Building my new Computer, Part 1a: Motherboards, Method, and mean Timing

Hey folks! As promised last week, I’m going to keep you updated on any progress I’m making. Writing this down made me really productive, feeling like I have an obligation to solve the things I’m not yet clear about.

So let’s talk about mainboards. (or motherboards, I don’t know what the preferred term is.) Last week, I just had a random MSI mainboard scribbled down because its feature set looked mostly OK, but hadn’t done any reading on the matter yet. Then I started looking for reviews for mainboards with the H170 chip I had set my mind on. Tom’s Hardware ran a quite good test of several such mainboards, in which the Gigabyte GA-H170-D3HP got the only editors’ recommendation in its class. An aside: Tom’s Hardware keep a series of lists up to date where you can see their current best picks for all kinds of hardware categories, from cases to RAM to graphics cards. It’s quite a handy resource.

Before we get into this mainboard specifically, and how my search process went from there, let me show you two images I made to illustrate some important points about mainboards. (What? Pictures? This is going to look like an actual blog post!)

Mainboards 101

Mainboards are the piece of circuitry that every other piece somehow plugs into. CPU, mouse, hard disk, graphics card – it’s all connected to the mainboard. Think of it as the centre piece of your hardware puzzle.

mainboardsizes

This is a representation of the three most common form factors mainboards come in: ATX, microATX, and mini-ITX. I also put in the holes by which they get mounted in the case, the back-facing ports for mouse, keyboard, etc. in the upper left, and a row of expansion slots. What you can see is how almost all of these elements align between form factors. That means that if your case can house an ATX board, you can use its mounting points to put in a mini-ITX board because it uses ATX’s four uppermost left ones. What’s important when buying is that you can always put a smaller form factor board in a larger case, but obviously not the other way around. Another thing you can see is that mini-ITX boards only have room for one expansion slot, while microATX can fit up to four, and ATX a whopping maximum of seven. (Hint: You’ll never need seven expansion slots. Even back in the day, when no extra functionality was embedded on the motherboard, I never once filled an ATX board’s slots. In fact, most use cases will put in one graphics card and that’s it.)

If you pay a bit of attention to your mainboard’s form factor and the size of your case, you can build a pretty compact computer. My favoured choice of case right now is a full ATX case and 23cm wide, 45cm tall, and 52cm deep. Its microATX-only sibling reduces that height to under 40cm. Dedicated Mini-ITX cases will be even smaller, but also provide less room for spacious components like big graphics cards. Their smaller volume also heats up faster, so you’d rather use those when you don’t need much horsepower.

mainboarddependencies

This here is a very abstract representation of what is on a mainboard and how other components plug into it. The really important parts are outlined in a particularly tasteless but appropriately garish pink. As you can see, the mainboard houses its main chipset alongside other chips for audio, networking and whatnot. The chipset provides several ways of connecting other hardware. Some of these you’ll already know, like USB ports, while others are a bit more hidden away like SATA ports (for hard disks and DVD drives) and expansion slots (for graphics cards and the like). Thankfully, these two are pretty universal right now: unless we are talking super fast SSD hard drives, all the drives plug in via SATA ports and all the graphics cards need a PCI Express slot.

However, CPU and RAM need a bit more care. A mainboard supports a certain type of memory chip (such as DDR3 or DDR4) as well as a certain maximum clock rate (usually written like DDR4-2133: DDR4 memory chips running at 2133 MHz). You have to pick type accordingly, or you have parts that won’t fit, and you should pick clock rate accordingly, or you’ll spend money on chips that could be run much faster than your mainboard will run them, or you’ll have chips that slow down the mainboard. Neither is optimal.

Same goes for CPU: A CPU fits into a certain type of socket on the mainboard, so you must pick them accordingly or the parts won’t fit. In my example, the current generation of Intel CPUs requires a socket called ‘LGA 1151’, and when you look at the linked Wikipedia page, you can see it has a section about the mainboard chipsets that provide this socket. This then informs your choice of mainboard, and that in turn which kind/speed of RAM to buy.

My Quest for a Fitting Mainboard

According to the Tom’s Hardware review, one of the big boons that set Gigabyte’s H170-D3HP apart from its competitors is an above-average audio chip. I rarely sit at my computer without wearing my studio-grade headphones, so that struck a chord with me. (ha!) Further interesting specs: As opposed to the MSI board, it’s a full ATX board. For some reason, I was reluctant about even considering a big board, because they seem somewhat unelegant to me, and too much for most desktop use cases. But it fits in my case, and who’s going to see it anyway? If the offer is good enough, who am I to complain? The board has 3 USB3 ports and 2 USB2 ones on its back panel, with 4 more of each on the board, to plug into the case’s front-facing USB panel or other such outlets. In addition, it has 2 even faster USB3.1 ports. One of them is a default USB port, while the other is a new Type-C port that finally solves USB’s old problem: Its plug fits in both ways!

Having USB3.1 isn’t a huge priority for me, but nice to have for when future appliances can take advantage of the higher speed or more convenient plug. Everything else is pretty standard, and it currently goes for ~107 EUR. This sounds not exactly cheap, but still affordable, and like a pretty neat overall package.

