MICRO CENTER: COMPUTERS AND ELECTRONICS
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In The Lab
Build Your Own PC Chapter 10: Adding components to a motherboard Part 2
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!

If you're just joining us, feel free to go back to last month's episode for the first part of this discussion.

Rob: How do our faithful readers pick RAM for their new Asus motherboard?

Chris: When looking at the Asus web site for motherboard documentation and its memory compatibility, the site provides us with more specifications and what might be called "suggestive clues." There are specifications such as; of 34 different DDR-400 modules listed, only 5 with (CAS Latency) CL3 are shown, 22 have CL2 or CL2.5, and 7 did not have a latency specification listed.

Rob: And in selecting RAM based on CL rating, the lower the number, the better.

Chris: Right you are Rob. In a high-performance system, I would not recommend anything less than a CAS of 2.5 and preferably CL2 DDR-400 modules would be best.

Rob: And now you can DDR-433 and DDR-500 memory which is even faster.

Chris: That's playing with fire, because even though you can buy faster DDR memory, the motherboard does not support it, so stay within the specifications.

Rob: So how much should someone put in their system?

Chris: While basic business work or everyday activities can be handled well with 512MB of RAM, for the best overall system performance under Windows XP for gaming, video editing, or other resource demanding applications, you will want at least 1GB. Although the full 4GB maximum probably is not necessary.

Rob: With four slots total, you could get to 1GB by getting four 256MB modules or two 512MB modules, preferably in matched pairs. And while four 256MB modules may be cheaper, you'd be ahead by spending a little extra and only filling two of your memory slots so you can easily upgrade later. Something like the Corsair TwinX 1.0GB Dual Channel PC-3200 CL2 Pro DDR SDRAM Memory Kit (Two 512MB DDR-400 Memory Modules) matches this requirement soundly.

Chris: The Asus motherboard has 6-channel sound support right on the system board. How much audio programming you use your computer for, and how you have it connected to your speaker system will determine if this is going to be adequate. For the average user, you will probably be happy with the basic support. If you run your audio through a full sound system with surround sound and multiple high-quality speakers, you probably already have a particular sound card in mind. A high-performance sound card is easy enough to add in one of the PCI slots, so no special specification cross references are really needed on the hardware side.

The Asus motherboard does not have integrated video, and while some of the latest chipset offerings are decent, they don't quite keep up with most of the high-performance 3D enhanced video adapters with lots of memory, secondary power connectors and their own air cooled heat sink thermal systems. Looking at the system specs we see that the AGP expansion slot is an AGP 3.0 Compliant Slot and supports both 4x and 8x modes.

Rob: With an 8x-compatible AGP slot you can go towards the high-end when selecting your video card.

Chris: One component that is necessary, but not as critical from the specification viewpoint, is the system case or chassis. The primary requirement here is that it is large enough to allow us to install the system board that we selected earlier. In this case, our system board is an ATX form factor. The ATX specification means that the board will have certain minimum (and maximum) dimensions, and the mounting holes will be at specified distances relative to these dimensions. Beyond limiting ourselves to an ATX case, there are no other restrictions except for features you might want to consider having. Most cases now have front USB ports with cables to connect to mother board headers. Some have audio connectors for line in, line out and microphone connections. If you are planning on adding a high-end 7.1 surround sound audio card, you could still connect these to the motherboard front audio connections.

Rob: So we should be able to select any ATX case to go with our motherboard?

Chris: Not so fast. We still have to consider how many drives you want to install. In our present scenario, if we move forward with four SATA drives configured in a RAID configuration, we will be limited to a mid-tower or tower style case just to fit these and the "necessary" CD or DVD drives in.

If the case you select comes with a power supply, so much the better, but keep in mind the type and number of components you want to use. If you want a window case to add internal lighting, factor in a little extra for that as well, not just in terms of the power supply, but in terms of fans and case cooling. Consider the load we are already planning: 1-2 GB of memory, a high-power CPU, high-end video, 4 hard drives and one or more optical drives, just to start. All of these require power; generally, a fair amount of it is wasted, otherwise, why do they have all of those oversize, air-cooled heat sinks? If you don't want all the resulting fan noise, then perhaps this would suggest looking a water-cooled heat removal system; we could go on adding options this way for some time, but then that's what BYOS is all about.

Rob: With it's low power consumption, the RADEON X800 Pro 256MB DDR-3 8x AGP Video Card is one whiz-bang video card that would work nicely without requiring a massive power supply.

Chris: In summary, to avoid possible BIOS upgrade and incompatibility issues, I could start with a system board and choose a processor, memory, and adapter cards that all fit within the supported specifications. If there is one board manufacturer or a specific set of features you really want, this may be a better way to proceed. Starting with one of the most expensive, leading-edge technology CPUs is probably not the most realistic way of configuring a system, but it does serve to illustrate some of the potential stumbling blocks that you can run into building your own system. Understanding the different product requirements and specifications is the only way to minimize your risk in the process.

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