Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Chipsets

How To Choose A Motherboard: A Guide For Beginners
By

The gateway between a processor and other components is a set of interface controllers generically called the chipset. Traditional chipsets include a northbridge with memory controller and graphics card interface, and a southbridge containing slower expansion card interfaces and various peripheral, storage, and communications controllers. The closest match to this traditional definition, AMD’s Socket AM3+ deviates mostly in that the memory controller is on the CPU.

AMD and Intel also integrate a graphics controller onto their mainstream and low-cost processors, using the system memory controller to boost performance. These solutions are typically adequate for anyone who doesn’t play 3D games on their PC, and both companies occasionally surprise us with playable 1080p game performance.

AMD AM3+ Chipsets (by northbridge)

AMD’s 800-series chipsets provide a multitude of options for both discrete (no graphics) and integrated graphics customers. Northbridge products include:

  • 990FX: with 42 PCI Express 2.0 lanes, this is the best match for multiple graphics cards. Unchanged from the 890FX, AMD renamed its core logic when revising its AM3 socket to AM3+. 990FX supports AMD’s CrossFire with up to four cards, and Nvidia unblocked this chipset to allow three-way SLI support as well.
  • 990X: a lower-cost 26-lane version of the 990FX that supports a single graphics card with sixteen lanes or two cards with eight lanes per card. CrossFire is supported across two cards, and Nvidia allows for two-way SLI as well.
  • 890GX: an integrated-graphics version of the 990X/890X that supports discrete graphics, integrated DirectX 10.1 graphics, and combinations of AMD discrete cards with integrated graphics. Because this chipset was launched before Socket AM3+, buyers must verify that the motherboard they’re considering is AM3+-compliant.
  • 880G: a lower-cost version of the 890GX that supports a single AMD graphics card and integrated graphics simultaneously for enhanced multi-monitor support. It can also switch between discrete graphics and integrated engines to save energy.
  • 970: a version of the 880G that has no integrated graphics and supports a single graphics card in true x16 mode. An additional graphics card can be hosted at reduced bandwidth by using four of the chipset’s x1 pathways.

AMD FM2+ Chipsets

One of the most amazing things about AMD’s mid-market APUs is that all three chipset generations support the newest-generation processors. This could lead to some confusion over which A55 motherboard comes armed with Socket FM1, FM2, or FM2+, so buyers need to pay close attention to specifications.

  • A88X supports four PCIe 2.0 lanes in addition to the 20 hosted on the APU (a CPU with certain graphics capabilities built-in), four USB 3.0, ten USB 2.0, and eight SATA 6Gb/s ports. Unlike its competitor’s product, AMD also supports legacy PCI (up to three slots) in addition to newer interfaces. Launched in conjunction with the FM2+ socket, it appears to be a new stepping of the A85X with added USB 3.0 debugging.
  • A78 represents a reduced feature set of the A88X, with six SATA 6Gb/s ports and the CPU’s ability to split its integrated PCIe controller from x16-x4 to x8-x8-x4 disabled. Like the above rebrand, the A78 is a new stepping of the A75 that coincides with AMD’s switch from Socket FM2 to Socket FM2+, again adding USB 3.0 debugging.
  • A58 represents a reduced feature set of the A78, with six slower SATA 3Gb/s ports and no USB 3.0. Rebranded from A55, this part is unique in that it was launched after manufacturers started production of A55-branded Socket FM2+ motherboards.
  • A55 was the original version of the A58, and is still available. Though we’re accustomed to rebranding, a change in the engineering codename from Hudson D2 to Bolton D2 seems disingenuous.

Intel LGA 1150 Chipsets

Because all northbridge functions have been moved onto LGA 1150-based processors, compatible motherboards feature only a southbridge that Intel relabels the PCH, for platform controller hub.

