Computer technology has come a long way since the 1980s. Many things have changed about computers over the years, especially on the inside. If you ever wondered what the backbone of a computer was, it is the motherboard. A motherboard is a printed circuit board (PCB) that connects all of the other parts together. It is sort of like the human central nervous system, but for computers. It distributes power to every other component and coordinates the interfaces between them. From the central processing unit (CPU) and memory sticks to the hard drives and graphics cards, a motherboard is the foundation upon which you will connect everything else.
When it comes to motherboards, there are some big players out there. Asus motherboards and Gigabyte motherboards are very popular for most desktop computer brands meant for home use. For more intensive applications (such as gaming, graphics designing, and video editing applications), MSI gaming motherboards are the ones that most people like to have in their chassis, with their sheer amount of power and capabilities. When you are looking to buy a new motherboard, you will frequently come across terms like form factor, chipset, memory, speed, ports and connectors, and many others; these are the defining features of a motherboard.
When you actually see motherboards from various manufacturers, you will notice that they come in a variety of rectangular designs and the components are organized differently. The layout of a motherboard is known as its form factor. Various form factors exist, including ATX, Micro ATX, Flex ATX, DTX, Mini ITX, and Mini ATX. A form factor specifies the dimensions, the number of slots, type of power supply, and many other things that make them suitable for different sizes of chassis.
|ATX||Micro ATX||Flex ATX||DTX||Mini ITX|
12 x 9.6 inch
305 x 244 mm
9.6 x 9.6 inch
244 x 244 mm
9 x 7.5 inch
229 x 191 mm
8 x 9.6 inch
200 x 244 mm
6.7 x 6.7 inch
170 x 170 mm
|Expansion slots (max)||7||4||3||2||2|
|RAM slots (max)||8||4||4||2||2|
|Graphics card slots||1 - 4||1 - 3||1 - 3||1 - 2||1|
|SATA ports||4 - 12||4 - 8||4 - 8||2 - 6||2 - 4|
The table above presents the most important features of each form factor. You can decide on the type you want based on the dimensions of your computer case and your other graphical and memory needs. For example, if you are looking to build a gaming computer, then a Mini ITX will not work for you; opt for an ATX instead to house that powerful graphics card. The number of memory card slots and expansion slots may vary depending on how each manufacturer adjusts the layout.
One of the more challenging parts of finding the right motherboard is determining the corresponding CPU socket to accommodate your CPU of choice. The CPU socket is a receptacle in which you place your central processing unit. If you are looking to buy an Intel microprocessor, then you need to buy a motherboard that supports the Intel Land Grid Array (LGA) socket. Since most Intel CPUs are pinless, these sockets have the pins to securely fasten your CPU when you place it in the socket. If you want to use an AMD microprocessor instead, you will need to buy a motherboard with a Pin Grid Array (PGA) or Zero Insertion Force (ZIF) socket. AMD CPUs have pins that will slide into the holes of the socket. Certain types of CPUs need certain types of CPU sockets, so make sure you match your motherboard with the CPU.
In addition to the CPU socket, the chipset of a motherboard is another very important feature. The CPU goes in the socket and the chipset will connect the motherboard to the CPU and allow for data transfer between the processor, buses, and memory. The chipset usually determines the features and capabilities of a motherboard. Two chips, Northbridge and Southbridge, comprise the chipset of a motherboard. The Northbridge chip connects the CPU to the RAM and graphics card (the high-speed components), whereas the Southbridge chip connects the CPU to the buses and I/O functions (the low-speed components). Again, make sure your chipset supports the CPU you plan on using.
All motherboards have RAM slots, also known as DIMM slots (Dual Inline Memory Modules), to accommodate RAM sticks. There are various types of DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) supported by motherboards – DDR, DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4. Some motherboards support up to 8 GB of RAM, while others support up to 16 GB and even 32 GB of RAM. If you want your computer to have plenty of RAM for those memory intensive applications, select a motherboard that supports a large amount of RAM and faster memory with multiple DIMM slots. RAM comes in a variety of speeds, as slow as 100 MHz and as fast as 400 MHz. Make sure your motherboard supports your high-speed RAM. Otherwise, your RAM will run at only the maximum speed your motherboard supports.
A smart technique to enhance performance is attaching multiple RAM modules totaling, say, 8 GB rather than inserting a single 8 GB RAM stick. If you want to take advantage of this feature, then buy a motherboard that supports dual-channel memory. The performance gains are substantial with dual-channel throughput and in case a RAM module fails, then you can always fall back on the rest. A word of advice: use two of the same RAM modules when using dual-channel memory.
If you want to push your RAM speed past its limit, then buy a motherboard that has the ability to overclock your RAM. In addition to overclocking your CPU, some motherboards allow users to overclock their RAM speed, boosting the read/write performance of your computer. This can normally be found in the system’s BIOS.
Error Correcting Code memory (ECC RAM) is something you may want to consider if you are trying to build a server for your business. In such scenarios, you definitely need memory that can detect and correct corruption in data. There are special server motherboards that support this type of memory that normal desktop motherboards might not.
Two important types of connectors inside a motherboard will determine what you can do with your computer – SATA connectors and the power connector. All motherboards have Serial ATA connectors to hook up your hard drives, optical drives, and even solid state drives. Some motherboards have more connectors than others. If you want more hard drive space, then you should buy a motherboard with more SATA ports. Likewise, the power connector is necessary to connect your power supply to the motherboard in order to provide electricity to the rest of the circuitry. If you want your computer to run a high-powered graphics card, processor, and other peripherals, you will definitely need a motherboard that supports a large power supply, so check the rating of your power connector before you buy a motherboard.
Motherboards have rear ports that allow you to connect a variety of external components and peripherals to the main computer to complete the system. All motherboards will have a VGA, DVI, and/or HDMI ports for connecting a display monitor and USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and/or Firewire ports for connecting peripherals like a mouse, keyboard, external hard drive, and flash drive. Other types of ports are:
A computer is meant to be in a network and that is made possible with LAN connections, also known as RJ45 ports. Depending on your application, buy a motherboard with a suitable number of RJ45 ports.
You may require some more interesting and useful features from your motherboard depending on your intended purpose. We have explained some of them below.
If you want to build a gaming machine, then you need more than one graphics processing unit (GPU). Fortunately, two technologies exist that help you push your graphical power – SLI (Scalable Link Interface) from Nvidia and Crossfire from AMD (previously ATI). If you want to connect two GeForce cards together, then you need a motherboard that supports SLI. If you want to hook up multiple Radeon cards together, then you need a motherboard that supports Crossfire. It is recommended that you use two of the same GPUs when using such technologies.
We talked about MSI, Asus, and Gigabyte motherboards in this article. There are many reasons why these are the best-selling manufacturers of motherboards, one of them being their native ability to overclock your processing speed. Asus has TurboV, MSI has Genie, and Gigabyte has Easy Boost; all of these technologies will let you squeeze out as much processing power as you can. However, overclocking can lead to overheating so do invest in some extra cooling to mitigate the effects.
All motherboards have a binary input output system (BIOS). Some motherboards now come with two BIOS systems – one acting as the main firmware and the other serving as a backup in case the first one gets corrupted from a virus attack. This is known as dual BIOS and if you want to safeguard your computer, you might want to choose a motherboard with dual BIOS.