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Integrated components vs discrete

Integrated components vs discrete is an old argument. I distinctly remember setting up a server for a new big-shot in 2004. I opened the server up to put memory in, and found its PCI slots filled with cards that duplicated all of the on-board components.

I asked my boss about this, and he said the guy had insisted on doing this, because “discrete components are better.”

I’ve been making jokes at the guy’s expense ever since.

This may have been true in 1995, but today, with the lone exception of onboard video, there’s little reason to fear components that are integrated onto the motherboard.

The main reason for this myth–and it is largely a myth– is largely because in the 1990s, independent PC shops that assembled their own clones would brag that their PCs had all their components on plug-in boards, while that brand-name PC you bought at a consumer electronics superstore had everything on the motherboard. If the parallel port on your Compaq went bad, you’d have to pony up $300 to replace the “proprietary motherboard.” Now, the board probably wasn’t actually proprietary, but, truth be told, the LPX form factor motherboards most of those companies were using back then were harder to find and more expensive than the AT motherboards clone shops used. With the clone shop, if your parallel port went bad, you could just buy a new $20 I/O board.

What the clone shops didn’t tell you, though, was that it’s very unusual for your parallel port to go bad, and even if it went bad on your brand-name PC, you could disable the bad port and plug the same $20 I/O board into it too. You’d lose an expansion slot, but most systems had a surplus of them anyway.

Most people don’t remember the reasoning anymore, they just remember that onboard peripherals are bad, and plug-in boards are good.

The other source of this myth is the poor performance of most onboard video. Since onboard video is never top of the line, and sometimes onboard video borrows system memory and reduces the total memory bandwidth available to the CPU, onboard video truly can give a significant hit to total system performance.

But the problem isn’t that onboard video is inherently bad. Some of the most revolutionary computers of all time had video integrated onto the motherboard. The problem is that the most common implementations of onboard video today are bad.

And of course it’s a problem to jump to the conclusion that since onboard video is slow, onboard networking, serial and parallel ports, and other onboard peripherals are also slow.

There’s actually an inherent advantage to integrated peripherals. By eliminating the plug-in card, you eliminate a point of failure that can be significant. Any experienced electronics technician will tell you that one of the first steps in troubleshooting a device that’s acting goofy is to unplug every board in the system and plug it back in.

In the mid 1990s, I had to do this a lot. Now that it’s possible to buy PCs that have everything you need built into the motherboard, I see a lot less goofiness. Before you argue that the reason is because Windows XP is a lot more stable and reliable than Windows 95 was, keep in mind that I was running OS/2 at the time (as was my employer), and while you can say what you want about OS/2, it very rarely crashed.

What causes plug-in connectors to fail? The pins on either the connector or on the board can oxidize, inhibiting conductivity. Or they can get dirty. Dirt inhibits conductivity and it always breeds more dirt. If you pull a card out of a system and see black marks on the connectors, you’re looking at a potential time bomb.

So if I can find a board that has video and networking built in that are good enough for my purposes, I prefer it.

The only way to reliably determine whether any components integrated onto the motherboard will slow you down is to have someone who knows hardware to take a good look at the specs, or at the board itself. Take a look at the video chipset that it’s using. Does it have its own discrete memory, or is it stealing system memory? Does the chipset offer adequate performance for the application you’re planning? Onboard video is rarely adequate for high-end 3D gaming. But it’s often adequate for productivity software.

When it comes to networking chipsets, many motherboards have Realtek chipsets on them. You’ll get better performance from Intel or Broadcom. In this case in 2004, the server had Broadcom chips on the motherboard and Intel on the card. Donald Becker, author of the majority of Linux network drivers, had little to say at the time about either, so I really didn’t care what the local big-shot thought of Broadcom vs. Intel. Will you notice the difference between Realtek and a high-performance chipset? At home, ironically, you’re most likely to notice it with gaming. At work you will though.

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