CPU and Motherboard: AMD

In the past Budget Guides, we have continued to list socket A options due to their lower cost. Features and performance may be more limited, and the platform as a whole is reaching the end of the road. It has been a long ride since the initial launch of socket A, and we're now removing it from our recommendations. If you can pick up the parts used or at clearance prices, though, it can still offer plenty of power. Our move to socket 754 began with the last Budget Guide, and recent additions to AMD's lineup now allow us to complete the transition.

Click images to enlarge.

Socket 754 Motherboard: EPoX EP-8KDA3J
Price: $74 shipped
Socket 754 CPU: AMD Sempron 2800+ 1.6 GHz 256KB L2
Price: $89 shipped (Retail)
Total: $163

We've waffled back and forth on the motherboard recommendation for socket 754, and both the EPoX that we list here as well as the Chaintech VNF-250 continue to be good value recommendations. The EPoX wins out on features, while the Chaintech wins out on RAM support and overclocking, as well as overall stability. When using two DIMMs on the EPoX, particularly lower quality (i.e. lower price) modules, you may be forced to run DDR333 speeds instead of DDR400. We would recommend purchasing better RAM for the best compatibility. Even at DDR333 speeds, however, performance is quite good. The remaining features - including hardware firewall, gigabit Ethernet, and Firewire support - all put the EPoX board ahead of other similarly-priced boards.

If you don't need those features, then other boards can be had for less money. We prefer to increase performance and reliability by using the nForce3 250 chipsets on socket 754, but some people will be interested more in cutting costs. Motherboards using SiS, ALi, and VIA can be found at lower prices, and some of them will include integrated graphics that will help to reduce the total system price (and performance) even further. If you're willing to make the trade-off in performance for money, the Chaintech MK8M800 is a micro-ATX board with integrated graphics that costs $65. Memory capacity is limited to two DIMMs totaling 2GB, and overclocking is definitely not a priority. For $65, though, you can get a decent start on a system that will handle most business/office computing tasks for many years (providing nothing malfunctions).

Our CPU recommendation this time goes to the newly launched Sempron 2800+ 90nm processor. Heat and power use should be very low, thanks to the smaller process technology. Overclocking should also be good if you're interested in that, but with an 8X multiplier, you will very likely be limited to 2.2GHz, give or take. Otherwise, performance will be very similar to that of the Sempron 3100+, only ~10% slower due to the lower CPU speed. At $90, socket 754 is now truly in the realm of the budget computer. Sempron 2600+ with only 128KB of L2 cache is also something to consider, and it should at least manage to equal the performance of our previous socket A recommendations, but given the price difference of only $10, we felt that it was worth sticking with the 256K cache on the 2800+.

Click images to enlarge.

Socket 939 Alternative Motherboard: Chaintech VNF4 Socket 939
Price: $91 shipped
Socket 939 CPU: AMD Athlon 64 1.8 GHz 512KB L2 90nm socket 939
Price: $146 shipped (Retail)
Total: $237

If you want to increase performance (and perhaps even overclock), you need a better motherboard and platform. We prefer to stick with the 90nm processors, so we'll jump up to the Athlon 64 3000+ and socket 939. (The Sempron 3100+ 90nm is also an option when combined with the DFI LANParty UT 250Gb - probably the best overclocking motherboard and CPU for socket 754. If overclocking isn't something that interests you, the DFI is still a good board, and socket 754 Athlon 64 chips like the 3200+ are reasonably priced.) The Chaintech VNF4 is also one of the cheapest motherboards for socket 939, and it uses an NVIDIA chipset with PCI Express support. The only feature that some might miss is 1394 support (Firewire). Gigabit Ethernet and 7.1 audio are still present, and at a price of $91, it's hard to complain too much - just a few months ago, motherboards like this carried a price tag of $140 or more!

One area that is a little unclear is the difference between the Chaintech VNF4 and the VNF4/Ultra. Obviously, the Ultra version uses the Ultra chipset, but how much does that really help? Upon closer inspection, the non-Ultra is the nForce4 "standard" - not the 4X - so it is nearly identical to the Ultra. All that is missing is support for SATA-2. If that's worth an extra $10, you can always upgrade to the Ultra version. We don't feel it's necessary.

The Athlon 64 3000+ is a good performing CPU and it has the ability to run 64-bit applications in the near future when XP-64 is finally released (assuming that you don't want to run a 64-bit version of Linux right now instead). When combined with the dual-channel RAM support and increased L2 cache, this setup should be quite a bit faster than the socket 754 Sempron configuration, and while they should both overclock quite well, the 939 will still come out on top. The price jump is pretty substantial, but we feel that it's a good intermediate step between the budget and mid-range price segments. Just remember to get a PCI Express graphics card if you choose this motherboard.

Index CPU and Motherboard - Intel
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    38 - I changed to the 9550 after the earlier corrections, as I had a 9600SE initially. I'll fix the text to suggest the purchase of a fanless 9550 and make the 9600 reference more appropriate. Thanks.
  • doganti - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    The article reads:
    "AGP Graphics Recommendation:MSI Radeon 9550 128MB DDR 128-bit, 250/400 GPU/RAM clock (bulk/OEM)
    There isn't a whole lot to differentiate the 9550 cards from one another, as they are all fanless.."

