CPU and Motherboard: AMD

We have two options with AMD: socket A or socket 754. Socket 754 costs more, of course, but it generally has better performance and it will have some future processor updates. If you can spare the cash, we recommend going with socket 754. Those who want to save as much money as possible while still getting a decent system will be better served by socket A. This is particularly true if you want to look at motherboards with integrated graphics, as there really aren't many socket 754 boards that include graphics and the quality of the included graphics is almost universally poor. For the cost conscious, then, we'll go with socket A and integrated graphics, and we'll stick with socket 754 as a performance alternative. Socket 939 is yet another alternative, but we feel that the price is just too high now to reasonably fit into a budget system.

Click images to enlarge.

Socket A Motherboard: MSI K7N2GM2-LSR Nforce2 IGP
Price: $72 shipped
Socket A CPU: AMD Sempron 2400+ 256K 1.67 GHz 333 MHz bus
Price: $63 shipped (Retail)
Total: $135

In terms of cost, the Nforce2 IGP motherboards have quite a bit to offer. You get graphics that are roughly the equivalent of a $30 add-in card along with reasonable performance. Reliability of the MSI boards has been very good in our experience, and we also get a few extras. For example, we get SATA hard drive support, courtesy of the more recent MCP-S NVIDIA chip, and all Nforce2 IGP chips have dual-channel RAM support. Unfortunately, we also lose some features like the third DIMM socket and several PCI slots - this is a micro-ATX board instead of a full-size ATX. None of these losses are really that bad, however, and the board as a whole strikes a good balance between cost, features, and performance. MSI also includes their pseudo-rounded IDE and floppy cables, and although they're not as nice as a true rounded cable, they're better than flat IDE/floppy cables in our opinion.

There are several similar boards that make different trade-offs in this price range. For example, we can get a third DIMM socket but lose the SATA support with something like the Chaintech 7NIF2. If we look towards non-IGP solutions, there are even more possibilities, including full-size ATX boards, boards that use a different chipset, firewire support, etc. We don't particularly care for most of the cheaper boards, however, and the more expensive boards get us into the territory of socket 754, making them a rather poor choice where performance is concerned. If you choose a non-IGP Nforce2 motherboard, you should also pay attention to the specific model of the chipset used, as the SPP version does not have dual-channel RAM support.

The processor selection is about the same as it has been for several months on socket A, and we continue to stick with the Sempron 2400+ as the most reasonable choice. Running at 1.67 GHz, it does well in most tasks. We would prefer to get one of the old Barton Athlon XP chips instead, but prices on those have increased and have taken them out of the reach of the budget system. The Athlon XP-M 2500+ can still be had for about $90, and when combined with a moderate heatsink and some overclocking, it can reach decent performance levels, but again, that is moving into the mid-range sector and the domain of the Athlon 64. For overall value, we still like the platform, but performance is nothing special. If you want more performance from an AMD system, we feel that you're better off spending the extra money to shift to socket 754 and the Athlon 64.

Click images to enlarge.

Socket 754 Motherboard: Chaintech VNF-250 Nforce3 250
Price: $73 shipped
Socket 754 CPU: AMD Athlon 64 2800+ 1.8 GHz
Price: $127 shipped (Retail)
Total: $200

Shifting to socket 754, we choose to go with a motherboard that doesn't include integrated graphics. There are boards that use the VIA K8M800 chipset with its S3 UniChrome Pro graphics, and there are also boards that include the SiS Mirage graphics. Performance and reliability of either one are questionable in our opinion. If you don't need decent 3D acceleration, we'd just as soon go out and purchase a cheap Radeon or GeForce card for $30 to $45 and be assured of driver reliability. For the motherboard, then, we end up going with a discrete graphics solution and the tried-and-true Nforce3 250 chipset. There are a few options in the budget sector competing for the lowest price, with the cheapest board coming in at $70 shipped.

At the bottom of the price scale, we're going to stick with the Chaintech VNF-250, due to better memory compatibility. There are some specific memory compatibility issues with the EPoX boards, but they do win out in terms of price and features, depending on the model that you select - the EP-8KDA3I is the base model and costs $70 while the EP-8KDA3J adds Gigabit Ethernet and the hardware firewall of the 250Gb chipset and costs only a few dollars more. The drawback of the EPoX boards is that while they work well with one DIMM, they do not officially support running two double-sided DIMMs in anything more than DDR333 speeds. If you can live with that limitation, the 8KDA3J is still a good board, but we feel that many people will end up running two DIMMs with such a system - perhaps not initially, but adding a second 512 MB DIMM down the road seems very reasonable. Those looking for additional features might want to look at the Biostar K8NHA Grand, as it includes GbE via the 250Gb chipset and adds IEEE1394a firewire support to the mix. We really hate to skimp on the motherboard in any system, as it can have a far-reaching impact on performance and reliability. If it were us buying a computer for ourselves or a friend, we would strongly suggest taking a look at the MSI K8N Neo Platinum for its features and proven track record, but it does cost $100.

