Chipsets – The Guys Behind the Scenes

Chipsets and motherboards are mysterious things. It’s hard to get a clear idea of what exactly do they do and how one is better than the other, yet the motherboard is still one of the essential parts of the computer, any computer. Even phones. And by “essential part”, I meant “without this part, your computer won’t even run”. Well, that being said, how’s one motherboard different from the other, then? Well, form factor aside (that bit is pretty obvious), the most important thing for a motherboard is compatibility. The motherboard is like the skeleton of your computer, it determines which parts you can or cannot add into it, so a better motherboard means you can build a badder PC. However, it goes beyond that. The motherboard itself also has purposes, too! One of which is to provide the chipset. Ok, so what does THAT do, then? That’s what I’d like to discuss today. I’m not a real technician and thus have limited knowledge, but to put it simply, the chipset allows everything to work. It’s the “compatibility” part of the motherboard (together with the motherboard’s structure itself), and it provides some CPU-related “technologies” that may or may not help your work, but are always nice to have nonetheless. In any case, it’s a mysterious component, and its effects are very subtle, but it’s important. So, the chipsets I’d like to introduce today are Intel’s current ones (I’m not too familiar with AMD’s chipsets, sorry), B85, Q87, H87, H97, Z87, Z97, and X99. I’ll also try discussing some of their motherboards to give you an idea how they may work for you. Oh, and another thing: A better chipset usually means a better motherboard.

 

B85 – Budget Business Board.


G1 Gaming B6B can literally stand for both “business” and “budget”, as it’s the budget business chipset line from Intel, as opposed to the Q line which is the “serious” business line. However, despite being marketed towards business people, consumers can also freely use B85 motherboards, as they are also compatible with consumer chipsets like the Celeron, Pentium or the Core ix series. So, the B85 chipset is the most basic “current” chipset from Intel, and is thus what most people go for, since it’s way cheaper yet is still compatible with Socket LGA 1150, which is the socket used for Intel’s Haswell and Broadwell chips, namely the ix-4xxx, Celeron G18xx, and Pentium G3xxx CPUs, as well as some Xeon chips. Plus, the chipset offers basic functions that will let you build nearly every PC out there if you’re not going too hardcore. Anyway, let’s go to the details, here’s what the B85 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) chips (does NOT natively support Broadwell (5th-generation) chips!)
  • 1 x16 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 12 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 4 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports. (If you don’t happen to know, the SATA ports are the ports used for your storage devices. HDDs, SSDs, ODDs (a.k.a. CD Drives), etc. They are also regularly used for other case accessories too.)
  • Up to 4 SATA 6Gb/s (a.k.a. SATA 3) ports.
  • Intel Small Business Advantage.

I won’t list the other “Intel technologies” included in this chipset like Intel Rapid Start, Intel Smart Connect, Intel HD Audio, etc. because all of them are common across all chipsets discussed here. So, as you can see, the main problem with the B85 is not what’s listed here, because they are pretty good at first glance. However, its main drawback is its LACK of things. Better chipsets offer more “Intel technologies” that will improve your computer’s performance just a bit, as well as giving more USB and SATA ports. The B85 also doesn’t natively support Broadwell CPUs or SLI/Crossfire (using multiple graphics cards at once), which are more important setbacks for serious builders. The B85 chipset also supports Intel Small Business Advantage, which is supposed to give you some tips for your small business or something. To be honest, it’s not a whole lot important, I don’t really know how it works, and not many people care about that stuff. Also, B85 motherboards are usually the worst of the bunch. Pictured here is the G1.Sniper B6 motherboard from Gigabyte, the most hardcore B85 board I know, and even then it only costs as much as an average H97 board and doesn’t offer many interesting features aside from swagware (exotic heatsink design, LEDs, etc.). Ok, the AMP-UP audio processor may be an interesting one, but I have yet to have a chance to test if it’s actually any better than my H97-D3H’s (also from the same brand) unlabeled audio hardware.

