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How to Choose a Motherboard
And Not Be Sorry Afterwards


Expansion slots

In fact, the author sincerely doesn't understand those people who cannot estimate the necessary number of expansion slots. However, my misunderstanding grows when I see people who are straining (even refusing very attractive choices) to get a maximum number of slots. Both groups are in fact united by the same problem: they don't know what they want. Nevertheless, it's elementary. I'll give you an example and tell you how I estimated the necessary number of slots when I was choosing a new motherboard for my computer:

  1. I thought that sooner or later I would want to replace integrated audio with an external sound card, because I love to play computer games with maximum pleasure though I do it very rarely. Plus one slot.
  2. Network chip (Ethernet) is not integrated on my motherboard, so I need a network card. So that my friend with a notebook would be able to copy files to my computer without problems. Plus one slot.
  3. If I ever buy a modem, it will be definitely an external USB model. It's more convenient in all respects, at least because you can put it in a bag and go to a friend who doesn't have a modem. No slot's necessary.
  4. I may need a FireWire controller some day – my lukewarm attitude to home video is conditioned only by high prices for camcorders, more than I'm ready to spend. Plus one slot.
  5. I may have two optical drives – my present CDRW is quite sufficient, but it cannot read DVD, and I don't see a point in replacing it with a DVD recorder. I already have two hard disks. Thus, capacity of the on-board hard disk controller is almost depleted, and sooner or later I will probably need an external controller. Plus another slot.

Thus, I have come to a conclusion that I need a motherboard with five expansion slots. Why the fifth slot? Just in case I forgot something. Sort of an "iron ration". See, it's very easy. However, if you are not going to buy a mATX motherboard, you can facilitate things and just choose an ATX motherboard with the maximum possible number of slots. PCI motherboards can have up to six slots. But don't forget that the group of 5-slot motherboards may offer a lot of "tasty" solutions, and you are refusing them without even knowing why. This behaviour looks strange to me...

A separate mention should be made of new messy motherboards for Intel Socket 775: PCI is used together with PCI Express 1x. If you already have a list of expansion cards you want to buy immediately, then the main requirement is obvious: motherboard capacities must correspond to your list. But if the slots interest you only as a future storage for possible purchases, I will risk and suggest that you shouldn't exert yourself with exact calculations: the balance between PCI and PCI-E 1x may vary – but the motherboard initially must have at least two vacant PCI slots. These two slots will be enough for the first half of the year, even if you buy devices only for this bus. Later on the range of PCI-E expansion cards will inevitable grow, while PCI cards will still be available for a long time. Thus, you can choose between similar devices for the two buses depending on your vacant slots.

Memory sockets

This feature is deliberately reviewed in a separate chapter, because it deserves it: memory capacity is often upgraded. You cannot even imagine how many times I have seen people with the same trite, simple and dull problem, while I worked in the IT hardware sector: no vacant slots to install memory modules. That is they have memory modules but no vacant slots. There may be a great deal of reasons for getting an additional memory module: you want more memory ("sick and tired of swapping and slow downs"), there is an extra memory module in one computer and you can move it to another, an old computer at work is written off and you can take memory modules... in short, there are plenty of reasons. But there are few slots on the motherboard. And all of them are in use. So, the recipe is simple: all other things being equal, always choose a motherboard with more memory slots. What concerns me, for my friends and acquaintances I always choose ATX motherboards with four memory slots (for regular desktops) and try to choose mATX motherboards with three slots. Some of my friends already appreciated my prudence – as soon as they had the first upgrade.

A separate mention should be made of ATX motherboards with six memory slots, which some manufacturers launch from time to time. There is nothing seditious in this solution, it can operate well, but you should take into account that each chipset supports only a certain number of memory banks, so you may fail to use all the six slots with any combination of memory modules. In general, I'm inclined to consider six DIMM slots excessive so far. Besides, each slot spawns a great number of printed conductors, and if you have the whole six slots, PCB layout will be very complex...

A purely theoretical remark to overclockers. The fewer slots there are, the simpler the layout is. And again: the "farthest" memory slot is connected with a chipset or a processor by a longer conductor, which also does not contribute to motherboard stability in non-standard modes. Besides, every additional memory module creates an additional load for the supply circuit. So, gentlemen, you may have a contrary situation. What does that prove? Just a single thing in my case: overclocking poses a heap of additional troubles :).

Dual-memory motherboard "combines"

It's a very short chapter, because my attitude to such boards is absolutely simple: they are practically of no use to people who can see farther than their nose and plan their purchases. These boards have four memory slots as a rule: two for one memory type, and two for the other. If you want to install memory modules from the old system, just buy a motherboard with four slots for the old memory type. If you want "new progressive" memory, wait till you have enough money and buy a motherboard with a sufficient number of slots for the "new and progressive". Whatever happens in future, you will regret buying a "combined" motherboard anyway. Either in a year having found that you still work with the old memory, because your computer is upgraded and it's time to spend money on other things. Or having bought new memory for the available two slots and understood that you want more but there are no vacant slots. So, a combined motherboard is bad for one reason: only two memory slots may be used simultaneously. This is not sufficient and that's why it's very bad. Combined motherboards are for those who itch to buy something immediately and install it into their computers to ease itching. I have never seen a single good purchase made on the spur of the moment.

Vladimir Rybnikov (puree@ixbt.com)
February 1, 2004


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