Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H $79.99 Newegg
Before you can determine which motherboard to buy, you first have to pick a chipset. Here we decided to go with AMD’s 690 chipset, which has proven popular among enthusiasts on a budget due to its excellent feature set: the AMD-690 chipset supports two independent digital outputs. This allows motherboard manufacturers to include both DVI and HDMI outputs directly on the back plane of the motherboard in addition to the standard VGA output. The chipset also boasts 10-bit display output and HDCP support, as well as support dual-link DVI; this feature allows the 690 chipset to drive 30” monitors like the Dell 3007 at resolutions as high as 2560x1600.
AMD-690 is also known for generating very little heat -- the chipset is cooled entirely with simple heatsinks -- this has made it popular among HTPC users. Enthusiasts who overclock have also found that the chipset can scale to very high speeds for such an inexpensive platform.
Picking the AMD-690 motherboard was a tossup between the ASUS M2A-VM series and the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H. Ultimately we chose the Gigabyte in part because it has an x4 PCIe slot versus the x1 slot on the ASUS M2A-VM HDMI, which gives us a little more flexibility when upgrading. We also like the Gigabyte GA-MA69GM-S2H because it has both DVI and HDMI outputs on the back plane of the motherboard, as well as a VGA output. This gives end users lots of flexibility when it comes to display output options.
There are other AMD-690 motherboards with out-of-the-box support for all three display options, but most of these other motherboards require the use of riser cards to get all three display outputs (usually it’s an HDMI riser card). This is less than ideal, as you must plug the riser card into your motherboard’s PCI Express graphics slot in order to get full functionality.
In terms of overclocking, the motherboard’s BIOS supports bus speeds up to 500MHz. We managed to hit 290MHz with our particular motherboard, although we do wish the board’s BIOS offered voltage options within BIOS. This ultimately limits its overclocking potential. If overclocking is important to you, you may wish to go with our alternative pick…
…we have a strong feeling that the MSI K9AG Neo2-Digital would make an excellent alternative to Gigabyte’s GA-MA69GB-S2H. The MSI K9AG Neo2-Digital is one of the few ATX AMD-690 motherboards on the market; the majority of AMD-690 boards are micro-ATX. Like the GA-MA69GB-S2H, the K9AG Neo2-Digital offers HDMI, DVI, and VGA outputs all on the back plane of the motherboard, and with its larger form factor, the motherboard features 3 PCI slots (in comparison to the Gigabyte’s two) and two x1 PCIe slots (the Gigabyte motherboard has one x4 PCIe slot).
The only reason we didn’t include it as our primary choice is really because we don’t have any firsthand experience with this motherboard, but its specs look awesome on paper, and it’s priced similarly to the Gigabyte motherboard despite the fact that it’s a larger, much more capable full-sized ATX motherboard. In fact it sells for $5 less than the Gigabyte motherboard on Newegg if you want to save a little money.
OCZ PC2-6400 Platinum Revision 2 Dual Channel $79.99 Newegg ($44.99 after mail-in rebate)
You may or may not need this last component, depending on the specs of your current system. We’re going to go ahead and assume that you do though just to be safe. In this case, our top pick is OCZ’s PC2-6400 Platinum Revision 2 Dual Channel. Zipzoomfly currently sells a 2GB kit (2x1GB) of this memory for just $79.80 with free shipping. Newegg carries it for $79.99 with a $35 mail-in rebate, bringing the price down to just $44.99! We’ve been using OCZ’s Platinum memory modules on our testbeds for years now and simply love their memory. You can often run them at tighter timings than what they’re officially rated for, and of course, OCZ’s modules are well known for their ability to scale to high speeds.
The newer OCZ modules like the PC2-6400 Platinum Revision 2 Dual Channel come with OCZ’s 2nd-generation XTC heatspreaders which have dozens of tiny holes. These holes provide better airflow to the actual memory chips underneath the heatspeader. One interesting side affect is that it also makes these memory modules a little lighter.
When it comes to memory we tend to stick with the more well known brand names we know and trust like Corsair, Kingston, and OCZ, but with their cachet they tend to sell for more money than other manufacturers, particularly at the higher-end of the market where they offer some really exotic memory. If you’re on a really tight budget and need to save some money, a brand like pqi may not be a bad idea. We don’t have any firsthand experience with them, but they’re certainly growing in popularity among enthusiasts. This pqi Turbo module
on Newegg looks like it would make a good alternative to the OCZ Platinum, although if you use the mail-in rebate at Newegg, the OCZ 2GB kit is actually cheaper than this.
With the CPU, GPU, motherboard, and RAM in place, we’ve got a very solid foundation for a good gaming rig, and we’re actually under budget by $15 ($20 if you go with the MSI motherboard).
Again, this is an upgrade article, you’ve clearly already got a hard drive, optical drive, case, keyboard, mouse, monitor, and OS, or else you wouldn’t be reading this site. If you can, you might as well recycle those components and upgrade them as soon as your budget allows. In fact, if you take the $20 saved and scrape up another $50, you could easily add a 250GB SATA HDD with 16MB cache to finish the system off. Or use that money towards a new case and power supply.
Both the GeForce 8800 GT and X2 4000+ CPU we selected are 65-nm parts, so you don’t need a nuclear reactor to power this system. Running the Crysis GPU benchmark we noted a peak power load of 219 watts, at idle the system was pegged at just 116 watts. Based on this, a good 400W power supply should be enough to get by, but if you want a little more headroom for upgrades and/or you plan on overclocking, you may want to go with a 500W PSU just to be safe.
To see how our budget build stacks up against a high-end PC, we’ve included one of our high-end testbed configurations in this article. Our high-end rig consists of a Core 2 Extreme X6800 with an EVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard and the GeForce 8800 GTX GPU. We’ve also included a high-end Athlon 64 X2 6000+ system with an ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe for good measure. Our exact test configs are outlined on the next page.