We know that many of our customers
want to get our support before they buy or build a new PC system: Which other
components can be recommended and which parts have been tested together with
our DSP24 series audiocards? This article deals with this interesting topic.
We know that a section
on our website like these System-Builder information pages need to be updated
regulary. We will do our best to do that in the future. Anyway, please always
check when this page was last updated to make sure
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Some comments about this article: if the contents are too technical for you, please contact a friend or the company that is building your PC for assistance when you go through the text. Please also notice that the contents are completly based on our (and our users) own experience with our DSP24 series of cards used for (semi-)professional harddisk-recording. In many situations (e.g. if you want to build a PC for high-end gaming), the conclusions and recommendations would be very different. If we list a product (e.g. a mainboard with a certain chipset) that we do not recommend, we don't do this because it is bad ... we do it because it does not work well enough for the special requirements of a PC-DAW (digital audio workstation). That specific product is most likely a good choice for many other applications.
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Actually, this makes no real difference and is a matter of personal taste. There are no compatibility problems or improvements if your system uses a certain CPU. However, every CPU requires a certain compatible chipset. The chipset is probably the most critical part in a PC-DAW so please check the sections below for further information.
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Intel not only makes CPUs, they also make their own series of chipsets. Currently the two main chipsets are the i845 and the i850. Both exist in different versions. The i845 works with DDR memory while the i850 works with RAMBUS. This is a major difference as RAMBUS memory is usually much more expensive as DDR memory. On the other hand, the i850 with RAMBUS memory shows noticable better performance in all our tests.
If you have the money to get an i850 based mainboard with RAMBUS, go for it - it is the best solution you can get for a P4 based PC-DAW at the moment. The i845 is fine as well, especially for the price. Getting an i845 based mainboard is certainly no mistake although the performance is not as good as on an i850 based system (but good enough in most situations).
So far we have not seen any mainboard with i850 or i845 chipset that we could not recommend. There are many mainboards available with these chipsets. We can recommend the ASUS P4T-E as i850 board and the ASUS P4B-series for an i845 based solution.
At the moment, we do not recommend any mainboard for P4 systems with SiS or VIA chipsets. Why? Because the performance you get in relation to the price is not good enough according to our tests. Going for the Intel i845 is always a good and very safe choice.
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First of all: there is currently no chipset on the market for AMD Athlon based systems that is equal in both performance and compatibility as the Intel i850 (that only works with Intel Pentium 4 CPUs). However, the high speed of current CPUs and the very good price/value makes an AMD Athlon based system to a great alternative to an all-Intel system. In fact, it should be the no.1 choice among our customers at the moment.
Sadly you can no longer buy mainboards with AMD chipsets. The AMD761 chipset (for example on the ASUS A7M266) was a great choice and we strongly recommended it. However, boards with this chipset are no longer available. Other chipset makers for AMD Athlon based systems are VIA, SiS, ALi and nVidia.
Let's go back to AMD first: we do not recommend mainboards with the older AMD751 chipset. Our DSP24 series of cards work fine on these systems. However, most AMD751 based mainboards are using a southbridge from AMD with an IDE controller that is sadly not very fast. Depending on the used harddisk, you might get performance problems when you work with a higher number of audio tracks. The AMD761 is an excellent choice however. The reason is that most (if not all) comercially available mainboards with this chipset are equipped with a VIA southbridge that has a pretty fast IDE controller. If you are able to get an AMD761 based mainboard: it works alright in a PC-DAW setup. If you use an AMD761 based mainboard and it also supports APIC (like the Gigabyte 7DXR+), enable it in BIOS. We strongly recommend Windows XP in such a situation. Most AMD761 based mainboards do not support APIC however (do not mix up APIC with ACPI).
