Saturday, August 18, 2012

CPUs and Motherboards: Monopolies Make for Easy Buying Decisions


So, the last time I wrote a big Motherboard/CPU post, Bulldozer was in the offing and even those of us on Intel platforms were probably cherishing hopes that AMD would start competing in the enthusiast CPU space again.  As is so often the case, hope was simply the first step on the road to disappointment.  Bulldozer was disingenuously marketed (really AMD, 8 cores?) and hopelessly outclassed by an architecture that released months before it did.  Since then, AMD has abandoned the enthusiast market to focus on APU and (presumably) mobile development in order to cling to relevancy.

The silver lining here is that AMD's incompetence has made building a PC easier for everyone: just buy an Intel proc.  "But it's not that simple!" you cry.  Admittedly, AMD's APUs are a nice product for the niche they occupy, but most people building a PC want discrete graphics, or aren't doing anything beyond the capabilities of an Intel integrated GPU.  Intel CPUs are the right call in almost all cases. 

Anyway, after making AMD look bad without even really trying, Intel released Ivy Bridge, a Sandy Bridge die shrink that includes Tri-Gate transistors as well as support for PCI-E 3.0 and a few other new gizmos.  In terms of processor performance, Ivy Bridge isn't a big improvement over Sandy Bridge, so the recommendations haven't changed much:

Intel Pentium G620/Celeron G550 - ~$60.00:  For the builder on a budget, the Pentium/Celeron is a perfect compromise.  It isn't clocked as high as an i3 and lacks some features from the higher end Core line (any kind of overclockability, Turbo Boost, Hyper Threading, Quick Sync, etc.) but that doesn't mean it isn't still great value.  Don't let the price fool you, it'll keep up with most workloads, and won't hold your video card back when you start up Pong or whatever other newfangled nonsense you rapscallions are playing these days.

Intel Core i3-2100 (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i3-3220 (Ivy Bridge) - ~$120.00:  Ivy Bridge Core i3s don't come in quite the same number of "flavors" as the Sandy Bridge versions (at least not yet) but there's something out there for basically everyone.  For basic usage in a run-of the mill gaming PC, the i3-2100 (or i3-2120, depending on pricing) or the i3-3220 are your go-to chips.

Intel Core i5-2310 (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i5-3350P/i5-3330 (Ivy Bridge):  Not everyone needs an overclockable proc, but many people are still interested in quad-core CPUs.  More games and applications are starting to take advantage of higher core counts, so those desiring four cores at a more affordable (read, sub 200 dollar) price are advised to look at these procs.  The "P" designation indicates that a lack of onboard video, so keep that in mind.

Intel Core i5-2500K (Sandy Bridge), Intel Core i5-3570K (Ivy Bridge) - ~$220.00:  The 2500K is still fantastic and is usually priced around $220.00, but seems to go on sale fairly often and can drop to $200.00.  The i5-3570K is often slightly more expensive, but is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, performance-wise.  As mentioned above, Ivy Bridge does enable PCI-E 3.0 and some other benefits, but depending on your usage and equipment, either proc can be the right choice.  The 2500K generally OCs a bit better, particularly on air.

There's really no reason for the vast majority of buyers to look at more than the 2500K/3570K can offer.  Hyper Threading is not a particularly significant addition given the workloads of most home users, and that's really all the extra Benjamin buys you.  Those of you with niche cases that aren't covered by the above recommendations are welcome to ask in the thread or PM me regarding what you might need.


All the processors I'm willing to recommend are on LGA 1155, but there are multiple motherboard chipsets available for these CPUs, split between Cougar Point chipsets (introduced with Sandy Bridge) and Panther Point chipsets (introduced with Ivy Bridge).  H61 is the most budget-oriented of the Cougar Point chipsets, and would be most appropriate for a very low cost build utilizing a Celeron or Pentium CPU.  H67 is the next step up, and generally these boards have more complete feature-sets, but are not SLI/CFX capable and do not allow for overclocking.  P67 allows for overclocking and multiple video cards, but does not provide the ability to utilize the integrated GPU as well.  Z68 followed after and enabled use of the integrated GPU, along with some other processor features, and some boards on this chipset include PCI-E 3.0 compatibility when used with Ivy Bridge procs.  The most relevant new chipsets are Z77 and H77, which released with Ivy Bridge.  They are backwards compatible, though PCI-E 3.0 will not work with Sandy Bridge procs.  For full enthusiast-class systems, there's no good reason not to just go with a Z77 board, it does everything a P67 or Z68 board could do and more.  H77 is an excellent chipset for lower-end systems that don't need overclocking capability, but H67 and H61 are not necessarily significantly less capable, and may be better values depending on your processor choice and desired feature-set.

There are a few manufacturers I would consider to be most worth considering for your purchasing dollars:

ASUS – ASUS is probably my favorite motherboard manufacturer.  I'd go with ASUS if you’re looking for a board with fairly cutting edge tech, and useful extras like built-in Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth.  They have a number of different product lines, including the Republic of Gamers motherboard line for really high-end builds.

Gigabyte – Gigabyte has a reputation for rock solid reliability, which anecdotally I can verify, as I own a few of their boards myself.  VRM quantity and quality over their range of boards is very much in line with ASUS offerings (if not better).  Gigabyte has generally solid layouts (with some odd choices at times) though their board lineup can be tough to navigate due to similar model numbers (like UD3 vs. UD3R vs. UD3H).  Gigabyte generally stays a bit more conservative than ASUS with fancy tech and gadgetry, though they have gone whole hog on including mSATA slots on their boards for cache drives.  Instead of stuff like onboard Wi-Fi, you generally get a larger and more comprehensive set of ports.

