Monday, December 05, 2005

Technology Trends 2005

A Tour of the Thoroughly Modern Motherboard

Kirk Steers, From the December 2005 issue of PC World magazine,aid,122934,00.asp#

Whether it's to install a new graphics card, add RAM, upgrade your hard drive, or slap in a new power supply, sooner or later you'll open your PC's case and plug something into your motherboard. If you haven't looked inside a PC in the last year or two, you may not recognize everything there. For starters, most new motherboards include PCI Express x16 and other new connectors. Here's a tour of today's motherboard.

CPU: A processor rarely needs replacing, and CPU upgrades are seldom cost-effective. But because new CPUs run hotter than their predecessors, you'll find more heat-sink fins within the PC's case. It's crucial to periodically blow out the dust that impedes their efficiency. If you want to beef up your PC with a faster CPU, you may need to upgrade the CPU cooling fan as well. An extra hard drive, a high-end graphics card, or an overclocked CPU can also cause your system to overheat. For more on keeping your computer cool, click here to read my February 2002 column, "A Cool Breeze Keeps Your PC's Innards From Frying."

RAM: Adding memory to your PC is often the simplest and least expensive way to give it more oomph. But RAM types are always changing--DDR2 is the latest and fastest flavor. In fact, the trickiest part of a RAM upgrade is finding the right type and capacity of RAM modules for your PC. Click here for Stan Miastkowski's step-by-step instructions on installing RAM. And to keep an eye on your available memory, click here to download the no-cost FreeMem utility (see FIGURE 1).

PCI Express slots: Many high-end PCs now have PCI Express (PCIe) expansion slots in addition to standard PCI slots, which have been around for years. PCIe slots provide up to 30 times the throughput of the PCI bus and will eventually replace both PCI and AGP slots. Fortunately, your old PCI sound, network, and other expansion cards won't be orphans for a while; today's transitional motherboards have both PCI and PCIe slots.

You may not be able to use your current AGP graphics card in your next PC, however. Most new PCIe motherboards sold in this country use a PCIe x16 slot, rather than an AGP slot, for graphics cards. Systems supporting AGP 8X and PCIe x16 may be in the pipeline, though: Chipmaker Uli has announced a new chip set that supports both AGP 8X and PCIe x16.

PCIe slots come in different lengths, corresponding to the amount of data they can move. PCIe x1 slots replace the standard PCI port and are about 1 inch (or 26mm) long. They move data on and off the motherboard at up to 250 MBps in each direction at once. The PCIe x16 slot that replaces the AGP graphics-card slot is 90mm (about 3.5 inches) long, just like a PCI slot. A PCIe x16 slot can move data--you guessed it--up to 16 times faster than an x1 slot can: as fast as 4 GBps in each direction simultaneously.

SATA bus: Serial ATA (SATA) replaces the slower parallel ATA (also called PATA or EIDE) that manufacturers long used to link hard drives and optical drives to the motherboard. SATA ports first appeared on motherboards more than two years ago; many SATA motherboards have PATA connectors as well.

SATA connectors are smaller than their PATA counterparts and support only one drive at a time--so you don't have to fuss with jumpers to set a drive to master or slave as you might with PATA. The thinner SATA cable doesn't clutter the inside of a PC case as thicker PATA cables do; most important, the smaller cable reduces the chance of overheating (the wider PATA cables can restrict airflow in the case). SATA connections are easy to extend outside the PC case to accommodate external hard drives and optical drives.

SATA drives require a special power connector in place of the standard 5V connector used for IDE drives. Many new PCs come with a SATA power connector, but older machines typically don't. You can purchase an inexpensive ($5 to $10) adapter for converting a 5V connector to SATA at your local electronics store.

Light and Sound

DVI port (not shown): Most new monitors and graphics cards are fitted with Digital Video Interface ports instead of the VGA connectors used by analog CRT monitors. DVI delivers digital video but no sound.

HDMI port (not shown): Some high-end PCs have a High Definition Multimedia Interface port, which seems likely to succeed DVI. The slimmed-down, USB-like HDMI connector is easier to handle than a DVI connector, and it delivers both digital video and digital audio--a welcome simplification for home entertainment systems. Note: HDMI also uses the HDCP copy-protection scheme that enables content providers to control the number of times customers can copy HDTV and other high-definition content.

