With the reveal of the next Xbox and a variety of not-so-friendly "features", I've got it into my head that more and more people will be interested in moving their gaming to a PC. This is part 2 in a series that aims to give the neophyte all of the most important, basic pieces of knowledge when choosing from the many options in the world of computer hardware, skipping over unnecessary details
The titles of each section below will become clickable links as the sections are completed.
1) Heart and Soul CPU - Do you get to overclock without the "K"? Yes.
Graphics Card - Don't overdo it.
RAM - They say 8 iz enuff. They're right.
2) Bones and Cartilage Motherboard - More to consider than you may think.
Power Supply (PSU) - Pay for what you need, and make it efficient.
5) Interface devices for pitiful, analogue humans Monitor - TN? IPS? PLS?
Keyboard - Mechanical? If... if you want?
Mouse - DPI matter
6) Putting it all together - A monkey with very good fine motor control and the ability to follow detailed instructions could do it.
7) Other Sundry Sound Card - Any audiophiles in the house?
Headphones - It's all about the Ohms.
Other Peripherals - Network adapters, fan controllers, that sort of thing
Helpful software - Keep things running at peak efficiency
Bones and Cartilage These two components, the motherboard and the power supply, will play a significant role in the stability, reliability and longevity of your build. Any old motherboard or power supply will "work", in the same sense that any old nail will hold together two pieces of wood, but just as a galvanized nail will keep those pieces of wood in place more reliably and for a longer stretch of time, a quality motherboard and power supply will make your not insignificant investment last. As such, I advise planning to spend a decent amount on these components: do not make compromises or cut corners you don't absolutely have to. These components will be the foundation of your build, and their quality directly impacts the operation and integrity of every other component. These are components you want to last as long as is possible!
Motherboard Motherboards are printed circuit boards (PCBs, platters of silicon with circuits etched into them) that connect, control and deliver power to the rest of the parts in the system.
This is a long section. If you don't want to deal with all of the different options available, just follow these recommended steps: 1) Search the categories of an online retailer like Newegg.com for the correct socket for your chosen CPU.
2) If you have an Intel CPU, get a Zxx board, preferably from ASUS, MSI or Intel (avoid Biostar). If the Zxx boards like Z77 or Z75 are too expensive, go for an Hxx board. For AMD, you don't have to worry about a choice like that, just get the best board you can.
3)Get an ATX sized board. You may also want to consider an mATX sized board.
4)Buy the best you can afford.
Otherwise, read on.
The motherboard you choose will be determined by four things:
Your CPU: Different CPUs require different "sockets", the slot on the motherboard into which the CPU is inserted; this is the first thing you need to consider. Any decent online retailer allows for a search to be narrowed by socket type. Sockets for modern intel CPUs have names like LGA 1155 and LGA 2011. Sockets for AMD CPUs have names like AM3 and AM3+. After selecting your CPU, check its specs and use that as a starting point to choose a motherboard.
My recommendation will boil down to this: find a board that has the right socket for your CPU and get the one with the highest ratings and a standard 3 year or longer warranty. Replacing a motherboard is a pain, and a fault in a motherboard could damage other components: you want to know that the company has confidence in its product.
If you want more detail, read on.
The chipset: I know I have been saying you don't need to know what this means, and you really don't: Intel has relatively straightforward naming conventions for the "quality" of a chipset, and by "quality", I mean primarily number of features, and AMD just has their one chipset.
The chipset version is the first thing you will see after the name a given company gives a particular line of boards. Intel uses the letters B, Q, H, Z and X (there are others for their mobile chips, but ignore those) followed by a two number code. Do not worry about the 2 number code, just search by the socket needed for your CPU and look for the higher number (e.g. if you see Z75 and Z77, get Z77).
It's not that you need the features of the higher numbered chipset, it's that board manufacturers tend to use the higher numbered chipsets on their higher quality boards. This is a rule of thumb to remember: even if you don't need whatever features are available on the "higher grade" chipset, board manufacturers have a habit of only using higher grade chipsets on their higher quality boards.
●B is their budget chipset class (example: the ASUS P8B75-V). This doesn't necessarily mean the board is cheap, but it usually does, and this chipset lacks many performance enhancing features present in others. However, many, if not most of these features are optional and not straightforward to implement, anyway. The problem with this chipset is only that it is usually added to budget boards with short warranties and little in the way of binning (a process by which the manufactured units are tested and separated into highest quality and not-highest quality); binning is an important process that helps ensure you'll be getting a reliable board. It's not necessary, but less testing on budget boards means they are more of a gamble. That doesn't mean they're bad by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can afford better, you should get better. This chipset only accomodates 2 RAM modules and has an expansion slot for the now obsolete PCI standard (since replaced by PCI express).