    I have Asus A9550 GE - Radeon 9550,128MB DDR,128 Bit and it has a fan (which has turned bad=noisy in a month).
    Thus, also this is not clear: ".... The Radeon 9600 (without the SE) is also a decent alternative that will only cost an extra $15, and with it, you bump the memory bus up to 128-bits."
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    31 - If you can afford the bump to Athlon 64 3000+, the MSI RS480M2-IL would definitely be my pick for a board with IGP. Unfortunately, that adds $75 for the CPU upgrade (relative to the Sempron 2600+), but it also improves performance a decent amount. The ATI Xpress 200 is currently the best (BY FAR!) IGP on the market. It gives you S-VIDEO as well as VGA out. Too bad it doesn't have a DVI port as well. :)

    If that's too much... well, there are a lot of NF2 IGP boards for under $70. The NF2 is probably the better IGP between that and the K8M800 chipset, but the socket 754 CPUs are generally faster. With the price differences between platforms, I'd probably shoot for the Sempron 3000+ on socket A if you go for that platform. (The Barton core is simply the better choice, IMO.) That would compare relatively well with the socket 754 Sempron 2800+ - win some, lose some in benchmarks. I guess it really doesn't matter *too* much if you're not looking for the best performance possible. $150 gets you a decent CPU and mobo for socket A of socket 754, while on socket 939 it only gets you a CPU.
    For the other comments, the PDP isn't great for overclocking, but with a price now at $130 and 2-3-2-5 timings, I'd take the GB of RAM even at stock speeds. If it OCs decently, great. If it doesn't, you should still be fine at stock speeds.

    The Hitachi drives may not have the best RMA process, but let's be honest: if you need to use the RMA on *any* hard drive, you'll be very unhappy. I don't think any of the 7200 drives would fail in most systems if they're the only HDD. Just don't put a bunch of them next to each other without proper cooling. At $60 for an 80GB drive, I would probably make backups and if the HDD failed I'd buy a new drive while I RMA'ed the old one. That's just me, though.

    Finally, the motherboard area is just such a hard one to give *one* recommendation. Even a recommendation and alternative doesn't really do justice to the available parts. There are so many good boards these days that are all within close proximity in terms of price. If I were looking for socket 939 boards, I'd go as follows in terms of chipsets:

    nForce 4 (preferrably not 4X, but any are good)
    ATI Xpress 200 (not many available yet)
    VIA K8T890
    nForce 3 Ultra
    VIA K8T800 Pro
    ALi/ULi/SiS whatever

    I'd go with the top three over the bottom three by a pretty significant margin. K8T800 Pro is now about 9 months old, IIRC. It's still okay, but I wouldn't look to save money by going that route. The nF3 is the same, but it's the better chipset for AGP, IMO. Given the price the K8T800 Pro usually wins out, however.
  • Messudieh - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    I have the PDP RAM that you mentioned in your review, and I can honestly say that the ability to overclock any one set is sort of a crap shoot it seems. It sounds to me like they use a couple of different types of chips (some being the TCCD chips, while others Infineon) that can all run at the stated 2-3-2-5 speeds, at 2.6 volts in my case.

    I think I got a set of something other than TCCDs, because I can't overclock them past about 210 with ANY timings on a DFI NF4 ultra-D with a watercooled 939 3000 and keep it stable, even at 3.1 or 3.2 volts.

    Like I said...it's a crap shoot; some people get lucky, and others don't. I'm getting this RAM:
    And selling my Patriot to my friend, who doesn't overclock.
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    oops forgot that the MSI board is 939, either way the Winchester based Athlons are good overclockers anyways
  • BPB - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    "Semprons K8s are typically very good overclockers so i wouldn't rule out that noones is going to overclock them in a budget machine"

    Do they make socket 939 Semrpons?

    As for me, I went with the MSI ATi based board and am very happy. Put in a 939 3000+, and a Hitachi 80GB SATA II drive. The Hitachi was only $62 at ZipZoonFly. So for a tad more got SATA II (I know, no SATA II controller on this board, but at least the drive has it). The board also has slightly better than average onboard sound, going with the Realtek ALC658C, not the 650 or 655 found in other boards.

    Eventually will put a capture card and mid-level video card. I now have a pretty fast system for the price. Oh, went with the 1GB PDP Patriot memory in the article. No problems to report with anything. Very, very happy with the setup.
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    "The only downside is that the MSI's uATX board doesn't have any OC capability, but who's looking for that in a budget-minded PC?"

    Semprons K8s are typically very good overclockers so i wouldn't rule out that noones is going to overclock them in a budget machine
  • razor2025 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    Why no mention of MSI Neo4-F? It's less than the Chaintech @ $95 shipped at ZZF and it has same PCB as the Neo4 Platinum. That's much better choice over the Chaintech if you're going NF4 route. I also belive that the Xpress200 chipset should've been included as alternative. It's the perfect board for budget PC and it'll allow LOTS of options for upgrades later down the road. The only downside is that the MSI's uATX board doesn't have any OC capability, but who's looking for that in a budget-minded PC?
    If AMD can get a Sempron out for Socket 939 for around $100... then we can have some really nice sub $400-500 PC with lots of options for upgrade.
  • jxtramd - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    OK I've followed the budget guide now for about 6 months and I'm on the cusp of a decision about building an AMD IGP based system. The choices are either from the Jan 05 guide with the MSI (or other) MB with the nForce2 IGP or the Mar 05 Chaintech (or other) MB with the VIA K8M800 IGP. Both systems with an appropiate Sempron 2600 and 512 memory. Between the two which combo gives the better graphics performance? I'm not interested in gaming. Just a basic system with the ability to capture video and watch DVD's as examples. A IGP system fits my budget - any comments?
  • Jep4444 - Wednesday, March 16, 2005 - link

    A little look on newegg has shown that every 32-bit 6200TC has 16MB of onboard RAM, oddly enough their are NO 32MB 6200TCs on newegg at all(whether 32 or 64-bit)

    also i looked at the review you guys posted on the 6200TC and here's a little bit of info on the 16MB and 32MB parts

    "With NVIDIA talking about bringing the new 32MB 64-bit TurboCache part out at $99 and the 16MB 32-bit part out at $79"

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