The motherboard may be the most important piece of hardware, other than the CPU. What it is though, and what it does, can confuse people. In all, they call it the motherboard for a reason. And that reason is because it allows for the communication of all the peripherals inside the computer, such as your hard drive, graphics card, floppy drive, and CD-ROM. It is the mother of all boards, Printed Circuit Boards (or PCBs) to be precise. And they all plug in to the motherboard in one way or another. The motherboard has obtained a few other names over the many years, such as mainboard, system board, or just simply “mobo”. If you hear any of these than just know that it is all referring to the same piece of hardware.
When purchasing a motherboard, there are quite a few things to look at and think about when making a final decision. I will be covering some important aspects to look at, such as form factor, chipset and socket type, expansion slots, RAM, integrated peripherals, and a few other odds and ends to also think about.
The two most important form factors for desktop computers are ATX (Advanced Technology eXtended) and mATX (microATX).
ATX: 30cm x 24cm (12in x 9.6in) – This is the most common board used today, and also the bigger one of the two. This type of board will have the most connections, more RAM support, and most likely more features overall.
mATX: 24cm x 24cm (9.6in x 9.6in) – These boards are a little more limited, and require less power. For that reason they are often used in home theater computer systems. You will not see as many RAM slots or PCIe slots as you would on a full ATX board. These boards are used more for smaller cases, but will fit in to a full ATX system case (although not the other way around).
These are the two most common motherboards. There are smaller ones such as the mini-ITX, Nano-ITX, and Pico-ITX. Mini-ITX is a little smaller than mATX (170mm x 170mm) and is also found in home media systems, although less common. Pico and Nano (120mm x 120mm and 72mm x 100mm, respectively) are used for thin devices like personal video records, car PC’s, etc.
Overall, if you want to build a power-house computer for gaming or multimedia editing, then you should focus on an ATX board. If not, you can still opt for an ATX board for the extra features, but a mATX board could also be quite suitable for your needs. Be sure to delve deeply into both boards to see what is best for you.
Chipset and Socket Type
Usually, I pick a motherboard first before choosing a CPU. Some people prefer the other way. Whichever way you decide, make sure the CPU socket type is compatible with the socket type on the motherboard. Otherwise, you will be quite disappointed when you find out it doesn’t work. When it comes to socket types, Intel and AMD are of course the go-to competitors. Intel uses LGA, and AMD uses PGA and the AM series.
Land Grid Array:
LGA stands for Land Grid Array. Intel places the contact pins on the motherboard socket, while the processor has individual “lands” that each pin will make contact with. Intel labels their sockets by the number of pins they have, which is quite consumer friendly and less confusing if you ask me. For example, socket LGA1150 would have 1,150 pins. And the processor to fit this would have 1,150 “lands”, or contacts.
Pin Grid Array:
AMD on the other hand uses PGA, or Pin Grid Array. This is where the pins are on the actual processor. When the processor sits on the motherboard socket, these pins would go in to their corresponding holes. Unlike Intel, AMD doesn’t use the term PGA when referring to their sockets. Instead, they use AM, such as AM, AM2+, and AM3+. Another important thing about AMD processors before I move on to the chipsets is that AMD also has FM processors. The difference between the AM series and FM is the existence of integrated graphics. AM series sockets do not come with integrated graphics, whereas FM does. So be sure you keep this in mind when making a final purchase.
North and South Bridges:
There was a time when you had a Northbridge connection, and a Southbridge connection. The Northbridge was more or less a central point for all your high-speed connections, such as your PCIe slot (for high-speed graphics) and the RAM. These high-speed connections would have a direct connection to the Northbridge, and the Northbridge would then relay to the CPU through a direct connection on the front-side bus. The Northbridge chipset can be found as a large, square chip somewhere between the RAM slots, PCIe slots, and the CPU. The Southbridge on the other hand is responsible for all your slower connections, such as the PCI slots, SATA and USB connections, even the BIOS. Your keyboard and mouse communicate through the Southbridge. The Southbridge then connects directly to the Northbridge, which in turn (as you know) connects to the CPU. Just like the Northbridge, you can find the Southbridge chipset near the PCI slots, on-board SATA connections, and BIOS chip.
These days you may not even see a Northbridge connection or possibly even a Southbridge connection on the motherboard anymore. Why? Well, they both might be integrated right in to the CPU. Makes sense, right? Since it has to relay information there anyway, why not just integrate the whole thing?! Doing so allowed us to get information much faster and prevented bottlenecking.
The number of expansion slots is a very important part to take in to consideration when comparing motherboards. PCI and PCIe are your two most important expansion slots these days, with PCIe being much faster. And probably the only two expansion slots you may find now. The number of expansion slots you get will depend on the form factor you choose.
As of 2016, you will find DDR4 memory in most computer systems. When looking for memory, you want to first determine what type of memory your motherboard requires. Next, you should think about how much memory you really need. If all you do is surf the web and write emails, 1-2GB should be plenty. If you are a power user, you might want at least 8GB. Graphic designers or high-end gamers should go for 8-16GB. I personally think anything more than 16GB is obnoxious and a waste. An important thing to look at when buying RAM is the speed. When compared to latency (CAS), the more speed you have, less latency should occur.
You could never have enough SATA ports! Just about everything you want to connect to your computer internally is going to connect via SATA. Usually you will find roughly 6-8 SATA connectors on a motherboard. This is a pretty good amount to look for. Also, make sure they are SATA3, which allows up to 6GB/s transfers.
It is rare to find anyone using the motherboard integrated graphics for their main graphics, but that doesn’t mean you should be okay with so-so onboard graphics. HD integrated graphics support with at least 1GB of shared memory is nice to have. Look for Display Port and HDMI connections as well.
Here you are looking for 10/100/1000 Mbit support. 1000 Mbit would be your gigabit Ethernet. Two ports are better than one!
You will still find USB 1.1 on some motherboards, but you want to stick with USB 2.0 and 3.0. The more 3.0 connections, the better. You may come across a couple 3.1 Type C connections as well. Make sure you have plenty of USB ports on the back AND the front.
Temperature and Monitoring Sensors:
Most motherboards are integrating sensors in to their motherboards that allow you to check the temperature of the CPU, graphics card, fan speeds and fan failures, system voltages, and more. These sensors are of course very useful so keep this in mind when looking for your next motherboard.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider when buying a motherboard. Here I have only covered the most important components. The motherboard can be described in the great detail, but overall, what I covered is a good starting point for things to keep in mind. Be sure to do a lot of research because your motherboard is the base component and homes all of your other peripherals. It is after all the mother ship.