To connect a PC or graphics card that has a DVI port to a monitor that has an HDMI port (or vice versa), use an adapter such as the High Performance HDMI to DVI Video Adapter ($30) available from Monster Cable.

S/PDIF port (not shown): Ultimately, every digital audio signal must be converted to analog in order to drive the flexible diaphragm in a speaker that generates the sound. On many PCs, the sound card converts digital audio to analog signals, which are then sent to the speakers. Digital speakers--such as those using USB connections--perform the digital-to-analog conversion within the speaker.

The longer an audio signal remains digital, the better the sound quality is. That's why many high-end and some midrange PCs now come with a Sony/Philips Digital Interface Format (S/PDIF) port that carries the digital signal directly from the motherboard to the speakers (with no sound card or external device intervening). Look for a small square connector--called a TOSlink connector--on the back of your PC or sound card.

Up Front: Want a PC Done Right? Do It Yourself!

Building your own machine can be a smart move. And it's never been simpler.

Harry McCracken, From the May 2005 issue of PC World magazine,aid,119974,00.asp

This issue's cover represents a minor milestone in PC World history: As far as anyone here recalls, it's the first to sport the word motherboard. The word's on the cover because motherboards are in the magazine, in "Battle of the Boards," our review of these key PC components.

The boards are in the issue mostly because of Senior Associate Editor Eric Dahl. For what seems like eons, he's been advocating that we do a thorough, lab-tested look at motherboards. Until recently, I was irrationally dubious--yes, Eric, I'm officially admitting it--but now I'm a believer. Heck, I bet that the article, by veteran contributor Jon L. Jacobi, will be a hit.

Has PCW gone all geeky? Possibly, but so has the world. When I bought my first motherboard a dozen years ago, I had to ferret one out at a tiny mom-and-pop store where tech expertise was plentiful but English was scarce. That was then. Today, mainstream merchants such as CompUSA stock motherboards, cases, power supplies, and other accoutrements of the system builder's art.

They sell those products to folks who've discovered that it's surprisingly easy to assemble a PC with the right stuff for particular tasks, from heavy-duty database work to high-end home entertainment. If you feel ready to join them, consult our ratings--and consider these further tips.

Pick your parts carefully: The best thing about building your own PC is that you get to choose each component. But that can also be a challenge. Shameless plug: Check out our Reviews & Rankings page for regularly updated rankings of hard drives, graphics cards, and other components.

In the case of motherboard speed, "all the boards with the same chip set are pretty close," reports William Wang, the PC World Test Center performance analyst who evaluated boards for our review. But as Eric notes, "You need to look at each board and the features it has. Some manufacturer will decide, 'Yeah, we want FireWire 800 support.' Or someone will say, 'Let's throw an extra RAID controller out there.'" Some companies offer more design niceties such as slots that don't block access to each other, and some include meatier manuals--factors we took into account when choosing Best Buys.

Scavenge...if you can: If you have usable parts hanging around from systems you already own, great. But repurpose the components judiciously--your new PC may demand faster RAM, a more potent graphics card, or a larger hard drive.

Don't rush it: The build is most likely to go well if you proceed at your own pace and you allow time for troubleshooting. If you don't feel ready to start from scratch, consider a "bare-bones PC," a case-motherboard-power supply combo that you fill out with other components. Or work with a dealer who'll build a system made up of parts you specify; many local retailers have been doing this for years, and even Best Buy now does so through its Geek Squad service. Either option gives you much of the upside of a do-it-yourself system with less labor.

Build for tomorrow: Just as with off-the-shelf systems, it's smart to think ahead. That may well mean planning your new machine around a 64-bit CPU, even though 64-bit Windows is still in beta and major applications are months or years away. (See our first look at Intel's new Pentium 4 processor in "Tested: 64-Bit P4.") "We don't know how long it will take software to catch up with hardware and the OS, but it's good to have the option," says William.

