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In The Lab
Build Your Own PC Chapter 9: Adding components to a motherboard Part 1
by chris & rob
<--the fine print-->
Even if you assemble a system based solely on the specifications, there is no guarantee that the final configuration will be 100% functional and that all components will be 100% compatible with each other. That being said, have fun building your system!

Rob: Now that we have built a complete system, maybe we can share some insights with our loyal readers when they're shopping for components.

Chris: Instead of building our first system with a careful pre-planned approach, we chose many cool product features (or cost-saving ones) and cobbled one together. This is not too difficult if you stick to middle-of-the-road type components, but if you're going for high-performance, you'll need to make sure your components match up.

Rob: And by matching up, say, a high-end motherboard with a high-end processor, we can be sure that both run as fast as advertised.

Chris: Right you are Rob. But no matter if you are going to assemble a system for the first time, or want to build the most cutting-edge, fastest game-playing monster of a system possible, there are a few "rules" you can follow.

  1. Start with the core component (usually processor or motherboard) and build your configuration around its requirements.
  2. Identify the requirements for your components. As a rule, these will be listed in the product specifications, or in many cases, in the feature list itself. Match the obvious specifications first, and then look for any shared requirements as you add components.
  3. Don't change "performance levels" between components. If you want the fastest processor possible in a system, why would you settle for medium-speed memory, or a smaller, slower hard drive?

As an example, let's try to see what choices we get for a super-fast gaming system. I am going to start with the CPU first since this has only a few requirements, and they all apply to the system board.

The fastest Intel CPU I see this week is the Intel® Boxed Pentium® 4 Processor Extreme Edition 3.4GHz. Under the product specifications, it requires a Socket 478, and it uses an 800MHz Front Side Bus. Our motherboard will have to match both requirements to be compatible, and it should also indicate that it will support a CPU up to 3.4GHz. System Boards may have socket 478 slots, and provide an 800MHz FSB, but if the BIOS doesn't know what a 3.4GHz CPU is, it is not going to even go through a POST (Power On Self Test), or if it does, will only run at a slower speed.

Rob: What would we have to do to get this monster processor to work with a motherboard that doesn't recognize 3.4GHz?

Chris: This would very likely imply that a BIOS flash will be required before my system will even start. (see this month's Tech Term for a BIOS definition)

Rob: Do we need to buy a motherboard with an Intel chipset or could we go with a SiS or VIA chipset?

Chris: While there might be third-party chipsets that support all of the CPU features, the Intel chipsets are designed and tested specifically with the Intel CPUs. Looking through the list of Socket 478 system boards, I find seven that use the Intel 875 chipset. Of these, two list a "Maximum Processor Speed" of 3.06 GHz, while the rest make no mention of a maximum speed.

Rob: That doesn't mean they have no maximum speed supported, it just means the manufacturer didn't supply that information. So, we'll have to visit manufacturer's website to find that info.

Chris: And research is a big part of selecting components when manufacturers have to constantly update BIOS microcode for the latest processors. By the time a motherboard is produced with a chipset to support the fastest processor, Intel has come out with a faster version. Sometimes a BIOS flash will be all that's needed to support the newest processor, but often motherboard makers stop updating chipsets. You will need to make sure the motherboard has a recent BIOS update for that newer speed.

Rob: Yes, it takes a bit of work to track some things down but those of you out there on the cutting edge are used to that, aren't you?

Chris: On the Asus website, I found updates to their BIOS (updated 4 March 2004) for the Asus P4C800-E Deluxe P4 ATX Motherboard. This is an example of motherboards that should support the 3.4GHz processor we've selected. Just keep in mind that Intel-brand motherboards will continue to produce BIOS updates to support faster processors for 1 or 2 years while other motherboard manufacturers only update their BIOS for about six months.

Rob: This just goes to show you that you need to be very selective and well planned-out when selecting your core components.

Chris: And that's just the beginning. Now that we have a motherboard, we will use its specifications to select memory, hard drive and even the case.

Join us next time when we'll show you how the motherboard defines your other components.

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