Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Plugged In: Get with the system (board) in building computers

Over the past several weeks, we’ve examined some of the most important factors that affect getting the most for your money when setting up and maintaining a properly balanced Windows computer.

This week, we’ll consider the remaining major components of your computer, including the system board, hard disks, video and CD/DVD drives.

If you haven’t had more than enough technical jargon by the end of this article, then you’re either a serious case or you’ve missed our prior articles, which you can find online at http://redoubtreporter.blogspot.com.

System Boards
The system board is the single most critical and complex part of your computer system. Most modern computers contain few, if any, traditional expansion cards anymore. The hardware and functions that used to reside on six or eight plug-in expansion cards are now integrated directly into the “chipset” on the system board, which is sometimes called a “motherboard.” Usually, that means that you’ll get more functionality and reliability for less money.

It also means that you’ll need to be very careful when choosing your system board because it’s the heart of your computer, even more so than the CPU processor. At the most basic level, your system board must mechanically fit your case and the case’s attachment points. Generally, so long as you get an ATX or Micro-ATX style board, mechanical compatibility should not be a problem. I prefer the larger ATX boards because they usually provide a little more elbowroom on the board, but Micro-ATX boards are often quite acceptable and are required for small cases.

Your consideration should start with deciding which CPU processor you’ll use because the system board must support the specific CPU processor. At the most basic level of plain mechanical compatibility, the system board must use precisely the same socket type that fits the intended CPU. Assuming that the CPU fits, then the system board should have a chipset that is compatible with the CPU and that includes all of the functions that you’ll want.

At the moment, NVidia and Intel make the most powerful chipsets for current Intel CPUs, most of which fit the LGA 775 pin socket. The best-rated system boards seem to use the following chipsets for Intel CPU processors: Intel P35, P45, G31, Q35 and Q45 chipsets, and NVidia GeForce 9400, 790i and GE 43 chipsets.

Most current AMD CPU processors use either the AM2 or AM2-plus socket and the best-rated system boards for AMD CPUs seem to use the following chipsets: AMD 770, 780 and 790 chipsets or NVidia 570 or 790 chipsets.

Some budget system boards will include onboard video, which eliminates the purchase of a separate video card. Onboard video is usually quite acceptable for average business and home use but is too slow for games or Photoshop. Well-regarded onboard video chipsets include AMD’s Radeon HD 3200/3300 series and NVidia’s GeForce 8200/8300 series.

Because it’s so easy to build a basic budget system board using off-the-shelf chipsets, there are many, many brands. I’ve found the most generally reliable system boards to be made by Gigabyte, MSI, Intel and AMD. ECS, DFI, ASUS and ASrock system boards used to have quite a following, but Gigabyte and MSI seem to be leading the pack lately in general user satisfaction. I’ve had good results with both Gigabyte and MSI boards, which are sold locally and are priced midrange. There are, however, many different models, even within the same brand, and models change very rapidly as features are added or subtracted.

Spending a little more for a high-quality system board is never wasted. The higher reliability and additional hardware functions are usually quite worthwhile add-ons, and you’ll likely be able to get by with a less-expensive processor in the short term and then upgrade when prices on the top-of-the-line CPU drop dramatically in six months. This is actually a very practical strategy that provides an inexpensive path for regular upgrades because CPU prices drop regularly. A good system board should have all, or at least almost all, of the following:
  • A chipset that supports the fastest DRAM speeds and “Hypertransport” speeds of which your intended CPU is capable. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting a lot of that expensive processing power.
  • At least eight high-speed USB ports with at least four, preferably six, physically present back-panel USB connectors and internal wiring for two to four more USB 2.0 connectors for front panel and internal use. Almost every external device connects to your computer through a fast USB port anymore, especially scanners, printers, microphones, Web cameras and mice.
  • One or two FireWire connectors would be nice, especially for video camcorders and fast external hard disks.
  • At least one gigabit-speed Ethernet network adapter. I prefer the Marvell gigabit Ethernet chip because it includes a unique test program that helps diagnose networking cable problems.
  • At least four fast 3.0-gigabit SATA connectors for internal hard disks and newer DVD drives and also at least one IDE connector for older CD/DVD drives. If you plan to use this computer to act as a central storage “file server” for a small office network, then be sure that it includes RAID 0+1 or RAID 5 disk array functions on the system board.
  • A decent audio chipset to power an external speaker set. Although the Realtek audio chipset is fine, I prefer the NVidia audio chipset. The audio control software seems more straightforward and effective and that’s most of it.
  • A floppy disk drive connector ¬— everyone except Microsoft knows that the floppy disk is obsolete. Unfortunately, installing many versions of Windows still requires you to have the specialized driver software for your hard disk controller on a floppy disk and you’ll need to connect that floppy disk.
  • Several small internal fan connectors.
  • The usual keyboard, mouse, and printer port connectors.
  • Several slots for expansion cards.
  • Small fans on the main system board chipsets, particularly fans that don’t interfere with seating a video card. Modern chipsets run hot and I do not believe that simple metal cooling fans provide enough cooling for long-term reliability. Small fans are better, assuming that they are of reliable quality.
Unless you are a gamer or a professional user of CAD, Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom, nearly any stable video card with driver software for your specific operating system will be adequate. Video functions built directly into the system board tend to be the slowest but are usually OK for business users. As with system boards, there are numerous video card brands and models, all of which are built using a few standard video chipsets from NVidia or AMD. I have used video boards built around the AMD/ATI Radeon for some years with good reliability and quite adequate performance for the price.