Eric puts it another way: "Americans love redundancy and future-proofing, and as much technology as we can buy. I'm glad we finally did a full-on examination of motherboards, with the Test Center involved." Me too. As long as PCW readers keep building computers, we'll keep building articles like this one.

New Motherboard Tech

An SLI motherboard can use two graphics boards to boost the speed of PC games.Some incredibly exciting technologies are in place or headed for a motherboard near you. Here are a few of them.


What it is: SLI, or Scalable Link Interface, is NVidia's interface for hooking up two PCIe x16 graphics cards in tandem.

Why you want it: It gives you exceptional performance at high resolutions in the games that support it.

What supports it: Currently, only motherboards based on NVidia's NForce4 SLI Athlon 64 chip set support SLI, but an Intel-based option should appear later this year. Click here for a list of compatible graphics boards.


What it is: Whatever the name, it's like having two processors on the same chip.

Why you want it: These chips provide smoother multitasking performance and promise to accelerate software that supports symmetrical multiprocessing.

What supports it: Intel is already shipping dual-core Pentium D chips designed to work with its coming 955X and 945G chip sets. Later this year AMD will ship its dual-core "Toledo" Athlon 64, which it says will operate without a problem in existing socket 939 boards, following a simple upgrade of the system's BIOS.

64-Bit CPUs

What they are: The 64-bit desktop CPUs, like AMD's Athlon 64 and Intel's impending EM64T Pentiums, add 64-bit-wide data paths and registers to an existing 32-bit architecture, to handle 32-bit and 64-bit software with equal aplomb.

Why you want it: New 64-bit software will allow bigger numbers, larger files, and more addressable memory. It should also run faster when it has been optimized to take advantage of the extra registers and wider data paths on 64-bit CPUs.

What supports it: AMD's 64-bit Athlon 64 CPUs--and motherboards capable of supporting them--have been out on the market for more than a year now. Meanwhile, Intel's EMT64-enabled processors should be shipping by the time you read this. To run 64-bit software, you will also need to have a 64-bit OS such as Linux or Windows XP Professional X64; these OSs should be available in the second quarter of 2005. XP Pro X64 will run on either AMD's or Intel's 64-bit processors.

GeekTech: Building a Future-Proof PC

Senior Editor Tom Mainelli discusses new technologies and hands-on upgrades.

Tom Mainelli, PC World | Thursday, September 15, 2005,aid,122508,00.asp

You can't wholly prevent obsolescence, but buy the right motherboard and near-term upgrades should be a breeze.

It happens to us all: You put together your latest home-built PC masterpiece and before you've even downloaded your first Windows XP patch, some new technology comes along, or the price of an existing one drops, and you find yourself wishing you'd waited just another few days, weeks, or months.


But let's face it, if you always waited for the next big thing, you'd never get around to building that new system. There's always something newer, faster, and better on the way. That doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to a PC that's old before its time, however. With a little planning, you can build a great system today that still has legs tomorrow. The key: Pick the right motherboard.

Every component you buy for a new PC is important, but when it comes to future upgradeability the motherboard is the most important of all. That's because the motherboard has to play nice with all of those other components--everything from your CPU to your memory to your graphics card and so on. Motherboards may not be the sexiest component in the box, but if you buy a cheap one today, it could end up costing you more tomorrow.

Processor Prognostication

Both Advanced Micro Devices and Intel offer performance enhancing dual-core processors, but (as regular readers of this column probably know) right now they're still a little too pricey for my taste. The smart thing to do today is to build a single-core system with an eye toward upgrading later.

If you're an AMD fan, the equation is fairly simple: Avoid the less expensive motherboards with the single-channel 754-pin Athlon 64 and Sempron processor socket, and stick with 939-pin socket boards that support Athlon 64 and Athlon FX chips. Not only do these boards offer dual-channel memory support, but the vast majority of them support AMD's dual-core Athlon 64 X2 right out of the box--and the boards that don't should work after a bios update.

Intel fans face a slightly more complicated choice. That's because right now only motherboards based on Intel's 945 and 955 chip sets support the chip giant's dual-core Pentium EE or Pentium D processors. Boards using earlier Intel chip sets (including fairly recent vintage Pentium 4-compatible products) won't support the dual-core chips, nor will current versions from companies such as NVidia. The simple answer would seem to be "buy an Intel motherboard," but that can lead to another limitation (more on that in a minute).