VIA is probably the market leader. However, they are not the first choice from our perspective. The KX133 chipset had problems with USB and a relativly low PCI transferrate when multiple busmaster devices are used simultaneously. The KT133 and KT133A still had PCI transfer problems and after all suffers from the mysterious "southbridge bug". The KT266 disappeared from the marekt only weeks after it was released and was replaced by the KT266A. This chipset and the newer KT333 and KT400 are working much better compared to all older VIA models. However, even the latest VIA chipset seems to suffer from performance problems when multiple busmaster devices are used simultaneously (e.g. SCSI-controller, multiple soundcards, RAID-controller, etc.). It is important to comment that most VIA related performance problems can be solved by optimizing the configuration of the system, which can take sime time. So do we recommend VIA chipset based mainboards? Not really, especially as there are good alternatives. Do VIA chipset based mainboards work with the DSP24 series? Sure, there are no problems. However, you might have to spend some time with the optimization of your system configuration. Last but not least, we have to mention that the number of VIA-chipset related support requests have gone back drastically since the release of the KT266A chipset. If you want to go for a VIA based solution, we can recommend mainboards with KT266A, KT333 or KT400 from MSI. If you use Windows XP, we recommend to disable ACPI.
SiS has caused a lot of turbulence on the mainboard/chipset market in the past months. Most mainboards with SiS chipsets are extremly affordable. The two most famous chipsets from SiS are the 735 and 745. Both have shown very good performance and we can easily admit it: to our big surprise. The 745 is the more modern solution with better IRQ handling. Especially if you intend to use a lot of PCI-cards, it should be prefered over the 735. The mainboard we can recommend with the SiS 745 is the ASUS A7S333. As a budget solution based on the SiS 735, the ECS K7S5A (most likely the best selling SiS based mainboard) is a nice choice. So where is the problem (these boards are pretty inexpensive)? We have noticed one minor problem: the performance of all SiS boards we have tested under Windows 9x/Me with our hardware was actually pretty bad. Also, the performance with Windows 2000 was not as good as on many other mainboards. The big surprise was the great performance on Windows XP systems with ACPI enabled. So if you intend to use Windows XP, an SiS based system would be the best choice if you are on a budget. Other SiS chipsets have not been tested extensivly by us so we cannot comment much about them. However, it seems that older mainboards with older chipsets are not running as good as current 745 based solutions (based on comments we receive from customers).
Just about a year before we added this section to our website, we did list ALi chipset based mainboards (such as the ASUS A7A266) as incompatible with our DSP24 series of cards. ALi improved the chipset drivers and most vendors of ALi based mainboards did update their BIOS and since then compatibility is provided. However, the performance is not good enough for our requirements. If you use just a DSP24 Value, the combination should work fine. If you use a DSP2000 C-Port you can get very close to the limit in PCI-transfer bandwidth we have meassured on this chipset. With multiple DSP24 cards in one system, you will most likely run into real problems.
The nVidia nForce chipsets are a nice addition to the selection of mainboard chipsets. The performance of the mainboards we have tested with the nForce (ASUS A7N266-C and MSI K7N420 Pro) has been great. In fact, the nForce chipset is now the number one recommendation by us for an AMD Athlon based system. Features like very nice APIC support (helps you to avoid IRQ sharing problems even if ACPI is enabled under Windows XP) and the very high PCI transfer rate are great. The nForce 415 allows you to use any normal AGP graphic card although we have heard of some compatibility problems with some Matrox graphic cards. The nForce 420 has on-board graphic support.
Conclusion: the best choice are nVidia nForce based mainboards. However, the higher price, the availability and some compatibility problems with certain graphic cards could be an issue. After that comes the SiS 745 - or if you are on a tight budget even the SiS 735. Modern VIA boards work fine as well but you might need to spend more time when you optimize your system, especially if you use a lot of PCI devices.
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The chipset of our (and we hope your) choice is the Intel i815. This chipset can be found on mainboards like the ASUS TUSL2C. We can recommend this chipset because of its stability and good PCI performance. On older Pentium III based systems, the Intel 440BX was working fine as well but some mainboards had problems with the USB controller. We strongly advice you not to use mainboards with a VIA Apollo series chipset for a Pentium III based system because it will give you a more worse performance (especially PCI transfer) and the price difference to i815 based systems is minimal.