  • Z97 Express features eight PCIe 2.0 lanes, six USB 3.0 ports, and six SATA 6Gb/s ports. Physically unchanged from the previous Z87 Express, Intel renamed it for its Haswell refresh marketing blitz, and changed the base firmware just enough to call it a new product. The altered firmware may be required for future Broadwell CPU support.
  • Z87 Express: Intel enables pathway splitting for the CPU’s PCIe 3.0 controller when paired with Z97/Z87 Express, so that any processor can support a single card with 16 lanes, two cards with eight lanes, or three cards at x8-x4-x4 (depending on motherboard layout). CrossFire is enabled across as many as three cards, while Nvidia's SLI technology only works with two cards. RAID modes 0, 1, 5, and 10 are also enabled.
  • H97 Express replaces H87 in the same way that Z97 replaced Z87. Both units currently support the same processors and feature set, but the newer chipset’s altered base firmware may be required for future Broadwell CPU upgrades.
  • H87 Express reduces features compared to Z97 by limiting the CPU’s integrated PCIe 3.0 controller to a single device (one slot), and officially blocks CPU overclocking. Unofficially, the H97/H87 Express chipset can be unlocked for overclocking. Additionally, Intel enables its Small Business Advantage software on H97 or H87 motherboards with compatible firmware.
  • Q87 Express adds a few more business-oriented features (VT-d, TXT, vPro) to the feature set of the H87.
  • Q85 Express removes two SATA ports from the feature set of H87 Express, along with RAID functionality. The total number of supported SATA 6Gb/s ports is four.
  • B85 Express removes four USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports compared to Q85 Express. The total number of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports is eight and four, respectively.
  • H81 Express removes two additional SATA and two additional USB 3.0 ports compared to B85 Express. It also closes off two PCIe 2.0 lanes, leaving a total of six from the PCH-based controller. The least-expensive of Intel’s LGA 1150 products, it was proof-of-concept for our overclock-unlocking article.

Intel LGA 2011-v3

Recently replacing the X79 Express in LGA 2011 motherboards, X99 Express is the only desktop chipset for Intel’s DDR4-supporting LGA 2011-v3 (Haswell-E) processors. X99 capitalizes on the X79's "missing" features with ten SATA 6Gb/s ports, adds six USB 3.0, and retains its eight PCIe 2.0 pathways to support low-bandwidth devices. Relying upon Intel's 5900-series Core i7 processors (currently the Core i7-5960X and 5930K) to deliver up to 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes directly from the CPU to up to five slots, the platform drops to 28 PCIe lanes when paired with a 5800-series (Core i7-5820K) processor.

Though the most common configurations for this platform will use one or two high-bandwidth cards (Graphics, RAID or both), those who wish to build it with three or more cards and a Core i7-5820K should thoroughly read our reviews to understand its effect on each motherboards slot configuration. Certain models even lose 3-way SLI capability when using the Core i7-5820K.

Intel LGA 2011

Though end-of-life, value-seeking buyers who want a lot of PCIe connectivity may chose to pair Intel's earlier high-end platform with one of the firm's least-expensive LGA 2011 processors. The associated X79 Express chipset had only two SATA 6 Gb/s ports in addition to four SATA 3 Gb/s ports, though some motherboard manufacturers decided to expose the platform's four hidden SAS ports as SATA. This legacy product also lacked USB 3.0, though most motherboard manufacturers added a third-party USB 3.0 controller to one of the chipset's slow PCIe 2.0 pathways.

Add a comment
Ask a Category Expert
React To This Article

Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

Display all 41 comments.
  • 1 Hide
    olafgarten , October 1, 2014 3:47 AM
    I'd be careful with the size, sometimes cases with large CPU cutouts can't support mini itx motherboards
  • 1 Hide
    kamhagh , October 1, 2014 4:33 AM
    i hate psu on top cases :S looks ridicules !!!
  • 2 Hide
    MeteorsRaining , October 1, 2014 4:35 AM
    Great article, it has info on every small aspect that most mainstream users neglect, and the comparision b/w the chipsets and PCIe lanes support is very useful for first timers.

    The fact that memory clearance and slots often get overlooked, its better to have 4 slots for the sake of upgradility. Higher profile sticks often obstruct in cooler installation too.

    The chipset part was comprehensive, too. Well ATX form factor is standard nowadays, and given that most mid towers support that, I'd get it over mATX anyday, for more space b/w the components like GPUs.