●Q has features meant for businesses. It has features you don't need. Do not get a board with a Q chipset.
●H is their "mainstream", middle-of-the-road chipset class (example: ASRock H77M). Most of what I said about the B series applies here, except that it has only the modern PCI express slots. If you can afford better, get better, but there are quality boards with this chipset.
●Z is their "performance" chipset class (example: the MSI Z77A-GD65). This is the class that will be found on the flagship products offered by a given company, their highest quality boards that have, in the case of the best brands out there, undergone an extensive testing and binning process. The cost of this process is, of course, passed onto the customer, but this sort of testing is worth the money, in my opinion.
●X is their chipset class that accomodates the LGA 2011 socket, which fits CPUs that can manage 2 quad-channels of memory (i.e. 8 RAM modules for up to 64 GB of RAM). You will not need this for gaming, do not get an X board or a CPU that needs one.
In summary: Your first choice should be a Z board, followed by H and then B if you can't afford a board with a Z chipset.
AMD is, again, more merciful than Intel in their naming conventions. There's one chipset, it is called the AMD chipset. So... Yeah. Get that one. Okay, some use a chipset developed by Nvidia, but the chipset isn't a big concern if you went with an AMD CPU.
The size: After all that, your main concern should be choosing a motherboard appropriate for the type of use the system will see. You'll want to think about where the system will be (will it be hooked up to a TV or a monitor?) and what it will be used for (will you be using the system for computationally intensive work like 3D modelling or CAD, as well?). These concerns will first be addressed by choosing the size of the board. The size is mainly about expansion slot capacity and power delivery capability. Expansion slots are the things you'll be plugging graphics cards and sound cards into, so you need to make sure you have room for what you want to plug in. Power delivery options, if they exist, are there for enthusiasts with big, expensive tech, so don't worry about those.
Motherboards come in the following standard sizes for consumer-grade components:
●ATX: This is the Mario, the standard size that has enough room for whatever the average gamer will need to plug in. ATX boards can typically accommodate at least dual graphics cards and it has a few more expansion slots besides. Many people don't even need this much.
●microATX: I like this size. These boards have just as many expansion slots as you're likely to need and allow you the option of a smaller case.
●mini-ITX: if you want to make a very compact system, this is the board size for you. The disadvantages are that there is only one expansion slot, which will probably be used by your graphics card, and that there's less room for power delivery components (unless you grab this sexy little number from ASUS, which has an added power delivery PCB). The advantage is, of course, that you get to have a smaller case and an extremely compact system.
●Extended ATX: Like ATX, but a bit wider to allow for a bit more circuitry to provide better power delivery and other features. This is where you'll find the premium boards targeted at gamers and enthusiasts. You won't have a reason to bother with these unless you're already one foot in the rabbit hole and want to mess around with the hardware and become an enthusiast yourself. If you decide to get one of this size, be prepared to get a huge, expensive case, as well.
●Others: there are others; you won't want to consider any of them.
The features: Board manufacturers offer myriad features on their boards of varying degrees of usefulness. Here are a few that you may want to look for:
●UEFI BIOS with GUI: Don't worry about what those letters mean, just look for UEFI. This will make setting the system up after building easier.
●On board networking: Most decent boards these days come with a LAN (Ethernet) port. The more expensive ones come with integrated wireless, as do some cheaper boards, and that's a nice touch if you don't already have a USB wireless adapter.
●Quality on board sound: pretty much every board includes an integrated sound chip, but if sound quality is important to you, it can be good to get a board with something like a SupremeFX chip instead of the standard Realtek.
Here are some features you don't necessarily need:
●PCIe 3.0: there have been 3 generations of the technology used in the expansion ports, PCIe. The most recent one is the third generation. Many graphics cards advertise PCIe 3.0 compatability, but whether this makes a tangible difference to your experience is suspect. Don't worry if your board only comes with previous generation PCIe.
●Overclocking features: the specific nature of features advertised for overclocking varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but these should not sell you on a board. These are purely for enthusiasts, and most gamers will never find a good reason to use them.
Finally, some recommendations: My favorite brands are:
pretty much in that order. ASUS and MSI I have used myself, and they've yet to disappoint, and I've worked with friend's computers using ASRock and Gigabyte. Intel just has a good reputation, but their offerings are always quite expensive.
