Motherboards include integrated graphics, sound, and network hardware — but is it good enough, or do you need to buy discrete components when building your own PC?
This hardware was originally designed to be “good enough.” The basics were integrated into the motherboard to save on power and cost, but they’ve improved and are now better than ever.
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The GPU (graphics processing unit) was once soldered onto the motherboard, but “integrated graphics” is now integrated into the CPU itself. Intel CPUs come with integrated “Intel HD Graphics” or “Iris Graphics” hardware, while AMD CPUs come with their own brand of integrated graphics. AMD calls these APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) because they contain CPU and GPU hardware on a single chip.
Modern integrated graphics should be fine as long as you don’t plan on playing PC games. If you want good performance in the latest 3D games — or even games a few years old — you should definitely skip the integrated graphics and buy a dedicated graphics hard from the likes of NVIDIA or AMD.
If you’re building a PC for standard desktop software — or even if you’re building a media center PC for video streaming and other media-intensive tasks — integrated graphics should be fine. You won’t notice the difference, but you’ll save money and your computer will use less power.
Not every CPU has integrated graphics, so be sure to double-check if you want to buy a CPU with integrated graphics.
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Most PCs use integrated sound hardware. The audio jacks built into typical desktops and laptops connect directly to the sound hardware built into the motherboard, which is responsible for processing audio, outputting it to headphones and speakers, and capturing audio input from microphones.
Sound quality is always a controversial issue. Once you start talking about sound quality, you’re into the realm of the audiophiles. Sound quality is notoriously subjective and you’ll find many audiophiles who think expensive digital cables give you better sound quality. (They don’t.) There is a difference between integrated sound hardware and discrete sound hardware. Integrated sound could be poorly shielded and lead to hissing, or the DAC (digital-to-analog convertor) in the integrated sound could be lower quality.
But, like integrated graphics, integrated sound hardware has improved dramatically over the years.
In our experience, you probably won’t notice the difference between onboard and discrete sound on a modern PC. If you have very discerning ears and higher-end headphones or speakers, you may notice some difference. You’re probably better off investing in better speakers or headphones instead of a discrete sound card if you want to build a PC. (We’re sure audiophiles will think dedicated sound hardware is crucial, of course.)
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When it comes to network hardware, there’s an easy answer. The network hardware integrated into your motherboard is almost certainly good enough.
The only discrete network cards really targeted to people building their own PCs are “gamer network cards” that promise to reduce latency and improve Internet gaming performance. They may include some traffic prioritization features — often integrated into the driver software they install on your PC — but you won’t find much of a performance improvement here. Most of the latency you experience when playing a game is caused by routers, switches, miles of cables, and servers outside your PC. Even if it could deliver on its promises, a network card could only do so much.
Traffic prioritization features may help, but only if you’re running a BitTorrent client in the background while gaming — just pause your BitTorrent client before jumping into an online game if this is an issue for you.
In summary: Integrated graphics is fine unless you play PC games, integrated sound is fine for most people, and integrated network hardware is definitely fine.
You can always pick up discrete hardware later. IF you’re not sure what you need, build your PC now and try using the integrated components. If something isn’t performing up to par, you can order a discrete component later and install it.
Image Credit: Mike Babcock on Flickr, Michael Saechang on Flickr, chris brookes on Flickr
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