    Also, higher the speed, lower the CL, better the sticks, but the fact that APUs require faster memory for optimal performance, because they use it as VRAM, should be considered. Faster memory helps in OCing too, timings don't matter as much, but yes it should not fall beyond CL11 for 2400MHz.
  • -2 Hide
    Novuake , October 1, 2014 5:36 AM
    Damn, I was busy creating a tutorial on this exact subject! Sigh...
  • 2 Hide
    Onus , October 1, 2014 6:01 AM
    Thomas, I think you got a little lost (though I wouldn't quite say "mired") in motherboard description rather than motherboard selection. You went into great detail on what is available, but very little on why someone might want or need it.
    I too have thought about writing on this subject. Novuake, by all means continue with your effort. More data points are almost always helpful, and we know that newbs sometimes need all the help they can get.
  • 2 Hide
    Crashman , October 1, 2014 6:07 AM
    Quote:
    Thomas, I think you got a little lost (though I wouldn't quite say "mired") in motherboard description rather than motherboard selection. You went into great detail on what is available, but very little on why someone might want or need it.
    I too have thought about writing on this subject. Novuake, by all means continue with your effort. More data points are almost always helpful, and we know that newbs sometimes need all the help they can get.

    Pick a CPU based on the apps you already use (on the PC you didn't build) and plan to use
    Pick cards and storage
    Pick the size of the PC you want. Make sure it's big enough for your cards and storage
    Pick a motherboard that fits those parameters.

    The rest is just, well, mostly reassurance :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , October 1, 2014 8:15 AM
    Quote:

    Pick a CPU based on the apps you already use (on the PC you didn't build) and plan to use
    Pick cards and storage
    Pick the size of the PC you want. Make sure it's big enough for your cards and storage
    Pick a motherboard that fits those parameters.

    The rest is just, well, mostly reassurance :) 

    This is one reasonable synopsis of the process. What is then necessary is a discussion of slots, ports, and desired options for tweaking, particularly relating to performance (e.g. native vs. 3rd party controllers, VRM quality and BIOS options for overclocking, etc), size constraints, with component quality/longevity thrown in as well.

    What is needed is a crosstab table of chipsets and the features they support; e.g. RAID versions, USB3.0, SATA 6Gb/s, etc.

  • 0 Hide
    lp231 , October 1, 2014 8:29 AM
    How to pick a motherboard
    1. Decided on whether you want to go with AMD or Intel
    2. Pick a board based on the CPU you want to have
    3. Look at socket type, socket type must match the CPU you're getting, so if your getting a socket 1150 CPU, the motherboard must also say socket 1150. Same with AMD, AM3+ CPU must have a board that says AM3+
    4. Large cases can fit large boards and small boards. But small cases cannot fit large boards. Best to check out the case specs to see what boards will fit.
    5. If you want to run 2 video cards, make sure the board has at least 2x PCIe x16 slots. Those that support CFX and SLI will most likely have the CFX or SLI logo on the motherboard box. But check the motherboard manual or do some online research to confirm on it.
    6. Rest are just feature you want to have or not like wifi, Bluetooth, or the need for surround sound speakers. Most audio ports will just be Red, Green, Blue Some board will have that as well as Orange, Black, and Grey.
    7. Most important, out of all of them is not to rush on it. Do some research and read lots of reviews before buying.
  • 2 Hide
    Amdlova , October 1, 2014 9:28 AM
    Can be better this tutorial.
  • 0 Hide
    ta152h , October 1, 2014 11:20 AM
    One nitpick, AM1 is the platform for Kabini, not the socket. The socket is FS1b.

    The AM1 socket was a different beast. I'm still not sure why AMD chose this name a second time, with that in mind.
  • 0 Hide
    catatech , October 1, 2014 11:21 AM
    Maybe a comparison of audio chipsets(alc1150, 892,...), network chipsets(Realtek, Intel...), wireless chipses(2x2, 2x3,...), USB supported modes(xfast,...), PS/2 support, ... will also be helpful. Since those components count when a someone buy a motherboard.
  • 0 Hide
    ta152h , October 1, 2014 11:55 AM
    One thing I'd add is to pay attention to the maker of the motherboard.

    I bought an ECS only because it was the only motherboard that had what I wanted. Yes, I know, I still should not have, but I didn't know just how bad they are. It wouldn't use top of the line memory, wouldn't keep memory timings I put in, constantly lost the time, and had a terribly loud fan, on a processor that topped out at 25 watts. Then it started putting up the wrong display resolution, and wouldn't let me change it to the appropriate values for my monitor. I'd have to reset the firmware, then it would work, then fail again two days later. Pure junk.

