One of the most important decisions you can make when building or buying a new PC is which motherboard to choose. It is also one of the more intimidating components, especially for the more novice user. There are many variables at play depending on what the primary use of the PC is going to be and it can get confusing. This blog will discuss motherboards and go over some of the more important considerations—whether you want to upgrade your exiting configuration, you want to better understand the components for a pre-built PC, or you plan to build a new one from scratch.
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What is a motherboard?
That is a good question and one that we need to understand in order to make the informed decisions we need to. The motherboard is a printed circuit board that is the foundation of your entire system. Almost every single component attaches to it and it is the motherboard that allows them to communicate with one another. The motherboard holds the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and as such, really determines what your options are when purchasing a processor. It’s fair to say that most pick their processor first and then they are better able to determine exactly which motherboard meets their needs. If the CPU is the brains of your computer, then you might think of the motherboard as the nervous system that connects everything together relaying messages back and forth.
Simply looking at a bare motherboard can be daunting as it is covered with capacitors, transistors, circuitry, solder, and a bunch of different slots. As chaotic as it all appears at first, you will soon realize that those are all the spaces that will house your computer’s components. The CPU, Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) or graphics card, your computer’s memory (RAM), sound card, and any other components you wish connect.
There are a few crucial questions to ask in order to ultimately determine what motherboard will work best for you. These include:
What is the CPU?
When it comes to brands of processors, there are essentially 2 players in the game. Intel and AMD. As far as types of CPUs, this number grows. As this is a motherboard blog I won’t get too deep into CPUs. It has also been covered in detail here. Understand that your CPU of choice will, however, ultimately determine which motherboards you can use and which you can’t. This is because of two things: socket and chipset.
The socket is the slot where you plug your CPU into the motherboard and they need be compatible. An AMD CPU has a different socket than an Intel CPU and thus the motherboard is specific to one or the other. For example, if you choose a motherboard with an LGA 1200 socket, you can only use an Intel processor with that same socket. One with an AM4 socket will only support an AMD processor. Sockets are relative to generations of the CPU as well. An older processor will almost certainly be a different socket than a new motherboard.
The chipset is the set of chips (get it? Chipset!) and refers to how your CPU is going to communicate with everything on the motherboard. The chipset also determines how many devices or peripherals the motherboard will support.
The chipset can range from fairly basic to feature laden and accommodating. It can get even more confusing when you consider that your CPU and motherboard sharing the same socket type is not a guarantee that the chipset is compatible. You should always go to the website of the motherboard as you can usually find a compatibility list telling you all of the CPUs that will work with that board.
What is the purpose of your computer going to be?
If all you are planning to do is cruise the internet and stream some audio and video content then you have different requirements than someone who wants to play graphics intensive online games. If your intention is to use your PC primarily for editing and outputting video, then you potentially won’t need the same system as someone working with 3D modelling. Each of these tasks can be intensive on different components of your computer and it is the motherboard that will determine what components you can use or not.
That is to say that if you require a specific graphics card for your job, you won’t be able to use it with just any motherboard. Maybe the software you use needs a lot of RAM. If this is the case then you need to be aware of how many slots a motherboard has as well as the types of RAM it can read and what the total amount of RAM the board will support is.
I built a video editing PC just four short years ago and all was well. Until it wasn’t. One day it wouldn’t start up. Powered on for a few seconds and then shut down. Every time. Tried another power supply. Nothing. Tested all of the components (other than the CPU) and they were fine. Most likely the motherboard. Although four years doesn’t seem like a long time ago, in computer tech time that is ancient. I had to find a used motherboard because new motherboards with the same socket as my CPU, didn’t support my CPU which was also four years old. If I were to get a brand new motherboard then I would also require a new CPU. So realize that upgrading components a couple of years down the line isn’t always as easy just physically swapping one out and another in.
Are you building or buying a pre-built?
A pre-built system is handy in that is has done all of the compatibility checking for you. It has decent brand name hardware that varies by price point and is ready to setup and start using. It is certainly more convenient. Even still, you should understand what motherboard and CPU it has so that you can potentially upgrade components at a later date.
When you build your own system however, you can tailor it so that all of the components are exactly what you need (or want) depending on the tasks your PC will perform. A custom build ultimately provides more flexibility and more options than you can get with a pre-built. There are plusses and minuses with each, so make sure you consider them.
Nobody wants to shell out a lot of money for something that is obsolete in a relatively short period of time. Making sure that your motherboard has enough slots to accommodate a future expansion can buy more time. Your motherboard will need to have the slots you need for your other components and these can take different forms. A PCIe (peripheral component interconnect express) slot will let you connect your graphics card, sound card, Wi-Fi card, Solid State Drives (SSD), or other peripherals and add-on cards.
PCIe slots come in four main sizes. These are x1, x4, x8, and x16. If you want to install an SSD directly to the motherboard rather than with a cable, then you will need to make sure it has a M.2 connector slot. Determine what peripheral devices you intend to use with your PC and ensure that you have the correct number and type to accommodate those.
Besides slots, it is also important to consider ports. What ports does the motherboard have? What are the ports? You obviously need some USB ports but they are not all created equally.
USB 2 ports are fine for keyboards but with USB 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2, transfer speeds are significantly quicker and allow you to take full advantage of a connected device’s capabilities. There is also the new USB 4 which features the same port style as USB C and Thunderbolt 3. Depending on what the PC is being used for, you may want an HDMI port or built-in audio. If you need to connect a lot of external devices, then always make sure your motherboard is able to support those connection types.
Motherboards have three basic sizes. The largest form factor is Standard ATX and as it is the largest, it will also provide the most features. An ATX motherboard requires a full-size tower case and would be the practical choice for building a gaming PC as it will accommodate the most components including cooling systems which are a must if you plan to overclock your CPU (more on that in a bit).
Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX are the other 2 sizes of motherboards. If you don’t have a lot a space for a PC then these smaller sizes will go in smaller cases but remember that means you may have less options available for peripherals. For example, an ATX board may have seven expansion slots whereas the Micro-ATX may only have four and the Mini-ITX just one.
Every CPU has a maximum speed that it can perform operations at. This ensures the processor stays with a safe running temperature if adequately cooled. Overclocking lets the CPU run at a faster speed than it was manufactured for which can increase your overall performance. You go into your computer’s BIOS to find and change this setting. The downside to overclocking is that it creates significant heat and if not properly cooled, can result in damage to the CPU and create instability (or failure) in your system.
Water/Liquid cooling is one way to ensure your temperatures stay well in hand but is of course, an extra expense to consider. If you plan to overclock your CPU you need to make sure that your motherboard will allow this to occur. Not every motherboard or CPU will let you overclock it so if this is something you need, make sure that you check and see if it is possible before purchasing.
A new Motherboard might be just what your computer needs
There are a great many factors to consider when purchasing or building a new computer. The choice of motherboard may be the most important but is also the most daunting. Taking your time and ensuring that you have the motherboard you need in order for your PC to best accomplish what you need is critical. Once the foundation of your motherboard and compatible CPU are in place, you can then focus on filling in all of the slots on the board. Ultimately, it isn’t as harrowing as it might seem and it is also incredibly fun and rewarding watching your vision all come together. Find a great selection of PC Components online at Best Buy and start your journey today.
To learn more about building your own PC and PC components, be sure to check out all the posts in this series.