Monday, June 20, 2016

Building A New Computer: Selecting a Motherboard and Memory

In the past I have selected the memory for the system next. But since the Intel Sixth Generation Core CPUs support two different specifications of memory the final selection between the two is made by the motherboard. Then once you get to the motherboard the speed of the memory supported will be different depending on the motherboard.

In the CPU post I settled on the Intel 6700k CPU but then Intel announced their 14nm Broadwell-E CPUs the option for 4-way memory interleave became something to consider so I will revisit the CPU selection slightly.

When selecting a motherboard you really need to decide what you will be using the computer for. I tend to lump home computer uses into the following four groups:

  1. Light Use - Web browsing, Youtube, Netflix/Amazon, light gaming, text editing
  2. Performance Use - Everything in 1 but with a fair amount of text or spreadsheet use and moderate home video editing
  3. Moderate Heavy Gaming - Everything in 2 with playing games with heavy graphics. Also lots of home video editing and some special effects creation
  4. 3D and Video Production - Everything in 3 with light 3D animation rendering
As you move up from type 1 to 4 the performance, graphics and disk support demands increase.

People who are interested in a type 1 system are best off going to purchase an inexpensive system since they will probably spend more doing a custom build. Type 2 and 3 systems can also be purchased pre-built and going pre-built or building your own really depends on your interest on having a system that reflects who you are. Type 4 are always custom built but there are companies that do custom builds of these systems for small businesses and personal use.

Since this is about those with an interest in custom builds I will focus on types 2, 3, and 4. I will also assume that most who will be reading this are fairly new to custom builds. So those of you who have done custom builds please understand when I go over things that you feel is basic knowledge.

Type 2 - Performance Use

This starts out as being for the people that use their computer fairly regularly to support their hobby, support a club, do moderate work at home with this computer, play games that are not RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations. These people will be happy with a decent CPU and a reasonable amount of memory and using the graphics built into the motherboard/CPU combination. A Motherboard with a PCIe 3.0x16 slot will allow you to be happy playing RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations with an added Graphics card. Another characteristic of this type of system owner is one that does not want to make adjustments to the system after it is built and wants it to run for a long time.

Type 3 - Moderate Heavy Gaming

These are the systems for 99% of heavy gamers. Very few games are able to use more than 4 cores. Most are also not limited by memory but are limited by graphics card so more than 16Gb of memory or 4-way instead of 2-way memory gains them very little. This also includes 3D games and playing on Ultra 4k monitors. Both of these are limited by the graphics card than they are on memory access or number of cores. Generally in these systems gain more by a faster CPU speed than more cores. Something to consider is that the more cores in the CPU the lower the clock speed that can be supported. So more cores may actually slow things down. These systems are also more than capable of decent work when editing home video for friends and family.

Type 4 - 3D and Video Editing

First off I will point out that there are a very few games that can use six or more cores or access memory enough that 4-way interleave provides and actual improvement in game performance. Most people that build gaming systems with more than 4 cores or with 4-way interleave are getting more out of bragging about their game system than actual performance gains.

Where more than four cores and 4-way interleave provides significant performance gains is when you are multitasking or memory intensive work. Since for most serious gamers the only thing running when they play the game is the game, multitasking is not a consideration for them. If you have your web browser open to several pages, along with a document editor, a spreadsheet and something like PowerPoint, then you are multitasking and having all of this be very responsive to you a Type 4 system may be what you need. This is also a system that will excel at compressing files into archives, transcoding video from one format to another and photo-realistic 3D rendering and animation. It would also be an excellent system for software development and running virtual machines on.

Choosing the right motherboard for your type

Personally my computer use falls into type 4 but I build type 3 systems due to the cost. But I will talk about how to select a motherboard for type 2 and up.