For the processor, we looked at the cost of the Sempron parts for socket 754 and decided that they just don't offer enough value. Sure, they're a lot faster than their socket A counterparts, but when they all cost $120 or so and the Athlon 64 2800+ outperforms them and costs only $7 more, why bother? Slower clocked versions of the Sempron for socket 754 are due out in the next month or so, and hopefully, they'll be able to fill in the gap in price from the socket A parts. The questions on the upcoming, slower Semprons are how much cache they will have and how fast they will be clocked (1.6 GHz with 128K of cache is rumored, and without actual benchmarks, it is difficult to say what sort of value such a chip would really offer). For now, we'll stick with the Athlon 64, as the price/performance is still very good and you always have the possibility of increased performance with 64-bit applications in the future. The retail processors also include a better warranty and a certified heatsink, so going with a "cheaper" OEM version rarely ends up as a better deal once you purchase a separate HSF. If you can spend even more money, you could always look at the 3000+ to 3400+ processors. Performance doesn't scale quite as quickly as price, but it's a relatively flat curve at least.

Comparing the socket A CPU/motherboard to the socket 754 parts, we would estimate the socket 754 setup to be about 40% to 50% faster - particularly once you factor in a separate graphics card. It ends up costing 48% more (not counting graphics), so bang-for-the-buck is about equal and you get additional features and more longevity. We would strongly advise anyone looking for a budget computer to save up the extra $100 if at all possible, but the final decision is yours. As we mentioned earlier, socket 939 is also almost in reach of a moderate budget price - it will cost about $50 to $100 more than a similarly powered socket 754 system, and it will offer even more longevity. We continue to place that in the realm of the mid-range system, however, so we'll look more at that platform in an upcoming Guide.

Index CPU and Motherboard - Intel
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, January 21, 2005 - link

    Next Guide is due out "soon" - like this weekend probably.

    As for PATA vs. SATA, the performance difference is negligible. The cables are a different story. PATA (also called IDE/EIDE) uses 40 pin connectors and 80 pin cables. SATA gets by with a cable that's about 1/4 as large, and the connector is only about 1 cm wide instead of 5 cm or so. Rounded IDE cables help, but the IDE connector is still rather a pain in the butt.

    Also, SATA is point-to-point, which means there are no worries about master/slave settings. Each SATA device is on its own channel. The theoretical performance of SATA is higher than PATA, but in practice all current hard drives are limited by the hard drive's sustained transfer rate.
    Reply
  • Fauno - Thursday, January 20, 2005 - link

    Dumb question: what´s the difference for SATA and PATA?
    Tkx for all.
    Reply
  • Fauno - Thursday, January 20, 2005 - link

    Mr. Jarred, thank you for the great newsletter!
    I would like to see an improved, i mean, something
    better than the Budget and Performance scenarios.
    How long may i have to wait for your next guide?
    I´m anxious because i´m in hurry to make a brand new computer.
    Thank you vey much.
    Reply
  • micronot - Monday, January 17, 2005 - link

    Show me the Benhchmarks ---

    I have no complaints about the selections, but it would have been nice to also see how these systems compare on a few benchmarks. This would help show a price to performance ratio.
    Reply
  • erinlegault - Wednesday, January 12, 2005 - link

    How do think nForce motherboards have instability at default settings?

    I know VIA has been very reliable since their Apollo Pro 133 chipset, I have owned several. But, to say Nvidia nForce chipsets are unstable is unfounded. The various flavors of nForce 2, 3 and now 4 are the probably the best chipsets ever made.

    I have no opinion about the initial nForce chipset, I personally never give first timers a chance. This is probably the chipset you call unstable, but what company does not produce a first generation product that isn't perfect.
    Reply
  • bob661 - Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - link

    I don't recommend Nforce boards to non-enthusiasts because of instability or just plain quirkiness (sp?). I figure a geek wouldn't mind troubleshooting and tinkering but I don't assume that for newbies or general users. VIA has always treated me kindly and I don't have people coming back to me after I build them a computer complaining about quirks. I remember when VIA was the quirky, problem-ridden chipset but I haven't seen that for at least 5 years. We use computers with that chipset at work as CAD workstations (29 machines) and there's no instability. Reply
  • Live - Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - link

    If the 6600 is an option in PCIe why not as AGP it is available in both? Reply
  • woodchuk - Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - link

    Have to agree on the VIA and SIS chipsets, not only because they tend to lose sound drivers and such occasionally, but the nVidia solutions seem bulletproof.
    Also, the Semprons I've built recently are very disappointing in anything that likes a lot of cache, either Tbird or Barton equivelents are faster.
    Reply
  • justly - Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - link

    Thanks again, although I really wasn't expecting a responce to my last post.

    I understand the reluctance tward integrated video, but to be fair there are two reasons for building a budget system one is obviously because you cant afford the alternitive, and the other is because you know you dont need the alternitive. If someone is simply trying to make a performance system fit a tight budget then I would expect them to have problems simply because that is not the correct way to make a performance system. Is this the type of person that you are making a budget guide for? if so then I guess I misunderstood the purpose of the budget guide.