Brands you should avoid for certain:
Seriously. Stay away from Biostar. They're extremely cheap for a reason. Some people have been more lucky with them than I have been, but I just don't think it's worth the risk.
As for specific boards, these product lines are great:
●ASUS's Sabertooth line. These boards undergo an intensive binning process, and they stand behind that with an unheard of 5 year warranty. My board is a Sabertooth board, and I love it. Good temperatures, sturdy, and with all of the benefits that come with a high-end ASUS board.
●ASUS's RoG line. These boards are not binned in the same way the Sabertooth line is: unlike Sabertooth, there are board of various quality and price. 3 year warranty.
●MSI's Gaming line. These boards come with many great features and good quality. 3 year warranty.
Power Supply (PSU) There are two rules of thumb when shopping for a power supply:
1) Only get the wattage you need.
2) Get a PSU that has most of its power on the +12 V rail(s).
I'll walk you through each of these rules.
Wattage: It's common for people to buy power supplies that either provide too much or too little power to their systems. If you buy a power supply that provides too little power, you'll see all kinds of crazy problems crop up, and possibly do serious damage to components. If you buy a power supply that provides way more than necessary, you're wasting electricity and you'll face higher electric bills than you really need to (and produce unnecessary heat); more importantly, you'll have bought a more expensive power supply than you actually needed.
This site allows you to calculate a good estimate of the power your system will need, and it's a good place to start. I like to assume a worst case scenario and select the 100% load options. Odds are, you'll see a number between 550 W and 650 W, and indeed, this will be plenty for most people. If you want to be overly cautious, you can add another 50 W to the number you get from that calculator and buy a PSU with approximately that wattage. Make sure to look up some reviews for the PSU you end up considering on sites like Hardware Secrets.
The 12 V rail: You will hear a lot about how you need to have a single +12 V rail and how most of your power should output to the +12 V rail(s). The former has a kernel of truth to it, but isn't really necessary, and the latter is certainly true. I'm not going to explain why, but I'll give you an idea of what to look for.
On the latter issue: look at this PSU and compare it against this one. The first one shows that the 3.3 V and 5 V rails combined can only provide 125 W of the 750 W the power supply can put out, or about 17%, while the 12 V rail can provide almost all of that 750 W, if needed. The second PSU can't even provide 50% of its total output to the 12 V rail (which that company tried to hide by reporting only the sum of all three and the sum of the 3.3V and 5.5V). The vast majority of the components in your system need the 12 V rail for reasons, so the first power supply is far superior on that basis alone.
On the single +12 V rail issue: This PSU has a single 12 V rail. This PSU has 3. I won't explain what that means here, just know this: it's okay to buy a modern PSU with multiple 12 V rails, but I would still choose one with a single 12 V rail first, all other things being equal. Don't worry about it, though, the people making a big deal out of it are ignoring advances in power delivery systems on motherboards and pretending overcurrent protection is as primitive as it used to be, it used to be a bigger deal than it is now.
80 Plus certification: A little while back, the efficiency of power supplies started to become a big deal. A program was instigated by some little known company to assess the efficiency of PSUs and to provide (for a fee) certification to those CPUs that achieve power efficiency at 50% system load of 80% or higher.
Allow me to explain further. When the PSU is providing ~50% of the power it can, it is about at it's most efficient operating capacity, and if the PSU is 80 Plus certified, then you know that at least 80% of the power produced is usable and not lost as heat, and higher certifications show efficiencies at 50% load of up to 92% in the case of the "platinum" certification. Power lost as heat means paying for electricity that the computer draws from the wall, but doesn't actually use. Obviously, it's in your best interests to minimize this problem, and 80 Plus certification purportedly helps you to do that.
There are five ranks of 80 Plus certification, with 80 Plus Platinum being the highest (not shown here).
But—and as you can see, it's a big "but"—while 80 Plus certification cannot be said to be entirely meaningless, it does have a whole lot of marketing nonsense behind it. The test conditions are unrealistic from the start, and there's no accountability to the company that submits a PSU to (and pays for) a certification trial to send a representative sample of the product in question, so they can easily test a prototype themselves to get the results they want before submitting their best sample. Furthermore, the distinction between the different "levels" of 80 Plus certification is pure marketing, and often splitting hairs. It's not a bad idea to seek out some kind of certification, but you really don't need to go for the platinum or gold. The difference is minimal between, for example, Silver and Gold, if it's really there at all, and is likely to be more about dazzling you than delivering a superior product. If you're seeking something with this certification, get something with 80 Plus or 80 Plus Bronze. Any good power supply is at least that good, and that's more than good enough.