First step in picking a proper motherboard is a chipset choice. But not with the Intel Core i7 as the only available chipset is Intel X58, like it or not.
My next step is to pick a manufacturer I like. As for graphics card my choice goes to Gigabyte. Never had issues with their motherboards and they are well built with quality components.
Next, I define what I expect from my motherboard. Here is the list:
- passive cooling (heat pipes rules)
- it should have a built-in Intel Matrix RAID controller (it goes by name ICH10R)
- it should support at least 4 SATA2 drives (have at least 4 adequate ports)
- it should have two PCI-E 2.0 16x ports (one goes to graphic card, the other might go to an additional graphic card (perhaps for running CUDA or for running more than two screens at once) or some other card requiring high bandwidth). Note, I don’t care about nVidia SLI or ATI Crossfire.
- it should support three memory channels (the number of memory slots should be 3 or 6 - 6 is preferred) as Core i7 works with three channels natively (read my CPU article)
- it should support QPI up to 6.4 GT/s (bus speed)
- it should support at least 6GB DDR3 1600GHz (or faster) RAM
- it should have as many USB 2 ports as possible (they are never enough, trust me)
- it should have at least one Gb LAN adapter (two is better but not obligatory)
- it should have dual BIOS (this feature is useful if something goes wrong when BIOS is flashed to a newer version. If the motherboard doesn’t have dual BIOS or some similar solution then the only solution is to send it in for a repair)
- it should support 5.1 sound output
- it should have at least one PCI slot
- it should support IEEE 1394 aka Firewire (useful for transferring videos from video camera)
- it should have PS/2 ports for both keyboard and mouse (more USB ports are left for other devices)
- built with quality components is a bonus
- eSata support is a bonus
- misc features that I take for granted
I don’t care about motherboard performance since it doesn’t vary a lot between similar motherboards. After looking Gigabyte’s line of X58 motherboards I’ve finally picked a Gigabyte EX58-UD4 model. It has more or less everything I listed except for eSata connector (which is really useful only for connecting external hard disks). It also features a single LAN adapter but I don’t care since I have a spare PCI network card hanging around.
The most interesting aspect of this motherboard is perhaps Intel Matrix ICH10R built-in RAID controller. It is some sort of a hybrid because it doesn’t have a dedicated CPU – instead it steals a bunch of CPU cycles from the main CPU. As long as one uses RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 it doesn’t matter much because the utilization is really marginal. RAID 5 is a different story – don’t use RAID 5, specially with built-in controllers if you care about performance – I won’t use it on this workstation thus I don’t care. The controller doesn’t have its own cache as well. Again, this isn’t much of an issue unless you are in the RAID 5 or higher. The backup electricity is provided by an UPS for me (there is no option for a backup battery).
On the positive side Intel Matrix is fast enough (again, for RAID 0, 1 and 0+1) and has a clear advantage on compatibility field. Imagine the situation your non-Intel RAID controller card fails. You have to buy a new one. Here is a big problem: you have to buy the same model unless you are searching for troubles. The thing is that RAID controllers, even from the same company aren’t very much compatible as they write data to disk a bit differently – IOW you might loose all the data if you don’t find an adequate one because it won’t be able to read the data. Ouch. If the original controller is an old one then double ouch. Here Intel Matrix shines, at least judging from tests performed by online web sites (can’t remember where I’ve read them) – most chances are that if you change your motherboard for another one that has an ICH10R RAID controller it will just work. Furthermore it is probably compatible with older RAID controller models as well (ICH9R, ICH8R, etc.) – on the negative side you have to change your motherboard if built-in controller fails which might be even cheaper than changing a separate controller.
I’ve bought a Gigabyte EX58-UD4 motherboard from mimovrste.com for 215 Euros.
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Power Supply Unit
This one is a relatively easy choice.
The main criteria for me is the silence. Fortunately there are passively cooled mid-range graphics cards out there based on the GPUs from both nVidia and ATI. They are not amazingly fast, but hey, one needs amazing speed only when playing games or for some really specialized tasks. There is really no need for top performances for me.
The other important feature I am looking for is a double DVI output because I am currently using two LCD screens.
Next, I’ll have to choose between nVidia and ATI. This is a difficult choice because the two companies are more or less equally good. The deciding factor for me is CUDA (which is only supported by nVidia and I might play with it) and the fact that nVidia passively cooled cards are more powerful than ATI ones.
The last criteria is performance. I’ve picked the fastest passively cooled graphics card from nVidia on the market: card based on a 9600GT GPU. The bus supported is PCI-E 2.0 which is a mainstream bus (AGP and PCI are legacy buses and should be avoided). The card is manufactured by Gigabyte, a company I consider a good one and I never had problems with.
That’s it. I’m not interested in other features. Perhaps having a HDMI converter (which my card has) might be important in future if/when I decide to buy a new LCD screen. I don’t think that it will happen anytime soon though.
Note: The graphics card I’ve bought occupies two slots (see the pictures below) on the chassis due to the massive heat-pipe cooler.
I’ve bought a GIGABYTE GV-NX96T512HP 9600GT 512MB PCIe (rev 3.0) from Mlacom for 111 Euros.
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Power Supply Unit