 

H87 – All the Essentials


MSI H87-G43 The H series is Intel’s consumer chipset line, with everything you need save for enthusiast features like SLI/Crossfire or overclocking. That being said, if you don’t need to look like a real badass gamer, this is the line you should go for. Even though the H87 chipset is not really “current” (since the H97 chipset is already here), it’s still compatible with the LGA 1150 socket, and thus will still be discussed here. The H87 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) chips (does NOT natively support Broadwell (5th-generation) chips!)
  • 1 x16 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Small Business Advantage.

As you can see, compared to the B85 above, the H87 offers 2 more USB 3.0-compatible ports, and all six of the SATA ports are now 6Gb/s-compatible, as opposed to the B85 where only 4 of them can be used with a 6Gb/s bandwidth. While it may not seem to be much of an improvement compared to the B85, motherboard manufacturers are quick to utilize the extra ports. H87 motherboards are often loaded with many more USB 3.0 ports than B85 boards, and they are also often made with slightly better materials since the chipset is marketed towards a slightly different demographics. Pictured above is the H87-G43 Gaming from MSI. It’s only a few bucks more expensive than the G1.Sniper B6, yet offers 3 more USB 2.0 ports (by the way, it offers 10 USB 2.0 ports and 4 USB 3.0 ports, maxing out the 14 ports limit of the chipset) and Killer network chip. It doesn’t have LEDs though.

 

Z87 – Pre-Builts Galore


Evga Z87 ClassifiedOh, pre-built PCs simply loooooove the Z87 chipset. Why? Because it’s easy to cash in that way. Z chipsets are MUCH more expensive than H chipsets. There’s a staggering $30 price difference between my H97-D3H and the Z97-D3H, and they are the EXACT SAME board with different chipsets. Even their manual is the same! However, it’s kinda justified, since the Z series offer features that enthusiasts will love, like multiple graphics cards support and overclocking, both of which are kinda “required” to earn you the “pro gamer” bragging rights, and make your PC more customizable. The Z87 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) chips (does NOT natively support Broadwell (5th-generation) chips!)
  • Overclocking
  • 1 x8 and 2 x4 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Smart Response Technology.
  • Intel Dynamic Storage Accelerator.

Four things catch our eyes here:

  • First, the “1 x8 and 2 x4 lanes PCI-E”, which basically means you can execute 3-way SLI/Crossfire (using 3 graphics cards at once) comfortably, though boards with lower chipsets also support Crossfire (not SLI) non-natively, but it’s not recommended to do so. It also somehow makes Thunderbolt relevant, though as of current few boards support Thunderbolt at all.
  • Second, overclocking support. This means you can overclock your UNLOCKED CPUs (Intel’s K, C, or X series CPUs) natively, and give them a bit more performance.
  • Third, Intel’s Smart Response Technology. This is basically Intel’s SSD-caching system, which allows you to use your SSD as a cache for your HDD, thus accelerating your HDD noticably, though it’s a bit hard to pull off. It also makes SSHDs relevant, since they are basically HDDs with a very small SSD inside to use as cache.
  • Finally, the Dynamic Storage Accelerator technology, which is supposed to boost your SSDs’ performance somewhat by managing power more efficiently, allowing them to have more juice.

That being said, the Z87 chipset offers many important features over the H87 for enthusiasts, but still, pre-built PCs companies usually use this chipset together with locked (not overclockable) CPUs, a single graphics card, and no SSDs, which instantly makes all of the Z87’s extra features irrelevant (unless you upgrade the PC later yourself. But then again why wouldn’t you build a custom one in the first place anyway?). I call bull*censored*. You may not have noticed, but the Z87 chipset doesn’t have Small Business Advantage support, unlike the lower chipsets. But really, you can’t seriously care about that stuff, can you? Oh, and pictured above is the Z87 Classified from EVGA. The Classified series is known to have nearly every function you can think of, so there’s not much to talk about here. It sells at $180 though.

Q87 – The Executive’s Choice


Asus Q87M-EThe Q87 chipset is Intel’s “real” business chipset. Basically, it’s the H87 with some “Intel Technologies” added in for better business management, and it retails at a price higher than the Z97. Not worth it for me, unless you REALLY need that “better business management”. And yup, unless you are a manager, you most likely will never use a Q87 board in your life, just to get that out of the way, so you can just skip this section altogether if you’re only planning on building PERSONAL computers. The Q87 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) chips (does NOT natively support Broadwell (5th-generation) chips!)
  • 1 x16 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Small Business Advantage.
  • Intel Smart Response Technology.
  • Intel Active Management Technology.