    Technical support was abysmal as well. They solved nothing, and just kept asking me to do things I had already done, and told them I had already done. Entirely useless. I basically just removed the motherboard once the AM1 platform came out, since it was similar enough (I had an a6-5200, on the KBN-I).

    I'll never get another ECS. Even if the motherboard was a lemon, the fact they couldn't assist at all, and had one firmware release a few weeks after the first, and then nothing after that, makes it clear the company isn't very good.

    I replaced it with an Asrock, because I wanted DisplayPort (this is another important characteristic of a motherboard, make sure it has the video output that matches your monitor, if you have an existing one you wish to use with it), and no more problems.

    So getting a reputable brand is always a good idea.
  • 1 Hide
    lp231 , October 1, 2014 11:57 AM
    Those that comes to toms will want to know a lot of details, and are willing to learn. But for a beginner that dont know what thg is, just tell them what they must match. like amd cpu with amd board. The rest like raid, chipset, pcie lanes and whatever else comes in later on. Giving too much info in the first place just confuses them even more or drives them away from building their own pc as they think its way too complex, so they go and buy prebuilts.
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , October 1, 2014 12:13 PM
    Quote:
    Those that comes to toms will want to know a lot of details, and are willing to learn. But for a beginner that dont know what thg is, just tell them what they must match. like amd cpu with amd board. The rest like raid, chipset, pcie lanes and whatever else comes in later on. Giving too much info in the first place just confuses them even more or drives them away from building their own pc as they think its way too complex, so they go and buy prebuilts.
    This is our second overhaul since 2006. We plan to release future revisions in more-frequent, smaller steps. And I'd personally like ideas on how to make it easier to read. I might even be able to take some stuff out, but probably not much. More important is probably to make sure all of the information is organized in an easily-read manner. Also, there might be a couple not-too-technical things I could add.

    So, I'm open to suggestions.

  • 1 Hide
    zakaron , October 1, 2014 12:52 PM
    I remember my first motherboard swap back in '97, I didn't take into consideration the peripherals I owned to match the connector type. I bought a socket 7 board to run a Cyrix P133+ that had an AT connector for the keyboard... well the Pentium 60 board I was replacing had dual PS/2 ports. I already had a serial mouse, but I was out of luck on the keyboard. I had to go back the next day to the computer show at the ExpoMart to track down an AT to PS/2 converter. Lesson learned: always make sure you have the correct hookups for the peripherals you want to use. IE: do you need PS/2, IDE for that old DVD drive, serial (for legacy device), floppy controller if you still use those ancient things, enough USB ports or do you need a USB hub, etc.
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , October 1, 2014 12:55 PM
    I think some feature comparison charts or tables could be helpful. Put socket/chipset on the vertical, and feature along the horizontal. My original suggestion ties to the chipset only, and what catatech listed would differentiate motherboards with the same base chipset by listing other distinguishing features.
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , October 1, 2014 1:07 PM
    Quote:
    I remember my first motherboard swap back in '97, I didn't take into consideration the peripherals I owned to match the connector type. I bought a socket 7 board to run a Cyrix P133+ that had an AT connector for the keyboard... well the Pentium 60 board I was replacing had dual PS/2 ports. I already had a serial mouse, but I was out of luck on the keyboard. I had to go back the next day to the computer show at the ExpoMart to track down an AT to PS/2 converter. Lesson learned: always make sure you have the correct hookups for the peripherals you want to use. IE: do you need PS/2, IDE for that old DVD drive, serial (for legacy device), floppy controller if you still use those ancient things, enough USB ports or do you need a USB hub, etc.
    Ouch. That stuff was in the previous versions of the beginner's guide. I was hoping that people would have settled down to SATA and USB by now, just to circumvent your issues, because they make the discussion a little boring and hard to follow.

  • 0 Hide
    kittle , October 1, 2014 1:22 PM
    Quote:
    This is our second overhaul since 2006. We plan to release future revisions in more-frequent, smaller steps. And I'd personally like ideas on how to make it easier to read. I might even be able to take some stuff out, but probably not much. More important is probably to make sure all of the information is organized in an easily-read manner. Also, there might be a couple not-too-technical things I could add.

    So, I'm open to suggestions.

