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Desktop chipsets are among the most complex, ever-changing, and yet least understood bits of your everyday or extraordinary PC. That’s by design, up to a point. The PC chipset, over the years, has acquired more and more functions and has simplified the work of other PC components. As a result, it has become more invisible and more tied to all aspects of what your PC can do.
That said, no one goes into buying a new PC, upgrading, or building one with the idea of, “Hey, I need a new chipset!” It’s not the real impetus behind most updates, but to some extent, it’s the driver of the car.
Whether you’re building a new system or doing a major upgrade, the best place to start is by choosing the best CPU for what it does. You don’t want to miss out on any of the features of a CPU by putting it on an old motherboard, which is why most of us would rather hand over a complete rig to a friend or family member than keep or sell the CPU we’re on. Replacement. The CPU and the motherboard, and by extension the motherboard chipset, often go hand in hand. Although the large number of CPUs used on auction sites could indicate that people are trying to get rid of the CPUs they replaced, it could also indicate that they are splitting these parts to make more money. Another possible explanation: CPUs tend to live slightly longer than the motherboards they live on, unless they’ve been heavily overclocked throughout their lives.
At the core of any new motherboard, the chipset often defines which of those spectacular new CPU features are available to use, as well as the general connectivity and even storage features that your PC can support. Before we get into the features that each modern chipset unlocks, let’s consider what a chipset is, in today’s desktop PC sense.
Getting started: some chipset basics
First of all: that misleading word “chipset”. It can be a bit misleading for those who don’t have the proper context in the last decade or two of PC development.
“Chipset” is a legacy term that, by convention, refers to a set of silicon entities, the “Northbridge” (which typically had a graphics card interface and memory controller) and the “Southbridge” (which typically connected other expansions slots and embedded devices). The Northbridge functions, however, over the years, have finally merged with the CPU, leaving Southbridge as the main logic component of the motherboard.
Sometimes referred to as a Platform Controller Hub (PCH), today’s motherboard chipset component is much more focused on what it handles and does. In fact, it is now little more than a PCI Express (PCIe) hub that supports add-on expansion cards and NVMe SSDs. Some additional controllers, such as Serial ATA (SATA), are also kept as part of it.
What’s left on the typical chipset here in 2021 can vary depending on whether it’s AMD or Intel platforms. Intel’s PCH retains the network and audio codec interfaces, as well as some legacy features, but AMD has recently relocated even those features in the CPU package. Note that we said “package”: Having retained the use of the word “Northbridge” even after moving those functions to the CPU, AMD has reversed part of its integration to solder a separate Northbridge component on the small card that connects the chip from the CPU to its socket interface.
Chipset models tend to be grouped by socket at top, middle, and bottom tiers to meet market demands on a variety of budgets. The letters “X” and “Z” typify the treble, “B” and “H” the middle and the “A” the bass. The number after the letter tends to sync with a given CPU generation, although it is easier for AMD to correlate than for Intel. Let’s start alphabetically, with AMD.
Chipsets for AMD Socket AM4
AM4 is, of course, AMD’s long-lasting socket for its mainstream Ryzen processors. As we noted earlier, we are assuming here that the impetus to evaluate a chipset comes from having an eye on a given CPU. Choosing the CPU first, on the AMD side, means that it only makes sense to look at current products: the Ryzen 5000, 4000 and 3000 series, initially released from 2019. Most of these CPUs are CPU only, with no graphics on the chip. The non-graphics version of these processors has integrated PCIe 4.0, replacing the integrated PCIe 3.0 of the predecessors. Things get a bit tricky from there, as the X570 chipset provides an additional 20 PCIe 4.0 lanes, in contrast to the X370 it replaced. Meanwhile, the X470 was largely just a relabelled X370.
Early testing of the Ryzen 3000 CPUs allowed PCIe 4.0 signals to pass from the CPU’s 24-lane controller through the motherboard to at least one PCIe x16 slot, regardless of the chipset being used. AMD later determined that certain pre-X570 motherboards lacked the signal integrity to reliably transfer at the higher data rate of PCIe 4.0. Since older motherboards required new firmware to support the newer Ryzen processors, those updates disabled PCIe 4.0, a key feature that previous motherboard owners thought they would get from a simple CPU upgrade just wasn’t there.