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AGP all the way. Of course you would probably not buy a PCI graphic card these days anyway but we mention this as there are still some compatibility problems with many PCI graphic cards and our DSP24 series of audiocards. Simply because of that, AGP hardware is a must. If you need support for multiple monitors, some vendors (e.g. Matrox) have dualhead graphic cards that allow you to use several displays via one card. It is not recommended by us to get two graphic cards (AGP + PCI) for multi-monitor support. You don't have to look for special features like extensive 3D graphics support ... we want to build an audio workstation after all. Generally we can recommend the Matrox G4xx and G5xx series but keep in mind that you might get compatibility problems when you use these cards on an nVidia nForce based mainboard. Most modern ATI cards work fine as well, as most nVidia GeForce based graphic cards. If you go for a GeForce based graphic card, we recommend to use only nVidia's own drivers instead of the drivers from the graphic card vendor (if possible).
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Get as much memory as you can afford. If you use Windows 9x/Me, you can use up to 512 MB. If you use Windows 2000 or XP, you can even use more memory. The simple rule is: the more memory you get, the faster your system will run when you do serious work. You should not even think about buying a new system with less that 128 MB of memory, 256 MB can be recommended.
We do not think it is useful to have a discussion about the different memory types that are available (e.g. DDR vs. RAMBUS). First you should decide which mainboard and chipset you want to buy. That automatically answers your question about the memory type ... it is as simple as that.
Some words about memory quality: we recommend to buy memory modules from companies that offer extensive warranty (e.g. Kingston or Infineon) simply because you can buy a lot of cheap memory modules that are generating stability problems. Many systems suffer from this and users blaim the vendor of their graphic/sound/SCSI/etc. card or Microsoft for the stability problems but in reality they just have a bad memory module in their system. If you buy modules from well known brand names, the risk to get bad modules is smaller and -if it happens- you still have better warranty. If you use noname memory modules, you will most likely not even be able to find the company who made the modules or not even the company that imported them.
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At the moment, we usually recommend to buy IDE HDDs. Every modern mainboard has an onboard IDE controller. Onboard IDE controllers have the advantage on most mainboards that they do not create additional load on the PCI-bus which of course is an advantage for any busmaster PCI hardware like our DSP24 series of cards. Modern IDE HDDs are very fast. We recommend to get a HDD with at least 7.200rpm and large onboard cache. Vendors with good products recently have been -among others- IBM, Western Digital and Maxtor. If you want to get a setup that allows you to use a bigger number of audiotracks, you might consider to get two 7.200rpm HDDs in one system. If you have the choice between two HDDs with the same rpm-figure and the same size, get the one with the larger cache.
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Actually, not really. At least not if you look at the price/value and the other issues involved in getting SCSI HDDs. Modern SCSI HDDs are really very fast and we can recommend them. However, you need to buy a SCSI controller for your system. This means that you are adding another PCI busmaster device to your system. That results on higher load on the PCI bus which changes your requirements for the onboard chipset. We strongly recommend to get a system based on the i850 chipset (with Pentium 4 CPU) or based on the nVidia nForce (with AMD Athlon CPU) in order to avoid or minimize performance problems caused by the presence of the SCSI controller. Some controllers (e.g. Adaptec) are causing a relativly high amount of PCI load which may force you to work with larger buffer sizes (=larger latency) with the DSP24 PCI cards in order to have the same stability as with other solutions. If your primary target is to record and/or playback as many channels/tracks as possible, SCSI can be a good choice. If you
do a lot of work with realtime plugins/effects or VST/DXi instruments, a SCSI-system would most likely not be the first choice.
Looking at the price of the controller and the HDDs, IDE based solutions can usually be prefered. This has changed very much in the past years.
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last updated: 11/10/2002 author: Claus Riethmüller