This is where the quest really takes off. While the H170-D3HP’s general package sounds pretty good, I have no idea about its direct competition. Maybe there are other mainboards with a similar feature set that’s a just slightly better fit for me. Or who offer the same feature set for less. So I went to geizhals.de and let it show me all mainboards that are:

  • Either by MSI, Gigabyte, or Asus (the big three manufacturers)
  • Have the H170 chipset and support DDR4 memory
  • Have the same audio chip as the H170-D3HP

I’ll just quote you my notes file on what my search yielded:

*gigabyte GA-H170-D3H*: identical to D3HP, except for 4 usb3 ports on back and no usb3.1, where the D3HP has 3 usb3, 2 usb3.1.
should be less expensive but isn’t as readily available and only at higher price. nope.

*gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3*: same as D3HP except audio has dedicated amplifier, 1 less pci slot, 1 more m.2 connector, 4 usb3 on back panel, no usb3.1.
additional features not much use to me, but +20 eur price. nope.

*asus H170-pro gaming*: no pci slots, same usb3.1 config, low number of usb3 (2 on back, 4 internal), 1 less sata express
cutting back 2 usb3 ports hurts. +20 eur price.

*msi H170 gaming m3*: pci and m.2 slots equal, 4 usb3 and usb2 each on rear, but only 2 each internal! 1 less sata express
this would be a super cool board if it didn’t cut back 2 usb3 ports for no reason. +10 eur.

*msi h170 gaming pro*: as gaming m3, but with 2 less usb3 (!!) in exchange for 2 usb3.1 type a, no m.2, but silly red led lightstrip.
this is a bling board for +15 eur.

other mentions: gigabyte GA-H170N-wifi (micro-atx = 2 ram slots, wifi i don’t need. too expensive.)

Some boards looked really promising from the outset, but failed in usually hard to explain ways. The D3HP’s smaller brother without USB3.1 should be cheaper than the D3HP, but only a few sellers even stock it, and it ironically goes for a higher price. This would have swayed me from the D3HP, but not if it costs more. Gigabyte’s Gaming 3 board tempts me with a built-in audio amp, but provides 2 less USB3 ports than the chipset can do, for no apparent reason. The Asus board just is really expensive for what it does. MSI had the weirdest choices. Having 4 USB ports of each type on the back is pretty luxurious, but then it only has 2 more of each internally. The chipset can do 8 USB3 ports but provides only 6. Even more puzzling is their Pro Gaming Board, which replaces 2 of the back-facing USB3 ports with USB3.1 ones AND CUTS ANOTHER 2 USB3 PORTS FROM THE FEATURE LIST FOR IT. What the hell? Don’t people want to plug in all their stuff? And why not even replace two USB2 ports with the USB3.1 ones?

So the D3HP really looks like the best choice for me here. Everyone’s mileage varies, obviously: If you consider boards with other audio chips, or are happy enough with a submaximal supply of USB ports, you’ll be happier with a different choice. (nb.: The D3HP also provides 1 USB3 port less of the chipset’s capacity, but provides one default plug USB3.1 port in exchange, so that sorta-kinda is OK with me. Given that I don’t pay any extra for the D3HP over its USB3.1-less sibling anyway.)

Fruitless as my big comparison ended up being, it illustrates my process quite well: I read articles until I get an idea about what I’d like to have. Then I try to get an overview of all the candidates that fulfill these criteria and then decide based on what they provide, their price, reviews, etc.

Other Things Since Last Week

Two things happened:

1) I think I made a decision regarding my hard disk matter. I’ll wait. Reason: while there is some connectivity problem with my big 4 TB external USB3 hard drive, it’s only annoying at times and not unusable. I also seem to remember that this is a problem with older USB3 controllers under high load, so it’s at least worth seeing how it performs on a new mainboard before going nuclear. A new hard drive is something I can buy and install later with no difficulty, so nothing is lost.

2) Just a few hours ago (as of friday night, when I was writing the first draft), nVidia revealed their new graphics cards. In a live stream event, they showed their new flagship chip, the GTX1080, and the slowest-of-the-fast GTX1070. I’ll just quote you the notes i jotted down during the presentation:

*gtx1080*: gddr5x memory. faster than two gtx 980s, and faster than a titan x (~30%, judging from graph), while being more energy efficient. 2.1 ghz clock rate, aircooled @ ~65°C under load.
600 usd. may 27.

*gtx1070*: still faster than titan x.
380 usd. june 10. that. looks. yummy.

Yep, I’m having my eyes on that GTX1070. The Titan X is their current way-beyond-diminishing-returns graphics card monster. These start at 980 EUR and want a damn lot of power. To release a GPU at 380 USD MSRP that can outperform their former uber-bling product while ridiculously more energy efficient is a strong offer. Having seen a little more reporting today, it seems the GTX1070 is slightly less powerful than the Titan X on paper, but can outrun it in some scenarios due to optimisation. Still a damn fine offer.

And it’s not long until they release and we can have a look at which one to buy! So exciting!

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