AMD CPU and Motherboard Recommendations

With just about any system, the choice of motherboard is going to be the most important decision. The motherboard will determine to a large extent support for overclocking, features like multiple GPUs (SLI/CrossFire), expansion slots, and other peripherals. While you can usually add expansion cards for some things - audio, networking, and additional SATA ports, for example - there are certain features that you will likely either have or not. Dual X16 slots is one such feature, and for now, you have to make a choice between official NVIDIA SLI support or official ATI Crossfire support. (Hopefully, both companies will remove the ATI/NVIDIA chipset restrictions from their graphics drivers in the future, but for now, neither company officially sanctions running their multi-GPU cards on the other's chipsets.) However, you really need to consider whether SLI/Crossfire is something you really need/want. If you bought a 6800 Ultra at launch, hoping to upgrade 18 months later, the current market for GPUs will give you an idea of the problems with such an upgrade path. My opinion is that multi-GPU rendering for games is pretty much exclusive to high-end systems, and the recommendations will reflect that.

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AMD Mid-Range Motherboard: DFI nForce4 Ultra Infinity (939)
Price: $98 shipped
AMD Mid-Range CPU: Athlon 64 3200+ Venice 512K 2.00GHz
Price: $161 shipped (Retail)
Total: $259

There are quite a few reasonable motherboard selections in the sub-$100 range for socket 939. You can even get SLI-capable motherboards, though we're a little leery of such platforms. High-end features at budget prices often mean that corners were cut elsewhere. The motherboard and processor choice for our mid-range AMD system happen to match the parts used in my Venice Overclocking article, so you can get a good idea of what to expect in the way of overclocking. There are better boards overall - in terms of features, overclocking, and stability - but it's very difficult to beat the Infinity on price/performance. Even if you have no interest in overclocking at all, the combination of the 3200+ and DFI Infinity will be plenty fast for most tasks.

The motherboard includes all of the most-requested features for today's computers. USB2.0 is a given - 10 ports with the onboard connections - but Firewire 1394a is also present; four SATA ports sporting 3.0Gbps transfer rates may offer a slight HDD performance increase, with two IDE ports that are present for older storage devices and optical drives; and gigabit Ethernet and 5.1 audio round out the package. The audio is perhaps the weakest point of the motherboard design, but the majority of integrated audio solutions are sufficient if not stellar. If you want the best audio quality and performance possible, you can always add a discrete audio card.

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AMD High-End Motherboard: ASUS nForce4 SLI X16 A8N32-SLI Deluxe (939)
Price: $230 shipped
AMD High-End CPU: Athlon 64 X2 4200+ 2x512KB Manchester (939) - Retail
Price: $400 shipped (Retail)
Total: $630

Our high-end AMD picks represent a compromise between performance and cost. The ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe is one of the best overclocking motherboards for socket 939 (if not the best). It has dual X16 lanes to the PEG slots, and pretty much every other feature that you might look for in a high-end motherboard. It also has a price of $230 to match the feature set, but there's almost always a premium for purchasing "the best". Note that while the ASUS slots are "true" X16 connections, theoretically doubling the PCIe bandwidth shouldn't make a huge difference. That being said, the ASUS board appears to be tuned for optimal gaming performance, at the cost of a bit of performance in more mundane tasks. Also, there's something to be said for not having to worry about enabling/disabling SLI via jumpers, the BIOS, a selector card, etc.

If you're planning on overclocking your system, the difference between most of the AMD CPUs is relatively small; most top out in the 2.6 to 2.8 GHz range, and at those speeds, other bottlenecks usually take precedence. Comparing dual-core to single-core chips, gaming performance will actually be the same on most games, since the addition of a second core won't help. (Call of Duty 2 and Quake 4 now have patches to increase performance on multi-threaded processors, though COD2's SMT/SMP support is apparently broken right now as it will actually decrease performance.) If you're looking for a computer that will last a while, we have to recommend making the move to dual cores, so the Athlon X2 is our pick, and we've gone for a middle-of-the-pack X2 in terms of price.

It's quite easy to come up with a few changes on the high-end, depending on whether you're willing to spend more or less money. Swap out the X2 4200+ and throw in a faster CPU like the 4400+ or 4800+, or you could also go with one of the Opteron 939 CPUs, which are great overclockers and may be able to surpass the X2 chips for maximum stable overclocks. Saving a bit of money by dropping to the X2 3800+ is also a possibility. At the ultra-high end, you might also want to wait a bit for the pending launch of the FX-60 from AMD, which will finally move the FX line to dual cores. For the motherboard, our own motherboard guru highly recommends the ASUS as the current leader. However, if $230 is too much for you, you can fall back to the DFI SLI-D or SLI-DR. There's also the new DFI SLI-DR Expert, which makes some small improvements to those, but it's out of stock and not much cheaper than the ASUS. The Expert also has a known bug with temperature readings right now.


Click to enlarge.


Alternative AMD Motherboard: ASUS Xpress 200 CrossFire A8R-MVP (939)
Price: $115 shipped

Due to the "incompatibilities" between SLI and CrossFire chipsets and graphics cards, we feel that users of ATI graphics cards will be best off going with the ATI Xpress 200 CrossFire chipset. At present, there are only two shipping motherboards with this chipset, the higher-priced "enthusiast" DFI LanParty UT RDX200 CF-DR, and the more value-oriented ASUS A8R-MVP. Normally, we would expect the more expensive board to come out on top in the benchmarks, but in this case, it's at best a tie for the lead. Given the $80 price difference, picking the ASUS board over the DFI board is an easy decision. Whether you're looking for a mid-range or high-end platform, the ASUS A8R-MVP will work very well.