– MSI is my least favorite of the “Big 3” motherboard manufacturers.  Much of this opinion is probably lingering prejudice related to their AM3 boards and some questionable decisions in some of their P67-based boards.  MSI has recently been pushing Thunderbolt onto some of their higher-end offerings.  Their current offerings are very competitive, and while I might prefer ASUS or Gigabyte myself, there’s really no good reason not to consider MSI at the moment.

ASRock – ASRock sprang out of ASUS spinning off a company specifically to make budget motherboards.  They’re generally considered a “budget” manufacturer, but their Sandy Bridge offerings were very strong, with good VRMs in their enthusiast level boards, and solid layouts.  Those same enthusiast offerings also set themselves apart with very aggressive pricing and solid accessory sets.  Their Ivy Bridge offerings have continued that trend.  The documentation and BIOS/UEFI interfaces aren’t as polished as their higher-end competitors, but if you can deal with that, you can often get a really nice deal.

Beyond manufacturer, you should take into account the following criteria (along with price, naturally) when choosing a board:

Form Factor:  Be aware of the motherboard form factor, it’s crucial in ensuring compatibility with your case.

SLI/Crossfire capability:  This generally comes at a price premium, but if you’re genuinely going to take advantage of the capability, it’s worth the money.  If you are certain that you want a single card system, and have no plans to either add a second card in the future, or have 2 cards to start with, do not pay the premium.  And be realistic with yourself about the possibility of upgrading with a second card as well.  However, if you have the budget, and do think it’s a possibility, spend the money, you won’t regret it.

The basic requirement for SLI is 2 physical PCI-E x16 slots, which run at least at x8/x8 when both are populated.  Crossfire can run on 2 physical x16 slots that run at x16 and x4, but performance is compromised and I wouldn’t recommend it, at least x8/x8 is your best bet.  Higher end motherboards (or motherboards on higher-end sockets) may support multiple x16 slots running at a full x16.  For 2-way SLI/Crossfire, x8/x8 on PCI-E 2.0 is enough bandwidth to avoid throttling all but the highest-end of last-gen cards (and even then the performance loss is minimal).  I'd recommend a board and processor that are fully compatible with PCI-E 3.0 if you want to run multiple high-end cards from the current generation of GPUs.

VRMs:  The VRM system in your motherboard is the system that takes power from the PSU and converts it to the correct voltage to be utilized by the CPU and GPU.  If you see stuff like “12+2 power phases” being tossed about, that’s referring to the VRM system of your motherboard.  Basically the VRMs are small transformers that convert the +12V from your PSU into the correct voltages to run your stuff.  Phases refer to the number of transformers, the more you have, the lower the individual load on each transformer, which means a more stable, long-lasting board, especially when overclocking.  If you’re pushing things, poor quality/too few VRMs can mean catastrophic damage to the motherboard, and perhaps other parts as well.  For Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge, I would consider 6+2 to be adequate for reasonable overclocking, with 8+2 desired and anything above that being gravy.

Physical layout:  This is pretty important, especially in this age of double-wide GPUs and SLI/Crossfire setups.  For SLI/Crossfire motherboards, you want at least an additional expansion slot’s worth of space between PCI-E x16 slots in order to accommodate 2-slot GPU coolers.  For motherboards supporting only 2 GPUs, I’d recommend looking for 2 slots worth of space between, to give the top card some breathing room.  SATA ports should be either of the 90 degree variety, or placed to ensure they won’t be covered by longer graphics cards.  Front panel, audio and USB headers should be located along the edge of the board, easily accessible and away from any potential conflict with expansion cards.  Keep an eye on stuff like CPU socket positioning relative to DIMM slots, and the size and positioning of heatsinks on the motherboard.  Manufacturers are generally very good about avoiding those conflicts, but depending on heatsink size and layout you can sometimes have trouble mounting aftermarket CPU cooling.

BIOS/UEFI:  If you're looking at an overclocked system, you'll want a nice, full-featured BIOS/UEFI.  Some budget boards (even from otherwise high-end manufacturers) have taken to removing deeper, more complex customization options, and some manufacturers have very poorly put together interfaces, with nonsensical descriptions and confusing layouts.  Obviously, you'd like to avoid those if possible, so make sure to take a look at some reviews to see if you can't get an idea of what you'll be looking at.

Features and Documentation:  This is more nebulous, as it’s entirely up to your own discretion.  Each builder has different needs in terms of feature-set (quantity/type of ports, additional bells and whistles like Bluetooth, etc.).  Certain boards will come with automatic or software assisted overclocking options that other boards lack.  Do your research here, and choose the board that includes everything you need/want.  Similarly, some builders will need and/or want clear, comprehensive documentation of board features and installation, while others may be comfortable without it.

As for individual recommendations, I'll keep it fairly simple.  For basic builds (using Pentium/Celeron chips) go with the ASRock H77M.  For mid-range builds (using a Core i3 or non-K Core i5) go with the Intel DH77EB.  For high end builds (using Core i5 2500K or 3570K) go with the Gigabyte Z77X-UD3H.  If you need something fancier, or more esoteric, feel free to PM me or ask in the thread.

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