Choosing the best motherboard and processor – AMD and Intel: Buyer’s Guide review

Choosing and upgrading your motherboard and processor
Photo of Choosing the best motherboard and processor – AMD and Intel: Buyer’s Guide

If you’re looking to give your system a bit of a speed boost, you could try adding a bit of extra memory if it’s short on that – but if you really want to give a decent performance hike, you’ll be wanting to upgrade to a new processor. And if it has been a little while since you last splashed the cash, it’s likely you’ll need a new motherboard, too. But what should you buy with your hard-earned? ITReviews helps you through the throny process of choosing these key components.

The processor is the heart or brain of a computer. It’s basically avery complex engine for calculations. If you’re not a gamer, it’s the component that’s likely to be working the hardest at any given time. Choosing the wrong chip for your needs can leave you with a system that feels sluggish, no matter how much you spend on the rest of the components. Pay attention to the number of processing cores a chip has, the amount of cache memory, and its processing speed – measured in gigahertz, or GHz.

The motherboard, in contrast, is the part of the computer that combines all the other components together. It’s the main circuit board inside your computer, into which pretty much all other components are plugged. Unless you have specific needs, such as the ability to overclock – running components such as the processor, memory and graphics card faster than their rated speeds to squeeze the very last drop of performance – it’s an easier decision to make than the CPU. All you need to do is pick the board that has the features you need.

Memory (RAM)
Random Access Memory or RAM is the workspace your computer uses to open applications in or store frequently used bits of information so that they’re quickly and easily accessible. The more you have, generally, the faster your system will be.

Most modern memory is of the Double Data-Rate (DDR) type – but even this comes in several flavours. When buying memory, always make sure you know what type your motherboard takes. A system that’s designed for DDR2 won’t take DDR3 RAM, and vice versa. Also check your motherboard’s documentation to see it recommends using a specific number of memory modules – many systems can benefit from a speed boost if you buy a certain number of modules and enable dual- or triple-channel mode in the BIOS.

The first step towards getting your system upgraded is to decide what category you fit in to: budget, mainstream, or premium.

The budget category is self-explanatory: if you’ve picked this, it’s because you’re building upgrading a system for general-purpose use and don’t want to spend the earth – office tasks and Internet browsing will be the order of the day, with perhaps a little streaming video in your off hours.

The good news is that there’s plenty of choice at the cheaper end of the market at the moment. As is usual, your processor choice is between two main market powers: Intel and AMD.

Both companies offer a budget-specific processor range. In Intel’s case, it’s the Celeron, and in AMD’s it’s the Sempron. Both are cut-down versions of the companies’ respective mainstream processor lines, featuring reduced clockspeeds – basically, the number of calculations a processor can make each second – and less cache (very fast memory that’s built directly into the chip to store frequently accessed information close at hand aiding performance). Both of these factors translate to a significant performance drop.

Unless you desperately need a processor for under £30, you’re better off spending the extra money required to get a processor that hasn’t been hobbled. An AMD Athlon II X2 250 dual-core 3GHz processor can be bought for under £50, and will provide a much more pleasurable computing experience – and likewise an Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5500 3GHz processor will cost much the same.

Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5500
Intel’s Pentium Dual-Core E5500 is a starting point for budget systems.

The main issue with buying on a budget is longevity: the processors listed above are a few generations old, and while AMD has promised to keep the AM3 processor socket used by the Athlon II X2 250 alive for a while longer, the LGA775 format used by Intel’s equivalent Pentium is already old-hat – meaning you’ll probably need to buy a new motherboard the next time you upgrade.

Speaking of motherboards, at the budget end it’s a buyer’s market. Simply pick a reliable brand such as Gigabyte, Asus, or ASRock, and make sure it matches your processor type – AM3 for the AMD chip, or LGA775 for the Intel – and comes with the required number of SATA ports and expansion slots. If you won’t be playing games, buying a board that includes integrated graphics – such as the Asus M4N68T-M LE, which includes an in-built Nvidia GeForce 7025 graphics processing unit (GPU) – could save you a bit of extra cash.

Asus M4N68T-M LE
For those going the AMD route, the Asus M4N68T-M LE is a good budget choice.

When buying the motherboard, the specifications will mention the type of RAM supported as well as its maximum speed. Remember that, for a budget system, the quantity of RAM is more important than the speed – so if you can buy a larger amount of slower memory, do so. As with motherboards, it’s always worth paying extra for a brand such as Crucial or Kingston – the unbranded memory might seem like a bargain, but it can result in compatibility problems that the warranty simply won’t cover.

At the time of writing, buying either of the processors above, 4GB of memory, and a motherboard with integrated graphics will cost you no more than around £130 – and while choosing a Celeron or Sempron chip would drop that price down a little, it’s a saving that we really don’t think is worth making.