So as you can see, the only extras here (over the H series) are the Smart Response Technology (which is not even an extra if you’re using a H97 board, since that chipset has it too) and the Active Management Technology. So what does that oh-so-special Active Management Technology do? Well, I haven’t researched a lot on that, but apparently it’s like a built-in software suite that lets you manage and “repair” other computers in your business over the network better. You can always buy a real, more serious software suite for that though, I suppose. Pictured above is the Q87M-E from Asus, and it currently sells at $131 on Newegg. That’s more expensive than the Z97-D3H. Not cheap not cheap! I decided to put its picture here because it’s the only Q87 motherboard I can find that doesn’t look like crap (and “not looking like crap” was my only criterion. I didn’t even demand it to “look good”).

 

H97 – All the Essentials. For real this time.


H97-D3HOk, although the H series is supposed to be the best consumer, non-enthusiast chipset series, with no compromises aside from extreme functions, the H87 was old, so it didn’t quite cut it. The newer H97, however, made it with SRT and Broadwell support, and some other tricks up its sleeves, making it just a Z97 without OC and SLI/Crossfire capabilities. The H97 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) and Broadwell (5th-generation) chips
  • 1 x16 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Small Business Advantage.
  • Intel Smart Response Technology.
  • Intel Remote Wake Technology.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology for PCI-e SSDs.
  • Intel Dynamic Storage Accelerator.

So, as you can see, this chipset is the first one with native Broadwell support so far, and it also supports Smart Response Technology to accelerate your HDD, and Dynamic Storage Accelerator, unlike the H87. It also has some new Intel Technologies that may be useful for some, like the Remote Wake Technology, which allows you to control your PC remotely (with TeamViewer or the likes) even when the PC is off or sleeping. It now also supports Rapid Storage Technology for PCI-e SSDs, which allows you to build RAID volumes (interconnecting multiple identical storage devices for a faster overall speed) with these disks, as well as increasing these SSDs’ effective speed just a little bit. In many ways, it’s a very good choice if you don’t plan to overclock or use extreme multi-cards setups.  Pictured above is the H97-D3H, my personal motherboard. It’s the best non-gaming H97 board from Gigabyte (I’ll make a whole blog post to discuss whether gaming motherboards are worth it later), and it’s quite cheap compared to the other boards listed here, at less than $90. A very good advantage of this chipset over the H87 ones is that, being newer, this chipset is also normally accompanied by more modern motherboards, with better materials, improved audio hardware, and cooler looks.

 

Z97 – Game On.


Sabertooth Mark SAhhhh… The Z97, the standard for high-performance PCs, and with good reason. It supports everything INCLUDING SLI/Crossfire and overclocking, and it’s accompanied by all kinds of rad motherboards. (Seriously, don’t you dare tell me that the board pictured here is not special.) The only “drawback” of this chipset is that it supports a different socket from Intel’s most hi-end chipset, the X99, and it doesn’t support 4-way SLI/Crossfire. That being said, the Z97 offers:

  • Support for Haswell (4th-generation) and Broadwell (5th-generation) chips
  • Overclocking.
  • 1 x8 and 2 x4 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 3Gb/s ports.
  • Up to 6 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Smart Response Technology.
  • Intel Device Protection Technology with Boot Guard.
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology for PCI-e SSDs.
  • Intel Dynamic Storage Accelerator.

Like the Z87 is to the H87, the Z97 is basically a more powerful H97 with support for overclocking, Thunderbolt support and three-way SLI/Crossfire. It doesn’t seem to “officially” support Remote Wake Technology though, which is weird, but in its place it has something more important: the Boot Guard, which is supposed to protect your pre-OS environment (BIOS, Rescue Disks, etc.) from malware, which is pretty handy for more adept users who can work with these environments comfortably, and ultimately leading to better security. Motherboard manufacturers also tend to do all kinds of things with their Z97 boards, leading to greater variety and a greater amount of exotic boards, like the Sabertooth Z97 Mark S from Asus pictured above. It has a rare white theme and an even rarer motherboard armor, with a fan and vents, etc. Yeah I know, it’s just weird, in a good way, and there are many other boards that are fascinating in other ways, too. These cool boards are in no way cheap though. The one above costs as much as $270, which puts the Z87 Classified I discussed earlier to shame.

