With more and more components being integrated inside the computer CPU, the motherboard doesn’t affect the system performance as much as it used to just a few years ago. So what makes a given motherboard a good motherboard?
There are features, of course. The number of memory sockets, the number of expansion slots, the support for SLI and CrossFire configurations, the number of SATA ports, the presence of eSATA ports, the number of USB ports, the presence of digital audio outputs (SPDIF), RAID support, overclocking options and, especially right now, the presence of new technologies such as SATA-600 (a.k.a. SATA 6 G) and USB 3.0.
But if you are buying a motherboard and find two or more products with similar features, which one you should buy? One answer might be “the one with the best quality”. But how can you tell the quality of a motherboard?
There are a few small details on motherboards that reveal a lot about its overall quality.
The first one is the quality of the electrolytic capacitors that are used on the motherboard. Many years ago some manufacturers used low-cost capacitors that leaked after some time, leading the computer to behave erraticly and even damage the motherboard. Since then, several manufacturers started using capacitors that are immune to such leakage. One of the best kind of capacitor uses polymer type, also known as “solid”. They are easy to spot: the look like small aluminum cans. Then the second best are the ones manufactured in Japan (brands include Nihon Chemi-Con, Rubycon, Sanyo, Matsushita/Panasonic, and Hitachi).
The second clue to quality is the kind of chokes (coils) used on the voltage regulator circuit (which is located close to the CPU socket). These chokes can use ferrite or iron in their core. Both are squared components measuring approximately 3/8” x 3/8” (1 cm x 1 cm), but ferrite chokes are “closed” while iron chokes are “opened”. So if you see a bunch of gray or black square components near the CPU socket without a coil inside of it showing up you are seeing a ferrite choke, otherwise you are facing an iron choke. Ferrite chokes are better than iron chokes.
Then we have the number of “phases” of the voltage regulator circuit (think of a phase as being like a piston in a car engine). The more phases the voltage regulator has, the better, because each transistor present on this circuit will work less, thus producing less heat. The less heat your motherboard produces, the better for its life-span and of course temperature inside the computer. A high number of phases also increases the motherboard efficiency, i.e. it consumes less energy.
But how can you tell the number of phases from a motherboard? By counting the number of chokes available: each choke is connected to one phase. However, current CPUs require several voltages to work, so the voltage regulator circuit will have separated phases for each voltage. For instance, on motherboards designed for CPUs with integrated memory controllers (all AMD CPUs and Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 from Intel), the voltage regulator will produce two distinct voltages, one for the CPU core and another one for the memory controller. In this case the motherboard manufacturer may say that the voltage regulator circuit is, for example, a “6+2” design, meaning six phases for the CPU core and two phases for the integrated memory controller. Motherboards targeted to the new Intel CPUs with integrated video controller need to produce three different voltages, the third one being to the CPU integrated video processor, so manufacturers announce the voltage regulator circuit like “6+1+1”.
So when comparing motherboards, you should buy the one with more phases.
Some manufacturers, however, use a higher switching frequency on their voltage regulator circuit, what makes one phase to be more efficient than several phases from competing products. Manufacturers that offer this kind of solution on their products advertise this very clearly on the product specs page.