The first thing to understand about motherboards today is that all are based off of support chips made by the CPU manufacturer. So boards will all have a similar performance in benchmarks. The differences between boards are mostly in the configuration of peripherals and features of the motherboards. Some will also hate me for saying this, but in most situations there is also no real quality differences between Asus, MSI, Supermicro and so forth. I know that people, myself included, have a preferred board manufacturer. So if you do then everything I will talk about are things to look for in a board by that manufacturer. If you do not have a preference, there is no need to absolutely buy the board that I would. If I recommend an Asus and you find one from MSI that you conclude meets your needs and costs less than the Asus, then buy the MSI board. I seriously doubt that you will be disappointed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that reviews, Certified Parts Lists and manufacturers' web pages go out of date. Also the parts lists are based on what has been provided to be tested with and has been tested. You may find that a memory manufacturer has tested components with certain motherboards and have the combination on their list but a motherboard manufacturer does not list the same combination. This does not mean that either is wrong. This happens because the lists are tested and maintained independently. The only list that is every maintained as 100% accurate is the motherboard manufacturer's compatible CPU list. Today the motherboard bios asks the CPU what type it is and configures things based on that information. If the CPU is not in that list there is a good chance that it will not work. For everything else you can use the component makers websites and forums. The reason is that very often the web sites reflect that the product is rushed out. So for example the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 motherboard lists only support for 2133 and 2400 speed memory. A query on the G.Skill forum has G.Skill confirming that their 3000 speed memory works fine. Now does this mean that you can risk 3600 speed memory. Not really. DDR4 memory is extremely sensitive to trace lengths and this really manifests itself the more you overclock it past 2133. Since the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 is designed for ruggedness and longevity they may not have focused on memory overclocking and instead laid things out to support better cooling or the attachment of the motherboard reinforcement. There is a silver lining though. A 3600 speed memory will work fine at 2133 or 2400 speed all that would have happened is that you spent too much for that memory.

While I said that there is very little difference between motherboard manufacturers, I will only look at Asus. The reason for this is that one of the assumptions that I have been making is that there will be some attempt to overclock the CPU. For a long time the Asus motherboards have had the reputation as being the easiest to overclock. Other boards may overclock faster but the Asus are the easiest and reviews of the Intel Z-170 chipset motherboards indicate that this is still true. For that reason I will restrict my investigation to the Asus product line. So onto motherboards for each of the three types.

A quick comment on DDR4 Memory

The standard speed for DDR4 memory is 2133. No matter what the published speed for the memory is this is the speed that you will get without turning on XMP or manually adjusting the memory speed. XMP is a mechanism to store on the memory card information on how to overclock the memory in a way that is supported by the memory manufacturer. XMP is capable of storing more than one configuration. So if you purchase 3000 speed DDR4 the memory will run at 2133 and has the information on how to overclock at 3000 as tested by the manufacturer.

With the benchmarks that test for extreme performance the faster the memory the better the score. However, when you use practical gaming or home computer benchmarks 2666 to 3000 speed is the sweet spot for price and performance. So for all but a Type 4 use there is very little to be gained by paying a premium for the motherboard or memory to get higher speeds.

The best choice for Home Performance

For a Type 2 build the emphasis is on cost and durability. I know how disappointed I was when I had a motherboard give out after a little over a year and I needed to get a replacement. Fortunately I was able to get the same exact motherboard as a replacement and everything worked when I moved it to the new motherboard. But you also want a motherboard with plenty of performance. 

The Asus H110M boards are worth considering but they do not include support for M.2 M-keyed SSDs. This gives up a certain amount of performance since SATA SSDs will only operate at 1/5th the speed of a good M.2 drive. If you do not plan on using a SSD this is a great board though. The Asus H110M-K sells for around $60 and would allow you to attach four SATA drives so you could have an optical disk drive and three hard disks. These also only support two memory modules, but two 8Gb modules will give you 16Gb of RAM which would cover pretty much all uses without needing to swap heavily to disk. DDR4 memory at a speed of 2666 is supported with 16Gb so that is good.

If you want to run SSDs and have the best performance then it is worth looking at the Asus Z170-E motherboard. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 the M.2 SSD in PCIe mode and eight SATA drives. Check the prices for qualified memory you may get a better price with 3000 speed DDR4. At $106 this is a nice mid-range board to build this type of system around.