 

X99 – X is for eXtreme. What did you expect?


ASRock X99 Extreme 11So dangerous in fact, that they had to make a whole other socket for it, called the LGA 2011-v3 socket, and a whole other CPU series to accompany that socket, called the Haswell-E (and in the future, also Broadwell-E) series, with the i7-58xxK and the i7-5960X “Core i7 Extreme” CPUs. That alone should already give you an idea just how serious this thing is. So, the emperor of chipsets offers:

  • Support for Haswell-E (4th-generation extreme) and Broadwell-E (5th-generation extreme) chips
  • Overclocking.
  • 5 x8 lanes PCI-E graphics.
  • Support for DDR4 RAM.
  • Up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
  • Up to 6 USB 3.0 ports.
  • Up to 10 SATA 6Gb/s ports.
  • Intel Smart Response Technology.
  • Intel Dynamic Storage Accelerator.

As you can see, the most important benefits of the X99 is support for the Haswell-E and Broadwell-E chips (though, by doing this, it doesn’t support any normal Haswell or Broadwell chip, unlike the other chipsets), support for DDR4 memory (though, again, by doing this, it won’t support DDR3 memory, which is the norm as of today), as well as support for 4-way SLI/Crossfire (it technically can support 5-way, but the SLI/Crossfire platform itself doesn’t have that yet). It now also has 4 extra SATA 6Gb/s for storage enthusiasts. However, in return, most of the Intel Technologies have been stripped off, leaving only Smart Response Technology and Dynamic Storage Accelerator as special technologies. But really, those Intel Technologies are not that important, compared to the extreme customization potential this board gives you. Overall, this chipset is meant for extreme builds, and ONLY extreme builds. You can’t even build normal PCs with it, but why would you? Pictured above is the X99 Extreme 11 from ASRock, the most expensive consumer motherboard to date, at a whopping $620. Yup, that’s more than twice the price of the second most expensive board discussed here. You don’t get much sicker than that! Oh, and it’s also the board used in this post’s featured pic. Whew, that was my longest post to date! Well, after reading this, which chipset are you planning to go for? ^^ I just hope that after reading this, you’ll appreciate the motherboard more and look further into it, because all essential PC components deserve love. Again, thank you very much for supporting me! ^^

Bonus – Some Motherboard Brands Worth Considering


  • If you are going for a badass hi-end gaming motherboard, look no further than Asus! They are the most popular motherboards brand, as well as perhaps the most popular computer components brand in general. They usually do all kinds of crazy things with their hi-end boards (Z97 and X99), like the TUF and the ROG series. However, they do have boards for the midrange too.
  • If you want some durable boards for the midrange and upper-midrange (H97 and Z97) with good audio quality, you can consider Gigabyte! They are the second most popular motherboards company, and although their X99 boards weren’t so popular, they have some quality products for the less extreme users. Like I said, I’m personally using their H97-D3H.
  • If you want to save some bucks and need none of that overrated pro-gaming BS, then ASRock would be your choice. They have some quality products and their customer service is excellent (they will even replace blown-up motherboards, provided you didn’t mess with it), yet their boards’ prices are usually cheaper than those from Asus or Gigabyte. However, even though they can be considered a “budget” brand, they are more than capable of making more expensive boards too. As stated earlier, the most expensive motherboard in the world is actually from them, too!
  • If you want both an aggressive look and a durable build, then you can consider MSI too! Their Z97 Gaming boards are very well-received, and “military-grade” components are one of their main marketing points.
  • If you want a more refined board in the hi-end segment, then maybe you can take a look at EVGA. They have some of the most expensive boards in the market (like their X99 Classified) that are still very well-received, and they may just deliver that cold, mysterious look you’re going for. They are also the go-to brand for larger motherboard form factors, such as E-ATX or SSI EEB!
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