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Motherboard Madness and Mayhem

Motherboard Madness and Mayhem

For those who like to build their own computer systems, finding compatible parts can be a real hair-puller. Matching motherboard, CPU and RAM can be particularly tricky, and the end result is sometimes toasted components. "I suspect my next computer will be off-the-shelf," said Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson. "There's really no price/performance difference anymore, so why break a nail?

By Katherine Noyes
02/04/10 5:00 AM PT

Misery loves company, as the saying goes, and nowhere is that more evident than on the Linux blogs.

Case in point: Linux Planet's Carla Schroder recently told a woeful tale about her attempt to upgrade the CPU on her ECS motherboard, and it has inspired a vast outpouring of sympathy from geeks far and wide.

"My nice new Phenom X3 CPU worked beautifully at first," Schroder wrote. "The whole system was more stable, and I could do things in Audacity that I couldn't before, like 32/96 recording. But the good times did not last, and after a couple weeks of happiness it croaked."

'It Is a Minefield'

After a round of all the "usual tedious troubleshooting," it became clear that the motherboard had "kicked the bucket," she recounted.

While awaiting ECS' verdict on the toasted equipment, Schroder began shopping for a new motherboard, reasoning that she could always use a second one.

"Have you shopped for motherboards recently? It is a minefield. A tarpit. A bramble thicket," she wrote. Compatibility issues -- with RAM, CPU and power supplies -- plagued Schroder, as did questions of which sound and video chipsets were appropriate for use with Linux.

So profound was the confusion, in fact, that Schroder still hadn't made a purchase by the end of her tale: "I'm [in] a state of shock," she concluded.

'I Feel Your Pain'

Bloggers didn't hesitate to chime in with tales of their own.

"I feel your pain," wrote john on Linux Today, for example, where the story had received more than 2,500 reads by Wednesday. "Memory, processor, power supplies, linux compatibility. It *is* getting harder."

Schroder's first mistake was "the original purchase of an ECS motherboard," opined Frank Earl (aka Svartalf). "I won't go into precise details -- but suffice it to say, while they're not PC-Chips (ultimate crapshoot for motherboards!) they're much more variable in quality than most people are willing to sign off on."

"Buy a system," advised philc, meanwhile. "I went through the drill last year. Yes, it's way too confusing. The vendors should really look at standards for all the components and build mix and match systems again.

"I ended up getting a refurb Dell that was known to work well with Linux. I upgraded the memory and disk and all is well," philc wrote. "This turns out to be cheaper and less stressful than dealing with the false starts trying to upgrade major components."

'Good-Lord-Almighty!!!'

Similar tales were being told on LXer.

"When my trusty old Athlon 64 box decided six years was enough, I also made the 'let's do multi-core' bit," wrote dinotrac, for example. "Good-Lord-Almighty!!! It gets confusing out there."

Eager to hear more firsthand accounts, Linux Girl took to the streets of the blogosphere, Quick Quotes Quill at the ready.

'I'm Going Through Hell Right Now'

"I'm going through hell right now with Gigabyte over Windows XP refusing to install on a Phenom II/DDR3 motherboard and Phenom II 720, so I have some sympathy," began Martin Espinoza, a blogger at Hyperlogos.

Still, "you have to expect that memory standards will change over time," Espinoza told LinuxInsider. "I can't remember the last time I made a motherboard upgrade and got to keep my CPU and RAM.

"In fact, for the last upgrade, the only things I could keep were the video card and the hard disk, and I ended up pitching the video card for something newer and lower-power," he added.

'You Must Simply Give Up'

Complaining about having to upgrade RAM with the motherboard is "foolish at best," Espinoza opined. "But if you honestly want proper support on a consumer device, you must simply give up."

So far, Gigabyte's answers have taken three forms, he explained: "It works here," "Let me ask you some unrelated questions to stall," and "Let me ask you some questions which I could answer by reading your earlier entries on this subject."