    So... some suggestions

    Since this article is supposed to be for beginners:
    AMD vs Intel -- Need to pick one. why? Pros and cons for both
    CPU - Speed, # of cores, hyperthreading. whats good, whats not.. and why? (leave out any overclocking discussions)
    RAM - how much? .. what kind? and why?
    What chipset do I need/want. And why?

    -- note that each point has a "why" component. You seem to have left that out of your article.

    (Im leaving out PSU, HDD and GPU)


    As noted by @ta152h - the manufacturer of the motherboard matters a lot. Some companies make better boards on average that others. but as with everything there are compromises.. Better companies usually charge more.

    next a "how-to" section
    - how to make sure the CPU will even FIT the motherboard
    - how to make sure the CPU is compatible
    - how to pick the right RAM (focus on mainstream compatibility, not overclocking)
    - how to make sure the board will fit in my case (or how to pick a case for my motherboard)
    - how to pick a good motherboard manufacturer


    Lastly - since picking a motherboard usually means the person is building a new system, some basic recommendations would be helpful.
    Office/Kitchen system -- no gaming, or VERY light gaming
    - lower cost
    - high reliability (it wont be replaced anytime soon)
    - no overclocking
    - onboard graphics (or cheap gpu)
    - single HDD: 500gb/1TB HD,
    - 4GB ram
    - 300-400w PSU

    Gaming oriented system
    - mid to higher cost
    - dedicated GPU (single, no SLI)
    - overclocking available, but this is not a beginner subject
    - SSD boot drive & mechanical storage drive (2TB+)
    - 8GB ram or more
    - 650w PSU

    Anything beyond that.. and the person in question is not a beginner, so the article does not apply.
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , October 1, 2014 1:41 PM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    This is our second overhaul since 2006. We plan to release future revisions in more-frequent, smaller steps. And I'd personally like ideas on how to make it easier to read. I might even be able to take some stuff out, but probably not much. More important is probably to make sure all of the information is organized in an easily-read manner. Also, there might be a couple not-too-technical things I could add.

    So, I'm open to suggestions.

    So... some suggestions

    Since this article is supposed to be for beginners:
    AMD vs Intel -- Need to pick one. why? Pros and cons for both
    CPU - Speed, # of cores, hyperthreading. whats good, whats not.. and why? (leave out any overclocking discussions)
    RAM - how much? .. what kind? and why?
    What chipset do I need/want. And why?

    -- note that each point has a "why" component. You seem to have left that out of your article.

    (Im leaving out PSU, HDD and GPU)


    As noted by @ta152h - the manufacturer of the motherboard matters a lot. Some companies make better boards on average that others. but as with everything there are compromises.. Better companies usually charge more.

    next a "how-to" section
    - how to make sure the CPU will even FIT the motherboard
    - how to make sure the CPU is compatible
    - how to pick the right RAM (focus on mainstream compatibility, not overclocking)
    - how to make sure the board will fit in my case (or how to pick a case for my motherboard)
    - how to pick a good motherboard manufacturer


    Lastly - since picking a motherboard usually means the person is building a new system, some basic recommendations would be helpful.
    Office/Kitchen system -- no gaming, or VERY light gaming
    - lower cost
    - high reliability (it wont be replaced anytime soon)
    - no overclocking
    - onboard graphics (or cheap gpu)
    - single HDD: 500gb/1TB HD,
    - 4GB ram
    - 300-400w PSU

    Gaming oriented system
    - mid to higher cost
    - dedicated GPU (single, no SLI)
    - overclocking available, but this is not a beginner subject
    - SSD boot drive & mechanical storage drive (2TB+)
    - 8GB ram or more
    - 650w PSU

    Anything beyond that.. and the person in question is not a beginner, so the article does not apply.


    I see what you're saying, but what I think you're really asking for are a CPU guide for beginners, a DRAM guide for beginners, a storage guide for beginners, and more "about you" stuff in the "how to build a computer" guide.

    That last thing, maybe an introductory article like "Beginner's Guide To Beginner's Guides: PC Tech 099"
  • 0 Hide
    Amdlova , October 1, 2014 1:51 PM
    No mention of power suppy. Crap sound. the only reason i get 130 us plus motherboards is because the sound some mother boards have snr 90 db.
    I don't care if the mother board will fly some high party lan or other things. I never used the ie 1394 plus E-sata...
    for now i got only asrock motherboards because sound nice with my edifier and my akg headphone.
Display more comments
React To This Article