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Making The First Cut - The Chipset
One of the most important things to understand is that the PC is comprised of three basic elements: the CPU, the memory subsystem and the I/O subsystem. The motherboard is simply a printed circuit board with logic circuits and connectors for the various devices. In the "old days", the logic circuits were laid out and implemented using discrete components, such as transistors, capacitors, resistors, diodes, etc. As more functionality was added, these discrete components began to take up more "real estate" than was available physically on the board, so integrated circuits began to be utilized instead, with the additional benefit of lower cost. These ICs were designed to perform specific functions, and so were named Application Specific ICs, or ASICs. The downside to this implementation was that each ASIC had a specific set of input and output requirements, which forced the designers to create "sets" of ASICs which would all communicate properly with each other to perform all of the desired functions. These became known as chipsets. Today, many chipsets actually consist of only one or two chips, however the moniker persists. Since the functionality of a motherboard is determined by the logic circuits (chipset) that it uses, it follows that one of the keys to choosing a motherboard is to understand the what features you need, and which chipset provides them.
For the modern PC, each chipset will support one of three CPU interfaces: Socket 7, Slot 1 or Socket 370. The CPU you have chosen will therefore determine which chipsets you can pick from. Though VIA now has the license to produce chipsets for Slot 1 and Socket 370, they are not yet as mature as Intel chipsets, so you should stick with Intel for those platforms unless your pocketbook says otherwise. On the other hand, Intel does not make Socket 7 chipsets any more, so your best choices are either VIA or ALi. SiS has made some very good Socket 7 chipsets, but they are currently lagging behind the others in features. SiS also makes Slot 1/Socket 370 chipsets but do not have the license as of this writing.
The current Intel chipsets for Slot 1 are the i440LX and i440BX. If you can afford it, the i440BX chipset is the better of the two because it has all of the features of the LX, plus additional bus speed and memory support. The Intel chipsets for Socket 370 are the LX, BX and the i440ZX (which is a "scaled down" BX chipset). Again: if you can afford it, the BX chipset will be a better choice but mainly because it is more mature than the ZX. Due to limitations in the Socket 370 processors (Celeron), the BX chipset doesn't really offer much over the ZX. Your choices for Socket 7 depend again upon what bus speed, memory and video card support you need, as well as some other considerations. There are a few more choices in the Socket 7 arena, but most users will pick either the VIA MVP3 or ALi Aladdin V because of the bus speed support for current and future Socket 7 processors. If you don't need the 100MHz+ bus speed, SiS has some nice chipsets to choose from also including the 5591, 5592 and 5598. Which of these you might want depends (again) on price and whether you need AGP or Ultra DMA support.
Understanding all of the chipsets and their capabilities may sound like a daunting task, but if you determine your needs up front (bus speed, AGP, UDMA, memory type and amount, etc.) you will find that your choice usually becomes easier. If you are someone who really wants to understand what you are getting, then it would be advisable to check on the various hardware sites to get an idea about what each chipset offers. One resource that is invaluable for the serious upgrader but often forgotten, is the chipset manufacturer's web site, where you can find data sheets for all past and current chipsets.
Next: Planning For The Future