Pick PCI Express

Today you can still find plenty of late-model motherboards that use Accelerated Graphics Port for graphics. You might be tempted to save a few bucks by buying one of these boards: In addition to being well priced, they let you squeeze some more life out of your existing graphics card. But don't do it; buy a motherboard that supports PCI Express graphics.

There are numerous reasons to make the move to PCI Express. First, it offers dramatically faster throughput than AGP. It's true that many of today's graphics cards don't utilize all that bandwidth, but future cards could (and likely will). Second, graphics chip and board vendors now concentrate their product releases on PCI Express first and AGP second. That means you'll not only have to wait for new graphics technologies to trickle down to mainstream, moderately priced graphics boards, but you'll also have to wait for the PCI Express people to get theirs first.

The third reason to move to PCI Express: NVidia's Scalable Link Interface. Currently available only on high-end NVidia-based motherboards with two graphics card slots, SLI lets you run two identical SLI-enabled NVidia video cards at once--and the results can be impressive. Super-duper power users with tons of disposable cash like to build systems with two high-end cards, two 7800 GTXs, say. But for the rest of us, it makes sense to buy a nice midrange card now, and then--six months down the line when card prices drop--add the second card for a nice graphics boost.

This, however, brings up the limitation I mentioned earlier about choosing an Intel motherboard: Intel's chip sets don't support SLI. Unfortunately, it seems Intel fans must make a choice between dual-core compatibility and SLI support.

Memory Mojo

The old adage about computer memory still stands: Buy as much as you can afford. But just be sure that you can afford at least 1GB. Also, if your motherboard supports a dual-channel processor, make sure that you're using two sticks, placed in the appropriate slots. You can spend extra money on high-speed, low-latency RAM, but chances are you won't see much of a performance increase.

If you can afford it, you might consider stocking your new system with 2GB of memory right out of the gate. After all, you can never have too much, and you might need it when that shiny new space-hogging Windows Vista operating system arrives in 2006. Plus, if you can reach 2GB using two DIMMs, then you won't have to worry about the memory downclocking or system stability issues that some people encounter when they try to populate a motherboard's third and fourth memory slots.

Follow all these tips, and your next PC should be in pretty good shape for the future. Note that hedge word, should.

The fact is, even as I type this, the onward march of technology continues. For example, rumor has it that sometime in early 2006 AMD will move its processors to a brand-new socket--one that will support DDR2 memory, but won't support your current processor. Intel will also move to a new socket down the road, but that's likely a bit further out. And any day now ATI will get around to launching Crossfire, its response to NVidia's dual-card technology, which could lead you to either love or hate a prior commitment to SLI.

Of course, you can always wait for these new technologies to arrive. But at some point, you just have to dive in. And besides, two or three years from now you'll need an excuse to build a brand-new system, right?

Tom Mainelli is currently looking for an excuse to build a brand-new system. If you have a suggestion, or want to share some upgrade tips of your own, please drop him a line.

System Building Strategies for Upgradability
October 19, 2004 By Loyd Case, eSeminars,1697,1680028,00.asp

Recently, we came across a DIY discussion on another message board. Someone had requested help in choosing the components for building a new system. By the time everyone had chimed in, he had decided to build a system based on a socket 478 motherboard and a 3.4GHz CPU based on the Northwood core. In essence, he was going to build yesterday's top-of-the-line PC.

Now, there are some valid reasons for this. Cost is one: Yesterday's high-end hardware tends to be cheaper than today's high-end gear. It's sometimes even cheaper than today's midrange stuff. But it's not always smartest to go this route. This guy was a gamer, which meant he was likely to want better performance in the future. Given his hardware choices, he would have been stuck.

Hardware manufacturers don't make it easy, either. Let's say you really, really wanted to build a gaming platform using new technology. You'd like a PCI Express system. Then you find out that Athlon 64 CPUs are regarded as the fastest processors for games, but PCI Express motherboards aren't available for them. Then you discover that it's damned hard to find high-performance PCIe graphics cards through retail.

