Motherboard - What to Look For

I’m thinking of building a computer from scratch – something I’ve never done before. I’ve got some idea on how to pick most of the components such as the CPU and hard drive, but I have very little idea what I should be looking for in terms of a motherboard. I know the motherboard has to match the CPU, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. What other characteristics should I be considering when picking a motherboard?

Don’t buy a via or SIS chipset. That’s 90% of what you need to know. Stick with Intel for Intel, or Nvidia for AMD.

Board size - You want one that’s right for the case, so if you’re using an ATX case, you don’t want a BTX board. Some boards are smaller and meant for small form factor systems (e.g., microATX), and although a lot of them would still fit in larger cases, they usually skimp on features so you probably want to avoid them as well.

Total memory capacity - Some boards only have two or three slots, if you’re thinking of expanding in the future. Also, there may be restrictions on memory speeds and vendor compatibility. You can google around on particular combinations to see if anyone’s had trouble or check the online manual for the board.

PCI/PCIe slots - Make sure it has enough for any other cards you’re adding or might want to add in the future.

RAID support - If you’re thinking of using RAID, most boards have it nowadays, but there may be restrictions (e.g., it might only be available on the SATA ports, or you can’t mix SATA and IDE).

SLI suport - If you can see yourself one day going for SLI cards, there are two completely different systems, ATI’s and Nvidia’s, and the motherboard has to support the one you want.

Drive connectors - Most boards nowadays will have both SATA and IDE connectors, but some only have a single IDE connector, if you intend to hook up more than one old drive.

Other misc features - Some boards have built-in support for some other optional stuff like WiFi.

Linux compatibility - Odds are you won’t care, but if you do, Linux supports some chipsets and onboard devices much better than others, so you’d want a board that avoids the troublesome or unsupported ones.

Layout, too, if you’re building your own. Try and get good photos of how the thin will orient itself in your chosen case, and with your chosen video card. Some boards have PCI-e slots for instance that make your larger video cards block other ports. Or, some may have power connection spots that are awkward with bottom-mounted PSUs or what not. And if you’re going for a big aftermarket CPU cooler, check to see if it will fit well on the board (often the Northbridge heat sink comes mighty close to some of the CPU heatsink bits, for instance).

Audio–If you’re going to use onboard audio you’ll either get AC97 or HD probably. Some cases, particularly older or cheaper ones, have issues with HD for the front panel ports. Soundwise I dont’ have a big preference; my HD audio on my Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L board sounds great though, cleaner and better than my old AC97 on the Abit board (except in TeamSpeak for anyone listening to me talke, where it’s noisy, but I still hear it clean).

Chipset–You’ll want one that is somewhat forward looking, as in it’ll handle the next round of CPUs rolling out if possible. Beyond that look at the reviews on tech sites that pit chipsets against each other; some seem better for gaming than others.

Overall quality–IMO this is big. Especially if you are building your own. The better the quality the less likely you will dick something up putting it together, generally. Cost does not always equal quality, though a really cheap board for its chipset class can be suspect. Often the cost of boards soars as you add stuff like WiFi that doesn’t really impact quality for most folks.

Compatibility–If you have components you want to reuse, be sure they will work (RAM is particularly problematic at times). Otherwise, pick the board then pick the RAM that works with it.

When it comes to RAM, always buy pairs. If you’re going crazy and prepare for
the future, get 2x2GB (a total of 4 sticks at 1GB each). You won’t be able to
use it all on all operating systems, but someday Vista might become a necessity.

That’s when you just wave goodbye to the stoneage and go 64-bit :)
(The time is not quite right, not even for my Linux workstation…damn NVidia drivers.)

My motherboard preferences are Asus and MSI. I’ve never had any problems
with SoundMax HD onboard audio. It even sounds cleaner than my old Audigy 2.

Anything less than an 8800GTS sucks for graphics. I dunno what ATI models are
the equivalent, if any. Never liked 'em :)
(I picked a factory-overclocked 320MB 8800GTS; let your desired resolutions
drive your purchase there)

Get a good USB headset for TeamSpeak/Steam purposes if you want to avoid TheWombat’s problems.

Linux compatibility: Yeah, it’s tricky. If you’re building a little gameserver for
homeuse, something with integrated Intel graphics should be just fine.
With Linux, there’s no such thing as hunting down specific drivers to some common
parts, though, like harddrives and burners and whatnot. Drivers are per chipset,
like NVidia do on Windows, not per manufacturer, like damn near anything else.

Hmm, USB headseat…maybe I’ll do that. Does it impact performance much, if at all?

Not that I’ve noticed. It is a separate sound device, so get good Logitech or something, and you’re set.

When using TeamSpeak, I plug it into a separate computer, but it works in Steam products.
Except that I don’t hear people in the headset speakers, unless I route ALL sound there :/