In short, "the only times I've ever gotten decent support have been from [r]etailers, or under contract," Espinoza added.

'Always the Same'

"Poor Carla," began Slashdot blogger Barbara Hudson, who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"The problem with motherboards is always the same," Hudson told LinuxInsider. "Either it works fine for a month or two and then dies, or it works great until the power supply fries it. Then it's time to shop for a new motherboard and power supply that's compatible with the cpu and ram, and hope the cpu isn't fried as well."

It's not all a matter of manufacturer, either, Hudson added.

"I've had MSI boards that exploded (bad capacitors) a month after they were out of warranty, and ECS all-in-one boards (cpu welded in place) that it didn't matter how bad the environment, they just kept working, even with 3 video cards and 4 hard drives running 24/7 ... and others that were DOA," she explained.

'An Expensive Lesson'

Hudson has always bought less-than-cutting-edge "for the simple reason that there's always something," she said.

"Back in the early Athlon days, the place I worked for decided to take the plunge and get me some 'cutting-edge' hardware," she recounted. "Our supplier went through 6 motherboards and 4 cpus before they figured out what they were doing wrong -- that you absolutely have to have the heat sink in place even if it's just for a minute or two to test the system.

"At (US)$500 a cpu and $260 a motherboard, it was an expensive lesson for them," she added.

'Too Many Configurations'

Though she's built and rebuilt her share of boxes, "I suspect my next computer will be off-the-shelf," Hudson noted. "There's really no price/performance difference anymore, so why break a nail? Just remember to throw a second hard drive in so they can't deny support because 'we don't support linux' if the hardware goes pear-shaped."

Ultimately, "there are just too many different hardware configurations now to keep track of," she concluded. "It works is all I care about anymore."

Indeed, "some things don't ever change, and that's why I tend to buy my CPU, motherboard, RAM and power supply all at once," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "It has gotten easier to upgrade the RAM in the last decade but the rest has been a disaster."

'Never a Glitch or a Hiccup'

Part of Schroder's problem, however, may have been that "she didn't do her homework," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet asserted.

"I too have an ECS, a 780VM, which is actually a nice board," hairyfeet explained. "When the quads became cheap I decided to go from a 7550 dual to the new 925 quad."

To do so, "I simply went to their website, clicked the link that said 'compatible CPUs' and looked down the list of duals," he said. "When I saw the chip that I wanted was supported, I bought it and am typing on it as we speak -- never a glitch or a hiccup."

Hairyfeet does, however, have a guess as to what happened in Schroder's case.

"With the new AMD boards there are three main voltages -- 65w, 95w, and 125w -- the highest reserved for those highest clocked chips with large OCing ability," he explained. "Nearly all ECS boards are 95w, and the fact that it ran for a couple of weeks and bought the farm sounds EXACTLY like what would happen when you put a too hot chip in an unsupported board."

'Worth the Effort'

Finally, blogger Robert Pogson has built all his PCs and most of his servers since the late 1990s, he told LinuxInsider.

"It does take some reading of specs, sometimes translation into English, and a lot of patience to find what you want, but it is worth the effort," he opined.

Only once has Pogson encountered a problem: "A manual for a motherboard included all the specs to assure me that it was the right one for me, but when it arrived there was an erratum that said if four drives were installed it would only boot from the third one," he recounted. "Weird, but OK... Guess which drive failed in the LDAP server for our cluster?!!!"

'Linux Loves Most of Them'

With the shift to SATA, meanwhile, "there are now motherboards with six or more drive connectors," noted Pogson. "On a 64-bit motherboard with one or two CPU sockets and four to eight RAM sockets, you can do almost anything with these things."

So yes, "motherboards are a jungle, but there are some beauties in the range of $75 to $150 that will do what most of us need doing very well; if you spend $300 to $600, you can have your own supercomputer," Pogson concluded.

Not only that, but "Linux loves most of them," he added. "Compared to the feeble effort that other OS makes to support one user, GNU /Linux is a blast on almost any motherboard."


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