Still, it's generally a good idea to keep an eye on what's coming down the pike in the next few months as you contemplate building a system today. Developing a DIY strategy is important.

As you contemplate building a new system, understand its ultimate primary use. Marketing people refer to this as "knowing your market." If you're trying to build a killer gaming system, you'll definitely want to keep your upgrade options as open as possible. But if you're building a kitchen system that will be used mostly for web surfing and web mail, then future upgrades may not be so critical.

Even when shooting for certain system types that may need upgrades, like those for gaming systems or digital video editing, you can make tradeoffs. Maybe compact size and ease of transport is an important factor, in which case you'll opt for a small-form-factor PC. It's not easily upgradeable, but may meet objectives you deem more important.

Sometimes it is worth waiting--if the wait is fairly short. For example, if you really want a high-end PCIe graphics card, you may have trouble finding one now. If you wait a month or so, then the supply issues will ease up. That's often true with a variety of emerging technologies. The more substantive question: Should you wait for the next generation, whether that's CPUs, graphics hardware or something else?

It's been our take that if a generational shift isn't going to happen within a few months, it's not worth waiting for. After all, you can always recoup some of your investment by either passing on older hardware to family members or even selling it on eBay. The one exception is when a major infrastructure shift is on the horizon. A good example of that is the shift to PCI Express. Investing in high-end AGP gear today may not be the best choice–waiting a month or two may be better. As always, it depends on your needs.

The key is to develop an upgrade plan even as you're gathering the parts for your current project. This doesn't have to be a formal document by any means, but you should at least have some idea in mind about future upgrade needs. Some of the issues may be more subtle than simply picking new technology. Let's look at a few scenarios.

We'll start with the easiest, first. All PC gamers know in their heart of hearts that they'll have to upgrade someday. Still, it's not all that easy. Technology transitions can often throw a monkey wrench into the most careful planning. Let's take a look at a few of the decisions you'd need to make if you were contemplating a new, high end gaming system:

  • AMD or Intel? At first, that seems like a no-brainer. We've all noted how well Athlon 64 processors handle today's games. But if cost is at all a factor, then Intel starts to look interesting. Although AMD is now shipping lower-cost Athlon 64s, the Intel CPU line is relatively competitive at those price points. Also, if you need PCI Express today, Intel is the only game in town--but AMD-based PCIe solutions are just around the corner.
  • Serial ATA or parallel ATA hard drives? This is a no brainer. You may have noticed a fire sale on parallel ATA drives recently. If you need to add storage to an older system, by all means, take advantage of the great deals on PATA drives. If you're building a new system, though, go with SATA. This is doubly true if you're building a new system using an Intel 925X or 915 chipset. In that case, you should use a drive that supports native command queuing (NCQ).
  • PCI Express or AGP? This is a tougher one. And it's not just because you'd have to go with Intel if you're building a system today. Today's PCI Express cards see essentially no performance gain over their AGP equivalents. The applications aren't there, and the GPU architectures aren't quite tuned yet. You'd really be buying for potential future gain. Also, if you do want to go with AMD, you'll have to wait until the end of the year.

If we were building an Intel-based system today, we'd go with PCIe. The hardest part would be finding the graphics card, but they are beginning to trickle onto the market.

If we were leaning towards AMD, we'd wait until the end of the year. Yeah, that sucks if you've got a really old system. And as more hot new game titles ship, this takes even more discipline. But nVidia, ATI and VIA are all readying PCI Express solutions for AMD. Hang in there!

This is a harder nut to crack. If you have $3,000 to spend, you can go all out on a system, and pay the price premiums to get the latest tech. If you have $1,200 to spend, it's a lot harder. You have to make some sacrifices. Do you sacrifice future upgrade possibilities to get more performance today or buy lower performance now, with the promise of even better performance and technology tomorrow?

This is not as simple a question as it seems. Buying a technology with the idea of future-proofing can bite you where it hurts--right in your wallet--if you make the wrong choice. Witness all the people who bought GeForce FX 5800's with the idea of future-proofing. "Always cloudy, the future is," as Yoda would say.

