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Building Your Own Computer Like My Super PC

Motherboard

The ABIT KT7A is the hands-down favorite PC133 SDRAM motherboard. The quality and stability are extremely high, it's completely jumperless, and it even includes an ISA slot in case you have a legacy card of some type you want to use. In my case, I used an ISA modem. It makes overclocking a breeze, if you're into that sort of thing. The socket A accommodates either an Athlon or Duron processor, so upgrading the processor is no problem. The reviews are always stellar, such as this ABIT KT7A review by ViaHardware.

The ABIT KT7A and the ABIT KT7A-RAID support any GHz of the AMD Athlon Thunderbird or AMD Athlon XP processor. Out-of-date references may indicate they only support up to 1.2GHz. Just make sure the BIOS is up-to-date. See the BIOS version history on Paul's FAQ site for specifics. See my Build A Computer Like My Super PC - BIOS Flash Updates And Driver Updates page for details and instructions on updating the BIOS.

The ABIT KT7A and ABIT KT7A-RAID motherboards also support the AMD Athlon XP processor. Support for the AMD Athlon XP processor officially begins with version 1.3 of the motherboard. Version 1.3 first became available in September of 2001. However, Paul Howland's ABIT KT7A FAQ site notes that versions of the motherboard prior to version 1.3 should work agreeably well in his FAQ Why does only the KT7A(-RAID) version 1.3 officially support the Athlon XP processor?

How to build a computer - ABIT KT7A V1.3 motherboard retail box Click on any picture to see it enlarged.

Paul Howland's Unofficial KT7/KT7A FAQ - Great!

ABIT Home Page

ABIT KT7A Motherboard Home Page
How to build a computer - ABIT KT7A V1.3 motherboard retail box contents Here are the contents of the retail box. It's pretty hard to make out the ABIT KT7A motherboard itself in this shot since it's still covered by it's antistatic bag.
How to build a computer - ABIT KT7A V1.3 motherboard Here's a closeup of the ABIT KT7A motherboard out of it's antistatic bag.
How to build a computer - ABIT KT7A version mark The motherboard is labeled with the version number on the white UPC looking label in the upper left-hand corner of the motherboard picture. Here's a closeup. I suspect any ABIT KT7A retail box labeled "Athlon Ready" as shown in the picture of the retail box above contains the V1.3 motherboard. It's easier to see the "Athlon Ready" icon if you enlarge the picture. It's the arrow-shaped icon in the upper left-hand portion of the box - in the red area.

ABIT KT7A Motherboard And Other SDRAM Motherboards

PC133 SDRAM motherboards, such as the KT133A chipset based ABIT KT7A, provide all the performance you need. The ABIT KT7A is still my pick in this group. You just can't beat the quality and features of the ABIT KT7A motherboard. The ISA slot alone saves around $50 if it allows re-use of something already owned, such as a modem card. Other popular KT133A SDRAM motherboards include the EPox 8KTA3 and the Iwill KK266Plus. Both the EPox 8KTA3 motherboard and the KK266Plus motherboard provide an ISA slot. The respective RAID versions are the EPox 8KTA3+ and KK266Plus-R.


DDR Motherboards

The technology standard today is the DDR motherboard. A DDR motherboard should meet or exceed the performance of a KT133A SDRAM motherboard, but in most cases the extra performance will not be noticeable in everyday use.

DDR motherboards have been out long enough for a concensus to develop on which ones are the better ones. The first DDR motherboards were rushed out quickly to capitalize on the market mood. The DDR motherboards widely favored today have had time to improve on the earlier models and add new features. The short list of stand-out DDR motherboards includes the ABIT KR7A-RAID (available without RAID as the ABIT KR7A) and the Iwill XP333-R. The short list would also include the EPoX 8KHA+ if not for an unfortunate design flaw which makes usage of the latest video card technology, namely the GeForce4 Ti video cards, an improbability as described in HardOCP's EPoX 8KHA+ GeForce4 Problems report. This KT266A DDR Motherboard Roundup Review by Anandtech is an outstanding summary of the many currently available DDR motherboards with the ABIT KR7A-RAID taking top honors. That being the case, you'll want to know that the ABIT KR7A-RAID has already been improved to the KR7A-133 and KR7A-133 RAID motherboards.

The KT266A DDR motherboards use PC1600 and PC2100 DDR memory modules, with the PC2100 DDR memory module being the module of choice since it provides better performance. In raw bandwidth terms, PC2100 DDR memory is roughly 33% faster than PC1600 DDR% memory. But overall system performance is improved by something in the 5% to 10% range.

Since February of 2002, KT333 DDR motherboards have become available. KT333 DDR motherboards accept PC2700 DDR memory modules. In raw bandwidth terms, PC2700 DDR memory is roughly 33% faster than PC2100 memory. But again, overall system performance is improved by something in the 5% to 10% range. The reason, of course, for the smaller improvement in overall system performance is because that performance is still constrained by other components of the system, such as the video card, hard drive, and speed of the processor (the processor does not even access main memory when the data is already in the processor cache!). This KT333 Motherboard Roundup Review by Digit-Life makes similar points regarding performance. For a comprehensive review of the KT333 motherboards available today, check out this KT333 Motherboard Roundup Review by Anandtech which gives top honors to the Gigabyte GA-7VRXP. Gigabyte has a solid reputation, so I have no qualms with their recommendation. One interesting trend is that on-board sound is getting much better beginning with KT333 motherboards, which brings up the possibility of saving the expense of an add-on sound card.