Additional Motherboard Alternatives:

AMD Motherboards
Class Model Price
Budget Gigabyte nForce4 SLI GA-K8N Pro-SLI (939) 101
Mid-Range ASUS Xpress 200 CrossFire A8R-MVP (939) 115
Mid-Range DFI nForce4 SLI Infinity (939) 121
Mid-Range ASUS nForce4 SLI A8N-SLI (939) 125
Mid-Range EPoX nForce4 SLI 9NPA+SLI (939) 133
High-End MSI nForce4 SLI K8N Neo4 SLI (939) 141
High-End DFI LanParty UT SLI-D (939) 161
Ultra-High DFI nForce4 SLI LanParty UT NF4 SLI-DR Expert (939) 204

Picking just one or two - or even three - motherboards as the overall "best" is difficult. The truth is that there are many good motherboards on the market right now, and your own personal needs will impact the choice. Does Firewire support matter? Do you want SLI or not? Do you plan to overclock, and if so, are you looking to push CPU bus speeds to 300 MHz and beyond, or is 250 MHz sufficient? The three picks that we listed earlier are all good choices, but there are other options that are very close and brand preference certainly plays a role. I've decided to list several of the "runner-up" picks in case you have difficulty finding some of the other boards.

Index Intel CPU and Motherboard Recommendations
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  • Reldan - Wednesday, January 18, 2006 - link

    As awesome as a 30" Apple Cinema is, have you considered the prospects of using a much larger HDTV? I use a 65" HP MD6580n, and it's the best monitor I've ever owned bar none. It's ridiculously huge but the picture remains sharp at 1920 X 1080, especially with the wobulation tech which removes most if not all of the screen door effect you might have with a set this size.

    I know that a big deal is being made about these awesome 30" monitors from Apple and now Dell, but HDTV technology has progressed to the point where in my mind there is no better choice for high-end gaming.
    Reply
  • gman003 - Monday, January 9, 2006 - link

    So my question to everyone is, is 2GB really worth the $100 upgrade compared to 1GB. Can you get decent memory to overclock with at 2GB? If I was planning to run a DFI LanParty Ultra-D board, would I really use the same 2GB memory Jarrod recommended for the HighEnd system for my overclocking purposes?

    I guess the biggest thing that struck me from the article was that you could probably get away using an old ATA133 7200rpm Drive as long as you have 2GB of memory. Should I really sacrifice not upgrading my hard drive so that I can have 2GB of memory?
    Reply
  • flamethrower - Monday, January 9, 2006 - link

    You can check out the following article. The gist is that you get better loading times with more ram, the article will show you the results from changing various ram amounts in a high-end setup.
    http://www.tomshardware.com/2005/12/13/how_much_ra...">http://www.tomshardware.com/2005/12/13/how_much_ra...
    I apologize for linking to an outside site, but I don't think the content is available on Anandtech. Maybe you guys should think about (or point me to) your article on this topic.

    Finally, you wanted to know "Is it worth it?" Only you can answer this question. My personal opinion is that it is, but you might be building a budget system and not have the budget for 2GB RAM. As Jarred points out: "You are not going to notice 60 fps vs. 63, but you are going to notice a 38 sec loading time vs 63" or something like that.
    Reply
  • gman003 - Monday, January 9, 2006 - link

    Ok, maybe I will clarify:
    I am building a budget $800 system and want to know what will give me better performance.

    Should I stay with 2 gigs of ram and not upgrade my old ATA 133 7200rpm 200GB drive or get 1 gig of ram and upgrade my hard drive to a new 3.0GB SATA 7200rpm 250GB.

    Yeah, I've read that article too. But I mean, c'mon? With 2 gigs of ram, you don't notice any significant advantages in like 9 out of 10 tests with the only significant thing being load times/heavy multitasking. I don't know if I can justify $100 to load World of Warcraft 30 seconds sooner when I'm more concerned with FPS, video encoding, and large file transfers. IMO I think the the $100 could be spent on a HD or even better, a cooler mobo and/or case for the system.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, January 10, 2006 - link

    Generally speaking, for games you want GPU speed first, and CPU speed second. RAM speed and quanitity as well as HDDs are distant fourth/fifth place finishes. Once you've got the others at a reasonable speed, though - where diminishing returns kicks in - then you should start looking at upgrading the RAM and then the HDD. That's my take, anyway. Reply
  • flamethrower - Sunday, January 8, 2006 - link

    What do you guys think about an Opteron 165 or 170 instead of the X2 4200+? The 170 and the 4200+ are about the same price. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 9, 2006 - link

    If you're willing to overclock, there's no real reason to go any higher than the 165/170 Opty or the X2 3800+. I've got a 165 that OCs to around 2.5 GHz with the stock HSF. I'm going to try a few changes to the system to see if I can go further than 2.5 GHz, but there's really not that great of a need. Reply
  • pg55555 - Thursday, January 5, 2006 - link

    If you are looking for performance, I think RAID 0 is a valid alternative that is often forgoten in the guides Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 7, 2006 - link

    I've used RAID 0 and found it to largely be a waste of time and money. RAID 1 and 5 I can understand, but in terms of improving load times, running 2GB of RAM has done far more for me than running RAID 0. It's just a lot of hassle for negligible performance increases IMO. Reply
  • archcommus - Tuesday, January 3, 2006 - link

    I was pretty definite that the Klipsch Ultra 5.1 has better sound quality and bass than the z-5500. Now that AT recommended the Logitech even for the high-end system, I'm not so sure.

    I really like my music and am in the market for a new 5.1 system. Should I go z-5500 or Klipsch ProMedia Ultra?
    Reply

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