The mainstream is where the choices become easier. You want a reasonable system that will let you do all of the things that a budget system offers, but you’re looking for a guarantee of longevity, future upgradability, and the option to play modern games occasionally. As a result, you’re looking to spend a bit more.

Unlike at the bottom end, there’s really only one choice for the mainstream buyer’s CPU: Intel. After a disastrous few years with its Pentium 4 family, which were frequently outclassed by AMD’s rival chips, the company hit back with the Core Duo and Core 2 Duo series. The latest entries in the range, the Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, are particularly good – and don’t have to cost the earth.

The Core i3 range, which is Intel’s new entry point for the mainstream market, is powerful enough – but if you can spare a bit more than the £100 asking price it’s worth looking towards the Core i5 series instead. Around £150 will get you the Core i5 750, a quad-core processor running at 2.66GHz – and despite its slower running speed than some of the cheaper dual-core Core i3 series, the additional two processing cores makes everyday computing significantly speedier.

As the Intel Core i3 and i5 range share the sameprocessor socket type , it’s possible to buy a cheaper processor now and upgrade to a faster one when prices fall – and the relatively new nature of LGA1156 motherboards mean that you get the very latest technology.

Boards like the Asus P7H55-M are available for under £100. When teamed with a Core i-series processor that has integrated graphics – which the Core i5 750 doesn’t feature, sadly – the Asus can use the built-in GPU circuitry on the processor so that you don’t have to buy a separate graphics card. That is, unless you’re planning to spend a lot of time playing games – in which case a dedicated card is still very much recommended.

Motherboards in this price category often come with features that are missing from cheaper, older models – including improved support for overclocking, higher-quality on-board audio, and greater expansion potential. Pick one that matches your needs, paying particular attention to the number of storage devices you’re likely to connect to it, as you don’t want to run short of SATA ports for your hard disks.

The same advice regarding RAM applies to the mainstream as to the budget buying category: if you need to make the decision between a smaller quantity of faster RAM, and a larger quantity of slower RAM, always pick the slower. Never be tempted to buy less than 4GB of memory – especially if you’re running Windows 7.

At current prices, a respectable system with quad-core processor, good quality motherboard, and 4GB of RAM should cost less than £300. If you’re spending more than £500, you’re probably better off looking at the next category.

You’re an avid gamer, you run collaborative computing software such as Folding@Home in the background, and you’ve got a wedge of cash burning its hole in your back pocket. You want something that offers the very best performance – even if it means that it’ll be worth significantly less in the next few months.

As with the mainstream category, Intel is really the only choice for the premium buyer at the moment – although upcoming chips from AMD based around the company’s Fusion APU (Application Processing Unit) design could change that in the near future.

Ignoring the Intel Core i3 and i5 ranges, which are for average users, you’re left with the Intel Core i7 – the company’s flagship CPU line. With prices starting around the £230 mark – which will get you the Core i7 870 quad-core 2.93GHz chip – they’re not cheap, but the performance is second to none.

If money is truly no option, look for Core i7 processors with the ‘K’ suffix on the model number, like the Intel Core i7 875K. Unlike the non-K models, these feature an unlocked clock multiplier – making them significantly easier to overclock and squeeze every last drop of performance out of your purchase.

If you are going to be overclocking, you’re going to need a motherboard that will let you do it. Many companies offer specific motherboard series dedicated to gamers and power-users, such as the Republic of Gamers range from Asus – and if you’ve got a spare £150, the Asus Maximus III GENE P55 is indicative of what you can expect to get.

Unlike cheaper boards made for the mainstream market, The Maximus offers no option to make use of the graphics integrated into the Core i7 CPU. Instead, you get support for adding in multiple graphics cards from AMD or Nvidia, in-built RAID to allow you to combine hard disks together for greater performance, and some of the best overclocking options on the market.

If you’re gaming, you’re going to want at least 6GB of RAM in a premium system – but remember to couple it with a 64-bit operating system, such as Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, as older 32-bit systems can’t make use of large quantities of memory.

Kingston HyperX T1 XMP pack
Kingston HyperX T1 XMP pack features fan-cooled memory for overclockers.

Companies like Kingston and Corsair do specialist high-performance RAM packs with overclocker-friendly heatsinks and – in the case of Kingston’s HyperX T1 XMP pack – cooling fans. If you’re overclocking, go for the fastest memory you can afford – this will give you more headroom as you increase the speed of the front side bus.

A Core i7 CPU with overclockable motherboard and 6GB of 2,000MHz DDR3 RAM shouldn’t set you back more than around £550 – but if you’ve got more cash to blow, the sky is the limit.