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When Motherboard Components Make the Cut

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Most system builders think of integrated motherboard components, such as onboard graphics and audio cards, as low performance options and rely on them only if discrete hardware is not within their budgets. But the notion that they’re only the low-cost alternative to dedicated hardware needs to be corrected—at least in certain situations. In many office scenarios, using integrated hardware makes practical sense.

Integrated Graphics

When users think of onboard hardware, Intel’s Integrated HD Graphics usually comes to mind. Such solutions are often maligned by power users and enthusiasts because they fail to push the frame rates required by performance-intensive software. In fact, benchmarks show Intel’s Iris Pro 5200 performs slightly slower than the NVIDIA GeForce 640, which is already several generations old.

Most onboard graphics cards feature a very limited amount of video outputs (typically one DVI and one HDMI), limiting multi-monitor capabilities. To set up multiple displays, workstation video cards are still the best choice.

Despite the lower benchmark scores and limited multi-monitor capabilities, integrated graphics cards perform well enough for office productivity software such as Word and Excel. One rule of thumb to follow is that if you don’t use the computer to display HD 3D content such as games, you don’t need a dedicated graphics card. Programs such as Office or Excel typically do not require 3D acceleration for pushing polygons. If a computer mostly runs such programs and doesn’t output to two or more displays, integrated video will suffice.

Go with integrated if you’re using the computer for

  • Office productivity
  • Media streaming
  • Data entry

Integrated Audio

For most users, integrated audio provides all the sound fidelity they need. The difference in quality between onboard audio and most mainstream sound cards has narrowed greatly in the last few years. In the early 2000s, integrated audio meant lower-quality audio and a lack of advanced features such as surround sound. But today, integrated audio cards have surround sound built-in and output relatively high quality audio.

So what’s the advantage of a dedicated sound card? It still comes down to advanced features and the audio quality. Premium sound cards can output higher fidelity audio with less noise. But most users with the exception of audiophiles and recording artists won’t hear the difference.

Comparing integrated audio to middle-of-the-road sound cards such as the Asus Xonar 7.1 sound card, the difference likely won’t matter to most people. The Xonar gets you 7.1 surround, slightly better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), and more customization options in the bundled software.

Pricier sound cards typically provide even better SNR, more consistent power, additional audio outputs and inputs, and built-in headphone amps. Do you really need those features? Integrated audio will suffice for almost all office-use and home-use scenarios. Really, the only time you need a dedicated sound card is for studio production work or if you want studio-quality playback.

Go with integrated if you’re using the computer for

  • Basic audio/video playback
  • Streaming music or video content

Integrated Networking

Nearly all motherboards feature built-in Ethernet (wired) networking capabilities and some even have Wi-Fi. Discrete Ethernet cards usually don’t add additional functionality that you must have. Some advertise faster speeds, but that connection speed is more limited by your ISP or network than your network adapter.

Some motherboards models include Wi-Fi and have separate antenna units that can be mounted by the user, which can be put in the best spots for optimal Wi-Fi signal. The downside of integrated Wi-Fi is that it cannot be updated to support new Wi-Fi standards. But you can buy a dedicated Wi-Fi adapter when that happens. For Ethernet, there’s no reason not to use onboard. For Wi-Fi, get an adapter only if needed. Otherwise, onboard Wi-Fi can offer better reception (assuming the antenna can be custom mounted).

Go with integrated if you’re using the computer for

  • All scenarios excluding server-related tasks

Summary

To reiterate, for graphics cards, go with a dedicated solution if you need multi-monitor output or heavy graphics computing power. Onboard audio will suffice in most situations unless you need extremely high-quality playback or are doing production work. Onboard networking hardware works just fine and in fact built-in Wi-Fi can sometimes perform better. Integrated motherboard components shouldn’t be seen as budget options, because in many scenarios they’re more than good enough.

Summary
When Motherboard Components Make the Cut - HardBoiled
Article Name
When Motherboard Components Make the Cut - HardBoiled
Description
Integrated motherboard components shouldn't always be equated as the budget solution. In many cases, they make more sense than dedicated hardware.
Author
Wallace Chu

Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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