Generally, a separate plug-in 16-channel PCI-X video card provides the best performance. Get a video card that includes at least 256 megabytes, preferably 512 megabytes, of video memory installed on the video card itself. Video cards that “share” the DRAM memory installed on the system board are definitely budget items. They work OK but are not the preferred option. Be sure that the video card’s resolution and other characteristics are matched to your video monitor.

If you are an Adobe Photoshop CS4 or Lightroom 2.x user, check Adobe’s Web site for a list of video card chipsets that are certified to accelerate photo processing in Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom 2.x. Video card photo processing is a new feature in the most recent Adobe products. It’s a very worthwhile performance boost and is recommended. Gamers definitely need the fastest video cards available.

Decent video monitors are now quite inexpensive compared to even a few years ago. I have always had excellent luck with monitors from Viewsonic and their budget brand, Optiquest. Get a good monitor, though, because recent studies strongly suggest that higher-quality monitors improve productivity and reduce fatigue and eye strain. Wide-screen monitors are OK, but if you do get a wide-screen monitor, you’ll probably want to get at least a 22-inch, preferably a 24-inch, monitor. Otherwise, you’ll be squinting.

Hard disks
Twenty-five years after IBM introduced the first desktop hard disk, your hard disk’s performance remains one of the single most critical determinants of overall computer performance. (What I actually wanted to write was “Redoubt Reporter readers will readily recall my recent review of really radical performance with rapidly revolving disk drives,” but I’m not sure that I can slip it by our eagle-eyed, style-manualed editor, and the thesaurus ran out of synonyms starting with “re.”)

Look for these features in a good hard disk:
  • SATA II interface — it’s faster and easy to set up.
  • Fast rotation — 7,200 RPM drives are standard. Western Digital’s 10,000 RPM Raptor drives are really fast when matched to the right system board SATA disk controller, but they’re a lot more expensive. If you want the ultimate in desktop PC performance, be ready to spend at least two to three times as much per gigabyte capacity if you buy a 150 GB or 300 GB Raptor drive. On the other hand, these drives are rated as highly reliable.
  • High capacity — not only do you want at least 500 gigabytes storage, but modern high capacity hard disks pack the data more tightly, resulting in more data mechanically passing under the read-write head on each revolution, resulting in better overall performance.
  • A large “buffer,” at least 8 MB built in, preferably 16 MB or 32 MB.
  • High shock and drop resistance. None of us has ever dropped a hard disk or computer. None of us. Of course.
  • Two hard disks in your computer. Put your operating system and application programs on the boot drive (C) and your data on a second, physically different drive (D). That way, if Windows goes south, which it will in time, you won’t lose data when you need to reformat the boot hard disk. In addition, using a second hard disk to hold your data makes it easier to upgrade to a larger hard disk when needed and to back up your data.
Odds and ends
  • DVD drive and floppy disk — just about any brand-name DVD read/write driver and any brand-name floppy disk will do the trick. These have become commodity items.
  • Keyboard and mouse — wired keyboards and optical mice are generic commodity items. I prefer the convenience of a wireless keyboard. I’ve had my best luck with the less-expensive Logitech models, but even these fail more often than hard-wired devices.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his Web site, www.kashilaw.com, along with links to legal and community resources.

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