturer hasn't released BIOS updates for its older AM2 boards).

Secondly, AM3 chips will work in AM2 or 2+ boards, again so long as there's a BIOS update, but AM2 or 2+ chips will not work in AM3 boards.

So, if you're looking to upgrade your AM2 Athlon 64 or Phenom to one of the recent Phenom II chips, definitely go for the AM3 version and not the AM2+ models. That way, you shouldn't need to get hold of a new CPU when you decide to embrace the DDR3 support of AM3 in the future.

The memory controllers in AM3 Phenom IIs can handle both DDR2 and DDR3 memory, so in theory you can base your motherboard purchase on the RAM you've already got to hand.

But unlike Intel's Core i7s, pairing a Phenom II with DDR3 instead of 2 doesn't make a whole lot of day-to-day difference, as you'll see from our AM2+ vs AM3 board comparisons below.

However, the younger memory's newly reasonable price tag means it's deffo the RAM to go for if you're building a system from scratch. As we said at the start, it's a tricky time to be buying a motherboard. The DDR3 age is fully upon us now, but Intel's socket-splitting shenanigans are only going to get worse.

Core i5 and Bulldozer are coming

Due around July is the Core i5, a mainstream revision of i7 that has another socket again, LGA1156.

Sounds as though we'll see it first in the new P55 chipset, which we can expect to be much cheaper than the absurdly-priced socket 1366 X58s. Presuming you're not wearing a money hat, it's worth holding on for the P55 – wait and see what summer brings.

In the more distant future, AMD is readying a 32nm chip codenamed Bulldozer that, unlike the Phenoms, is reportedly a ground-up rethink of its microarchitecture.

However, that almost inevitably means it'll need a new platform, especially as it's also mooted to be the CPU half of the intended Fusion CPU-GPU hybrid. Given that Fusion's not even due to hit us until 2011, it isn't worth letting that information affect today's mobo buying decisions, though.

Pitted against one another, Phenom II hardly goes toe-to-toe with i7, but it's a reliable workhorse blessed with the bottled lightning of both backward compatibility and enough youth to be relatively future-proofed.

Add to that its appealing affordability, which is further aided by AMD's willingness to throw its doors open and let anyone have a crack at making a chipset for it, and you've got dirt-cheap AM2+ and AM3 solutions aplenty.

Intel isn't anywhere near as generous. In terms of picking a specific board, it's usually the case that you get what you pay for. Expect an expensive model to be laden with USB ports, heavy metal heatsinks and pointless flashing lights, while a cheaper one will axe the extras. No bad thing if you're after an everyday PC, but make sure you're buying a board that can house your various accessories.

While board layouts are closer to reaching that nirvana of being standardised than ever before, socket and port access is vital to a component-stuffed PC. For instance, side-facing SATA ports are a must if you're planning on bunging a big 3D card such as an Nvidia GTX 260 in there.

There's upgrade headroom to think about too – six rather than four RAM slots will make life a lot easier in terms of expanding your system's memory to the 6 and 12GB arrays that are slowly coming in. More money also buys more PCI-E slots – in either two- or threeway flavours.

But SLI and CrossFire remain the domain of enthusiasts, so don't spend more than you intended to purely to get an extra PCI-e slot that you'll probably never use.

Yet although the specific chipset you decide to pair your CPU with won't make a big day-to-day difference to performance, the main reason to pay for a better board is to gain its overclocking potential.

This is far less the realm of mad science these days and, in fact, Core 2s and Phenoms are pretty much built with it in mind. However, some budget boards can't handle the strain involved, while others cruelly omit the necessary tweak options from the BIOS.

Even if you're not interested in the gimmicks shoved into a pricier board's box, spend a little more on a hardy chipset if you want to grant yourself access the unofficial performance gains most current CPUs have hidden up their sleeves.


First published in PC Format Issue 226