And hot on the heals of KT333 DDR motherboards are the KT400 DDR motherboards which first became available in August of 2002. Since they are inside my "six month rule of delayed acquisition" window, I'll just be keeping a close eye on them for now. One big improvement in the KT400 motherboards is much faster graphics support. The KT400 supports AGP 8x, doubling the AGP 4x speed available on the KT133A, KT266A and KT333 predecessors. This should give the KT400 the potential for a much bigger overall system performance improvement then the incremental gains seen between the KT133A, the KT266A and the KT333.


RAID Motherboards

Well what about RAID motherboards? The intended purpose of RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) is to boost the performance of the hard drive by using two hard drives in parallel. So, of course, a RAID motherboard system must be configured with two identical hard drives. But for most PC users, the hard drive just does not get used enough to make it a signficant factor in the performance equation. RAID is appropriate for heavy disk usage environments, such as servers or video editing. For home use, RAID might be fun to play around with but it's not going to give you bang-for-buck. The direct extra costs are a more expensive motherboard and more money for hard drives. The extra performance is not signficant. Keep in mind that a good disk drive will have something like a 2MB cache built-in, so disk accesses that hit the cache are virutally instantaneous anyway. An excellent guide to understanding all about RAID is Adrian Rojak Pot's Guide To RAID.

On the other hand, it's increasingly popular to get the RAID version of the motherboard even if you don't plan on using RAID functionality. RAID motherboards still support single hard drive operation. And the advantage is it gives you additional IDE controllers which means you can have more IDE devices total and/or put more IDE devices on their own, individual IDE controller to improve system performance. While a RAID motherboard should cost more than its non-RAID counterpart, it's typically not much more at all.


Best Motherboard Choice

I'm not inclined to spend the extra money for a RAID PC, although I can understand those who do. However the price differential between a motherboard and it's RAID counterpart is often quite narrow. In that case it's worthwhile to get the RAID version even if it's being used in a single hard drive system since it gives greater flexibility and resale value.

With the RAID issue aside, that still leaves quite a selection of motherboard variations to consider. The variations are:
  • KT133A motherboards, which take PC133 SDRAM memory modules.
  • KT266A motherboards, which take PC2100 DDR memory modules.
  • KT300 motherboards, which take PC2700 DDR memory modules.
  • KT400 motherboards, which take PC3200 DDR memory modules.

The different types of memory modules usually vary in price, so it's important to take into consideration how much memory will be installed on the motherboard and how much it costs when figuring the cost of choosing one variation over another. Other components will be reusable regardless of the motherboard variation.

While the ABIT KT7A motherboard uses the oldest technology, KT133A SDRAM, it may well be the cheapest when considered in conjunction with the memory cost. And it may be cheaper still if a legacy ISA card is being reused. While each succeeding technology provides a welcome performance boost, the KT133A SDRAM based ABIT KT7A motherboard is capable of handling any task and is therefore a very practical choice.

If I were building My Super PC today then I would select a DDR motherboard. Even though KT133A motherboards deliver all of the performance you're likely to need, DDR motherboards go them one better and typically cost just a little more. Of the DDR motherboards, I like the KT266A DDR based ABIT KR7A-133 due to its solid reputation for quality and performance.

KT333 DDR motherboards are gaining acceptance, but I see no practical reason to go that route. I'd rather wait on at least a manufacturer's second KT333 DDR motherboard offering since frequently it becomes a nice choice by improving on the first effort. The 5% to 10% overall improvement in system performance that a KT333 DDR motherboard provides is inconsequential. For example, smooth gameplay requires at least 30 frames-per-second. Even without DDR, My Super PC performs well in excess of that mark under real-world configurations. But if there was a desired configuration where that mark was not met sufficiently, say only 20 frames-per-second, then a 10% performance improvement to 22 frames-per-second would not be an improvement of consequence. It's very interesting to see on-board sound looming on the horizon as a possible cost-saving alternative to an add-on sound card, but that's a double-edged sword since built-in extras have a history of adding cost, performing inadequately, and being troublesome. In fact, conventional wisdom has been to avoid built-ins for these very reasons, so I'll take considerably more convincing before I embrace this trend. And KT333 motherboards don't even enjoy the lure of snob-appeal since KT400 motherboards are right around the corner and potentially vastly better.

But KT400 DDR motherboards are too new for me. Initial users will have to deal with high costs for both motherboard and memory, as well as having to shake out the initial problems.

An even better value than the ABIT KR7A-133 is the ABIT KR7A. The ABIT KR7A is virtually identical to the ABIT KR7A-133, but priced less. The difference is the ABIT KR7A supports up to the Ultra DMA 100 IDE protocol, whereas the ABIT KR7A-133 supports ATA/133. While in theory this could mean faster hard drive access, in every day use it makes no difference. I go in more detail as to why this is so on my Build A Computer Like My Super PC - Hard Drive page.


Motherboard Trend

We may be in the dawn of the time when several standard connectivity options, such as the PS/2 ports commonly used for the keyboard and mouse, the parallel ports and the serial ports are considered "legacy" and no longer supported! Newer technology, such as USB and FireWire, may replace them altogether, thus reducing the number of components you may already own that can be ported over to a new PC. As an example, see this ABIT AT7 KT333 DDR motherboard review by hardCoreware.net. I bring this point up as a point of interest. I'm using the ABIT AT7 review as a good example of one company's bold initiative to define the "next generation". Don't interpret its mention here as an intention to put the ABIT AT7 motherboard on my "short list" of preferred motherboards. Actually, I'm not particularly taken with it. With that said and speaking in general terms, "legacy free" motherboards may become appealing, especially to those buying everything new. It means less devices fighting over operating system resources, thus reducing the likelihood of conflicts.



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