Choosing the chipset and motherboard for a PC build

Article By : Brian Dipert

After choosing the CPUs for upcoming PC builds, this engineer turns his attention to their motherboards, and to the core logic contained on them.

Now that I’ve covered the CPUs I intend to use with my upcoming AMD- and Intel-based PC systems, what core logic chipsets did I mate them with, and on what motherboards? Let’s start with the AMD system, as it ended up providing the more straightforward selection process. I’d wanted both PCs to be equipped with Thunderbolt 3 interfaces; I harbored aspirations of making them dual-O/S-booth “Hackintoshes,” for one thing, plus Thunderbolt 3 is both higher performance and more functionally-robust than the USB 3 baseline (which I assumed both systems would also offer). With AMD, that meant one of only two possible motherboard options; the massive (EATX) Threadripper CPU-tailored high-end Gigabyte TRX40 Designare and, on the other end of the size spectrum, the diminutive (Mini-ITX) Ryzen-intended ASRock Phantom Gaming ITX TB3:

photo of the Gigabyte TRX40 Designare motherboard and packagingSource: Gigabyte

photo of the ASRock Phantom Gaming ITX TB3 motherboardSource: ASRock

Given that (as I’ve already mentioned) my focus for both projects was small form factor systems, my selection of the ASRock Phantom Gaming ITX TB3 was perhaps obvious (though I admittedly still sometimes dream at night of what running a 64-core/128-thread CPU-based PC might be like). Since the ASRock motherboard (as its name implies) is tailored for gamers, it offers both built-in and add-on RGB LED lighting support, which I’m not particularly fond of, but thankfully this “feature” can be disabled. And the motherboard is well-reviewed, to boot.

For the Intel-based system, mini-ITX was also the preference, which opened the doors to only two Thunderbolt 3-inclusive motherboard options (but hey, one more than last time!). Once again, ASRock’s product line includes a relevant offering, the Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3:

photo of the ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming ITX/TB3 motherboard and packagingSource: ASRock

Its competitive alternative from MSI is the MEG Z490I Unify:

photo of the MSI MEG Z490I Unify motherboard and packagingSource: MSI

The MSI board’s dearth of gamer-tailored color schemes and other adornments was innately more appealing to me, and the MEG X490I Unify is also well-reviewed. The clincher was a $237.86 sale price I briefly saw (and snagged) at Amazon; the board normally sells for ~$300.

I realize, by the way, that I’ve gone about this process a bit backward compared to the norm: I picked motherboards based on peripherals, and the core logic chipset (which I’d normally select first) came “along for the ride” in both cases. Fortunately, the chipsets were the ones I would have chosen, anyway. The AMD system will be based on the X570 chipset, which (versus its generational predecessors) upgrades PCIe support to latest-generation 4.0 and (versus its same-generation siblings) expands the PCIe 4.0 number-of-lanes support to include not only m.2 SSDs but also general-purpose (graphics and other) add-in cards.

The Intel system will be based (no surprise to those who’ve already perused the motherboard candidates’ naming) on the Z490 chipset. Like its AMD counterpart, and unlike its more conventional same-generation siblings, it supports optional overclocking of both the CPU and memory. And there’s one more important (at least to me) nuance to both Z490-based motherboards (and the chipset they’re based on) that bears mention, this with respect to forward-compatibility.

As I mentioned last time, for the moment I’m going with a 10th-generation “Comet Lake” 10-core processor versus an 11th-generation “Rocket Lake” 8-core-max successor. Upcoming 12th-generation “Alder Lake” CPUs will be socket-incompatible with their precursors, but “Comet Lake” and “Rocket Lake” are socket-compatible with each other (assuming, of course, that the “Comet Lake” motherboard’s BIOS is also subsequently upgraded to support “Rocket Lake”). And both ASRock and MSI took upgradeability one step further; plug in a “Rocket Lake” CPU and you’ll automatically gain PCIe 4.0 compatibility. This won’t be a full “Rocket Lake” experience such as you’d garner from a successor Z590 chipset-based motherboard; you won’t be able to harness the twice-as-wide DMI link to the CPU, for example. But it’s still a nice usable-life-extension touch for folks who’ve already made a Z490 hardware investment.

In future posts in this series, I’ll talk about the DRAM and mass storage choices I made for both systems, the graphics cards I plan to mate each motherboard with, how I plan to adequately power and cool both systems (and the CPUs inside them), and other details. And eventually, of course, I’ll get both systems assembled and let you know how (if?) everything worked out. For now, however, I’ll press “pause” and await your thoughts in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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