AMD X570: current high-end
This is the current high-end chipset at this writing for AMD’s mainstream Ryzen CPUs. Connected via four of the CPU’s PCIe 4.0 lanes, the X570’s additional PCIe 4.0 controller offers four times the bandwidth of the X370 / X470. It also costs more to manufacture and consumes about three times the energy. Unlike the X370 / X470, most X570 motherboards include a miniature cooling fan on the chipset heatsink. That said, you might see some 2021 “X570S” boards, the usual suspects for motherboards; these newer variant boards don’t need a chipset fan.
X570 also supports eight USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports natively, while X370 only supports two ports at that speed, and the Serial ATA port count is also increased by up to 2 ports. Both the X570 and X370 / X470 allowed CPU “PCIe branching”, which can redirect half of the paths from a single PCIe x16 slot connected to the CPU to a second slot, operating in x8 / x8 mode.
The typical X570 motherboard buyer values a wide variety of high-speed interfaces or the higher capacity voltage regulators found in certain high-end motherboard models. The ability of the voltage regulator and cooling can be key to running the Ryzen 9 models at optimal frequencies under heavy loads, which is one of the reasons why all buyers looking to pair a high-end CPU with a motherboard of X570-based high-end should read some. feedback before spending their hard-earned money.
AMD B550: the current Ryzen mid-range
The B-series chipsets are typically for advanced users on a larger budget. It may not provide the extra PCIe 4.0 ports of its brother X570, but the B550 (and its PCIe 3.0 support) marks a massive bandwidth improvement (twice) over the B450. And with a power rating close to that of its predecessor, the X570’s higher cooling requirements just disappear. None of this interferes with the CPU’s onboard PCIe 4.0 support, so users still get that improved speed on a PCIe x16 slot (typically for a video card) and a PCIe x4 NVMe interface (for an internal NVMe SSD. ).
Since most users do not need more PCIe 4.0 lanes than provided directly from the CPU, the lower cost and power consumption of the B550 makes it seem like a bargain to most buyers. Some things that may seem to ruin the deal include better-equipped B550 motherboards that cost more than the X570 with fewer options. (This sometimes happens in motherboard vendor lineups.) But much of that crossover comes down to the voltage regulator’s capacity.
To expand on that: Larger voltage regulators and better cooling gadgets allow higher model processors, such as the Ryzen 9 series, to run at a higher frequency under a heavier load, while smaller parts can cause throttling of thermal or electrical current. Choosing a motherboard (and looking at the reviews) that was tested with the same CPU as the desired one (or perhaps a higher model) can offer an additional guarantee that you will get all the performance you expected.
Additional minor drawbacks of the B550, such as the potentially lower USB 3.2 Gen 2 count of the B550 (up to two ports) are easily spotted in the motherboard specs, so there’s no need to apply a major caveat than “read the reviews “with this chipset.
AMD B550A: Ryzen mid-range, improved
Remember what we said a few paragraphs ago about AMD’s concern about older motherboards not providing enough signal integrity to run PCIe 4.0 between the Ryzen 3000 CPUs onboard controller and the graphics card?
Seeing that almost a year passed between the launch of the X570 and B550 chipsets, some impatient manufacturers pushed AMD to certify their previous-generation B450 models to support that link at full speed. The resulting derived chipset, the B550A, was in essence a relabelled B450, and the new label came with firmware that unlocked the CPU’s PCIe 4.0 capability. Devices connected via the chipset were still limited to PCIe 2.0, as the chipset specifications did not change.
However, this will be moot, for the most part, for all but buyers of prebuilt systems. Since all B550A designs have been for prebuilt OEM systems, single motherboard buyers will primarily find motherboards based on this chipset either used or as clearance parts.
AMD A520: AMD’s budget chipset
Now here is the current generation budget option. Neither the Ryzen 3000 nor Ryzen 5000 series CPUs are compatible with the A520’s predecessor (the A320), so the fact that the newer chipset supports PCIe 3.0, while the old one was limited to 2.0, does not it has weight. Heavier is that the A520 limits the CPU’s PCIe 4.0 controller to PCIe 3.0 mode. The worst thing is that most motherboards using this chipset have medium-sized voltage regulators with undersized (or even no) heatsinks.
Final words: How you can Choose the Right Desktop PC Chipset in 2021
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