In this category you want to look at the Asus Sabertooth Z170 Mark I for the gold standard system. It has plenty of 16Gb DDR4 configurations that are supported up to 3400 speed along with support for M.2 SSDs. At $190 it is a little pricey, but it comes with a 5 year warranty so Asus not only built it to last but also stands behind it. It also has a built in cooling system to keep motherboard components and the M.2 drive cool. This is important when it comes to the M.2 drive since if they get too hot they tend to slow down to keep the drive operating within the design specifications. I recommend also using dust covers with all unused slots on the motherboard and IO panel. This motherboard includes a full set of dust covers. So while you are paying a premium, this is a motherboard that is well worth the money if you want a system that will run for years.

The Best Choice for a Gaming System

This is a situation where I would look for motherboards that are in a company's gaming line. In general these motherboards are the most stable for extreme overclocking of the CPU and memory. They also often have Network interfaces that offload as much of the work from the CPU as possible and often options for up to four graphics cards working together.

As an entry level system the Asus Z170 Pro Gaming is a good choice. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 memory and an M.2 SSD in PCIE mode. Overclocking with stability on this board is nearly as good as with Asus' more expensive Republic of Gamers line of boards. With a price of $155 it is a nice system.

The Asus Republic of Gamers line of boards is their premium line of gaming computers. They have both 2-way and 4-way boards in the product line. As I stated earlier most games will not take advantage of the additional cores and are not restricted enough by memory to justify the cost of 4-way memory. So I will look at the LGA1151 boards only for a game system.

As a mid-level gaming system the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Hero is a good system at $200. It has 16Gb of memory supported up to a 3733 speed, 32Gb of memory up to a 3600 speed and 64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. So if you get a good deal on fast DDR4 memory it is nice to know that the system will work stably at higher speeds. The larger memory configurations are worth considering since the Asus ROG boards include a utility to create and automatically load up a ramdisk with your game files. After loading them into the ramdisk this will be even faster than the M.2 SSD.

The gold standard motherboard would be the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly. This $610 board has nearly everything you could want. It supports 16Gb of memory up to a 3866 speed and 32Gb/64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. Just like with the Hero board the extra memory would be for a ramdisk for the game. This board also includes a 10000Base-T network card to upgrade the 1000Base-T that is standard on all of the boards that I have been talking about. It also includes a USB based DAC module for headphones and a corresponding ADC for the mic for the best sounding gaming audio. Other differences include both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built into the motherboard. You certainly are getting your money's worth with this motherboard, but the question is will you actually use the additional items?

3D and Video Editing System

This certainly is the system that has the best bragging rights. But I am not really going to recommend a system. Right now the only offering for consumer boards use the Intel X99 chipset. 

Intel has announced that they plan to deliver a replacement for the X99 chipset to be used with the new processors at the end of this year. I am going to wait till then to look at what offerings come out them.

If you really want to build a system like this, take a look at the Asus X99-A/USB 3.1 and the Asus ROG Strix X99 Gaming boards. Both support 64Gb of memory up to 3400 speed and 128Gb up to 3333. The chipset does not seem to support any memory speed faster than 3400.

I will say that using an intel i7-6850K in one of these boards is a nice sweet spot for 3D rendering that supports using the Graphics card for accelerated rendering since you can use three GPUs at nearly full x16 mode on all of the cards. My fantasy system would be one of the ROG Strix X99 Gaming board with three Nvidia GTX-1080 video cards.

Memory

I would suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory. These companies have long supported the performance enthusiast. Both appear near the top of every board manufacturers certified memory lists and both have active forums where system builders discuss that they have and have not been able to get to work with the various motherboards.

Both of these manufacturers also offer different styles and colors of heat spreaders on their memory so that they can fit into a color scheme for your build if you have one. Both manufacturers also offer fans for your memory to cool them and often have kits that include the fans.

Conclusion: Look primarily for motherboards based on the Intel Z170 chipset. Since the performance for most of the features on the motherboard are in the chipset that the board is based on boards with the same chipset will primarily differ in features not performance. Read up about each type of system use and in each you will find a low, mid and high end recommendation.

For memory I suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory and look to the motherboard manufacturer's qualification and the memory manufacturer's forums on what will work at what speed on the motherboards.

Next in the series: Disk Storage Options

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