    I'm NOT intentionally trying to argue with you, it just irritates me that the impression I (and I think others may also) get from the article is that Nforce is not just the chipset of choice but that it seems to be the only chipset that is acceptable, and now I see you say "a less expensive chipset isn't necessarily inferior". That was the point I was trying to make.
    A lot of what you say makes sense, but a few things don't (at least to me), one being that you assume cheaper capacitors, resistors, fabrication facilities, etc (along with cheaper chipsets and less features) are used to make a budget board, but unless the Nvidia chipset is cheaper or the board has less features then the only way a Nvidia motherboard can compete in price is to use as cheep or cheeper parts or fabrication facilities yet you still claim it is more stable/compatible, how can this be? ok maybe it is the BIOS, I guess I just have a hard time believing that every non-Nvidia moterboards out there has problems with their BIOS.
    My experiances are a little different than yours. I have had very little or no problems with SiS or ALi drivers in the past (VIA is a different story). When the K6-2/III was popular I had both ALi and VIA based motherboards and I would say without a doubt that I liked the ALi better. On the Athlon platform I can also say without a doubt that I liked the SiS better than the VIA. While I personally haven't owned a Nvidia chipset I do know of more than one person that had problems with them (and they where not budget builds either, in fact they where top of the line in most cases).
    Having a bias is normal everyone has them, I just think with a following as large as what Anandtech has you should try to hide that bias a little better. Maybe it is time you try a SiS or ALi/ULi chipset again, you might be pleasantly surprised. Then again maybe you know yoou need more than SiS or ULi can give you in that case continue on with your "self-perpetuating bias. :p" just kidding, have a nice day and thanks for the insight regarding your recommendation.

    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, January 10, 2005 - link

    Let me go back to an earlier statement, just to make sure we're all on the same page. I said the following on page 2: "There are boards that use the VIA K8M800 chipset with its S3 UniChrome Pro graphics, and there are also boards that include the SiS Mirage graphics. Performance and reliability of either one are questionable in our opinion." Just to make this clear, the "questionable" aspect is specifically in regards to the integrated graphics - lowest common denominator graphics almost always cause me grief. Some will only support 24-bit color, which is not 100% compatible with all applications, forcing you to use 16-bit mode at times. Others simply perform very poorly even in 2D applications, and then there's the supported refresh rates which may end up being 60 Hz at any resolution above 1280x1024.

    Okay, now back to the topic at hand....

    Memory compatibility issues can come from a variety of areas. For example, even with an Intel 865PE chipset, you're not going to see identical performance or compatibility across all motherboards. It probably has a lot to do with the BIOS, not to mention some other items like quality and location of capacitors, resistors, etc.

    THG did a memory comparison maybe six months back where they tested about 10 to 15 different brands of RAM on 10 to 15 different motherboards. I don't recall the specifics, other than the ASUS K8V SE Deluxe was the most compatible motherboard (working with all the RAM types used) and that the Corsair RAM was the most compatible RAM.

    As I'm not a BIOS programmer or motherboard manufacturer, I can't say for sure what causes the issues that some boards experience, but I can hazzard a guess. Let's assume you're trying to make a budget board that will sell for $25 less than other motherboards. The first step is usually to go with a cheaper chipset, i.e. SiS or ALi or VIA as opposed to Intel or NVIDIA. (I don't know how expensive NV chipsets are, but I know that Intel is regarded as the most expensive out there.) Now, a less expensive chipset isn't necessarily inferior, but I have a feeling a lot of motherboards that use cheaper chipsets also use cheaper capacitors, resistors, fabrication facilities, etc.

    I would guess that this is why the ASUS A8V Deluxe and the Abit AV8 are still very good boards even with the VIA K8T800 Pro chipset. They also cost nearly as much as competing NVIDIA boards. As with all things, compromises are made to reach any price point. If most motherboards with a certain chipset sell for $85+ and a new board comes out that only costs $70, you can be almost sure that either features or quality were cut - possibly both. Long-term reliability of cheap motherboards has never been good for me, although I'm sure others have had okay experiences.

    Beyond that, I don't have any real concerns with the VIA A64 motherboards. SiS and ALi/ULi are a different matter, although I freely admit that I have avoided using motherboards with those chipsets for years. Finding comprehensive chipset drivers for NVIDIA, Intel, and VIA motherboards is generally a simple matter; not so with SiS and ALi (in my experience). Drivers always end up mattering, and the easier it is to get all the drivers installed, the better.

    In the end, it's a Catch-22 situation: I don't trust SiS and ALi/ULi based motherboards as much as NVIDIA and Intel based motherboards due to some bad experiences. The only thing that would really convince me that they no longer have problems would be extended use of such a motherboard over a two year period. However, when I look at the prices and it's only $10 more for a board that I already trust, why take a chance?

    I'm only one person, with limited access to hardware (even if I have more access than most people, I can't just get anything I want). No one has perfect knowledge of how specific boards will work over a 4 year period, so we end up guessing based off of previous knowledge. My previous knowledge says that SiS and ALi boards are more likely to have issues over an extended period of time, but what I really know is that *previous* SiS and ALi boards had a lot of problems. Yup, it's a self-perpetuating bias. :p
    Reply

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