In many ways, the motherboard is the most important choice you will make. All of your other hardware plugs into your motherboard, one way or another, and so it determines almost everything you’ll eventually be able to do with your system. Choosing the right motherboard is critical.
So, what did I want in a motherboard? To answer this, I needed to know what I wanted to plug into my system and, in turn, how I planned to use my computer.
I’ll start with the last question first: how I use my computer. This was for a home office. I sometimes bring work home. I do household finances here. I watch and record TV on my computer. I write fiction here. I do online research here. That includes research for work, for fiction and for fun. I occasionally do graphics and web development. I even sometimes work on small databases on my home system. I use my computer to archive family photos, documents and financial records. In short, it’s the information nexus for both home and work.
The first thing to observe is that I do lots of things where I’ll have multiple windows open. I watch TV while I pay bills. I’ll have a thesaurus and dictionary open while I’m writing. I’ll have multiple spreadsheets open. Big monitors are great for this, but you still run out of screen space. As a consequence, I have multiple monitors on my system. Now, I could accomplish that by purchasing a graphics card that supports multiple monitors, but that adds expense. I already know that I can purchase a CPU that supports more than one monitor and will do all things I want, including playing DVDs, BluRay disks, and watching TV. But if I want to avoid the expense of a graphics card, I need to be sure that my motherboard has at least two graphic outputs.
This complicates things, since there are now several flavors of graphic adaptors. There’s the old reliable VGA standard, and then a whole bunch of other digital standards. But I’ve already got a nice high-resolution monitor with built-in speakers that’s perfect for my purposes. It uses a single HDMI cable for both sound and video, just like my living room home entertainment system, so I’ll want an HDMI output on my motherboard. My other monitor is an old Sony with only a VGA input left over from ten years ago. It’s fine for my second monitor, for watching TV or having that thesaurus open. So I want to be able to plug it into my system, too. However, later on I might want to upgrade this to a newer monitor that uses a different connection, so I don’t want to limit myself to VGA for my second video out on my motherboard.
Yet another video interface comes to the rescue: the Display Port. Display Ports will connect to other Display Ports or, with inexpensive adaptors, to HDMI, DVI or VGA devices. That’s perfect. So I’ll want my motherboard to have at least an HDMI and a Display Port video out.
Some other things I knew I needed were lots of USB ports, including some of the faster USB 3.0 ports. I can add USB ports later, if needed, with a hub, and I’ve done so. But at a minimum, I’ll need USB ports for my mouse, my keyboard, and a USB external hub. I’ll also want to be sure I’ve got a USB 3.0 port or two for external USB hard drives used for backups.
Some things I won’t need, at least for this system, are jacks for an external sound system or a Firewire port. I’ll be happy with the speakers on my monitor, powered by my HDMI connection, and I don’t have any Firewire devices.
What else? Well, I’m a fanatic for backups. They’ve saved me more times than I can count. I store so much on my system that I can’t afford to take chances. Here’s what I do. I have a 2TB USB drive. I use that to make backups once a month or so. When it’s not at home for backups, it’s in my office. That way if something happens at home, I’ve got a backup. For convenience, I also wanted to have an internal drive for backups. That meant I needed a minimum of two SATA connections for internal drives.
However, I also wanted to take advantage of a relatively new technology from Intel, something called “Rapid Storage Technology,” which meant I needed to pay a bit more attention to the kind of hard drives I could connect.
It’s well known that solid state drives are faster than hard drives. The latter have moving parts–internal disks that spin–and that slows them down. However, solid state drives are still really expensive compared to hard drives. I want to record and store TV shows on my computer, so I wanted to get a hard drive with at least 2TB of capacity. Solid state drives that large are not available–at least not to consumers.
What Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology lets you do is use a solid state drive for your swap disk. It basically learns what parts of the operating system you use most often and copies those to the solid state drive. You get a speed boost, since you’re using a solid state drive for frequent operating system tasks, but you get the economy of large hard drives. So, I wanted to be sure I could access this technology. In fact, economical access to this technology was exactly why I decided to build a home system in the first place.
The requirement for Rapid Storage Technology then limited me to Intel chipsets on the motherboard. The “chipset” is the hardware that controls the input and output operations of the board–things like USB connections, video and audio, hard drives, DVD/CD players, add-on cards like graphics controllers, and so on. In some ways, the chipset is the most important part of the computer.
At the time I built my machine, the Rapid Storage Technology was still fairly new. I could get the original Z68 chipset or the newer H77 or Z77 chipsets. The latter had slightly improved graphic and audio support. The big difference between the H77 and the Z77 was that you could tweak the Z77 and “overclock” your system–make it run faster than specs by adjusting voltages to the CPU and memory, among other things. If you’re a gamer, that might be important, but I don’t play games. Thus, the less expensive H77 chipset was perfect for me.
The next problem is finding a mother with the desired chipset, except that’s not a problem at all. There are dozens of vendors out there that sell motherboards. Some of the biggest are MSI, Gigabyte, ASUS, EVga, ASRock, Zotac, and, of course, Intel. I had bad luck with one of these, but they are all reliable vendors who produce quality boards. You should realize, though, that defective motherboards do happen, even with the best of vendors. Defects almost always show up in the first thirty days and usually much sooner. I purchased from Amazon because of their thirty-day-no-questions-asked return policy.
I mentioned that I built four computers and that this blog is just about my home office system, right? I used boards from four of the above vendors on my systems, and I have to say that I was happiest with the Intel board. I had three defective boards from one of the vendors. (I won’t tell you which one since this could happen with any of the vendors). I eventually gave up and used an Intel board, so two of my systems have are all-Intel. The other systems use ASRock and Zotac boards, and these are also working perfectly.
Anyway, I settled on the Intel board listed at the right. For the price, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles the other vendors supply, but it’s reliable. After three returns of defective boards, I wanted one that worked. This is in the Intel “media series.” Even though I don’t plan to use it as a home theater PC–I used a great little Zotac board for that purpose–I needed a media series to get the video outputs I needed.
I’m quite happy with this motherboard. It’s expandable, so I can add cards should I need to. It boots quickly, and has a nice, graphic interface to the board’s settings. It has ample outputs on the back, and it has ample jacks on the inside for additional USB devices like a card reader. It supports up to six drives, including hard drives, CD/DVD/BluRay drives, and solid state drives.
It’s also small. Motherboards come in several different form factors, and this one uses the second-smallest size. I didn’t want a Brobdingnagian case squatting in my office, hence the smaller form factor on the board.
Next: the processor