The trick is to balance your hunger for new tech with a hard-nosed attitude about what will actually pay off in the future. Here are a few rules of thumb:

  • Infrastructure trumps other technologies. In other words, new core logic, which implements features like PCI Express and Serial ATA, will likely have a robust future. Even if you make a mistake here, you can at least live with the choice for quite some time, as all the people who bought RDRAM-based motherboards can testify.
  • Never, ever buy a graphics card with the idea that you're future proofing yourself. That's not to say that you shouldn't buy it for cool tech, or better performance or interesting features. Those are fine reasons. But if you think that buying a particular graphics card will mean you can run killer games that will ship in four years with great graphics performance, you're only kidding yourself.
  • Sacrifice performance for the future. Think of this as seed corn. If you want to buy an Intel 925X motherboard today, then it will cost you more than the last generation 875P board. So you may need to buy a lower cost CPU if you're on a budget.

Let's look at an example of this. This particular example is based on someone building an Intel-based platform, but could just as easily apply to a person wanting to build an Athlon 64 system, particularly when the PCI Express motherboards begin shipping.


Old-tech system


New-tech system




Intel D875PBZ

$145 (check actual prices

Intel D925XCV

$195 (check actual prices



Kingston DDR400 ValueRAM (1GB)

$170 (check actual prices)

Kingston DDR2/533 ValueRAM (1GB)

$260 (check actual prices)


Hard Drive

WD1600JB 160GB PATA Drive

$93 (check actual prices)

WD1600JD 160GB SATA Drive

$98.50 (check actual prices)


Total Difference


Just glancing at ATI X800 XT prices, there's essentially no difference between PCIe and AGP versions. There does seem to be a dearth of PCIe GeForce 6800's, however.

So you have roughly a $145 difference between building a system using last year's technology and one using current technology. If you had to keep the system prices relatively constant, you would need to use a 2.8GHz Prescott in place of a 3.4GHz Prescott.

Giving up 600MHz in clock frequency seems like a big sacrifice, particularly with CPUs based on the Prescott core, where the lower clock-rate CPUs don't perform as well. But now you're into new technology, and today's LGA775 motherboards will likely support future iterations of the processor.

Again, it all depends on your needs. You could always build the lower-cost system today, get better performance, and then do another massive refit in a year. It's as viable a solution as any, but sometimes it's better to bite the bullet, sacrifice a bit now for future growth potential.

What about the Athlon 64?

While it may be a few weeks yet before we start seeing PCI Express motherboards, the key point is to go for socket 939 when possible. The difference between a socket 754 Athlon 64 3400+ and a socket 939 Athlon 64 is only about $50. For that difference, you get a 128-bit wide memory controller instead of a 64-bit wide controller. Games are getting increasingly bandwidth intensive, so the double-wide memory controller can help substantially.

Of course, you'll also need a socket 939 motherboard, which currently cost more than the socket 754 equivalent. But since you'll want to wait for a PCI Express motherboard, those will likely cost more initially anyway. You could always drop down to a socket 939 Athlon 64 3200+.

Here's where we run into an interesting snag. AMD's product numbering scheme begins to break down as the company releases products that differ in some features (like the memory controller width) and at different clock rates. The socket 939 3200+ clocks at 2.0GHz. The socket 754 3200+ runs at 2.2GHz. Both have 512KB of L2 cache. It's very possible you'll see some applicaitons run faster on one rather than the other, depending on whether they're memory bound or CPU bound. All this makes planning a trifle difficult. Our take is to go with socket 939. You can always upgrade later, and the top end of the socket 939 line offers more performance growth.

Building a new PC system is easier than it's ever been. But planning for the future is more difficult than it used to be. Part of that is due to this pesky little thing known as competition. When it looked like the world would be dominated mostly by Intel CPUs and Nvidia GPUs, planning for the future was easy. Now, with ATI and AMD making strong showings in the market, it's harder to make predictions.

Basing your choices on underlying infrastructure is still a pretty good bet. So betting on PCI Express and Serial ATA is probably safe, whatever your CPU and GPU preferences. In some cases, you may have to wait a month or two. But what's a few weeks, compared with having to shell out for a new system again in a year?

Copyright (c) 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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