The motherboard is one of the most important components in any computer build (especially when overclocking). It not only handles all of the data transmitted between other components within your PC but also serves as the host for a variety of other devices which can be added to it.
Important Motherboard Specs
The motherboard, also known as a Mainboard or System Board, is one of the most critical components in a computer and one that you will have to pick out before anything else. One of the main things to consider when choosing this piece of hardware (and arguably one of the most complex parts) is deciding what form factor it should be in.
This refers to how big or small it is, meaning that cases can vary considerably depending on whether they are designed for ATX motherboards or Micro ATX ones. A third option available to builders these days is called Mini ITX, which are smaller than even MicroATX boards making them ideal for more compact systems where size is at a premium.
The options for different form factors vary from case to case, so you must keep this in mind if you have limited space or are trying to fit a system into a tight area.
Remember that while MicroATX boards offer some flexibility by allowing for different form factors, they will also be generally smaller than their larger competitors. This can have its advantages and disadvantages depending on the setup at hand, so use your own best judgment when deciding what format to use with your parts.
This is something that people don’t consider when buying a motherboard. However, it can affect your build depending on the type of case you’re using even if you choose to go with a larger tower-style case that may require more space for components such as longer graphics cards or oversized heatsinks/water blocks to fit correctly.
There are other reasons why picking the correct form factor can be beneficial. For example:
ATX: If you decide to purchase an entire tower case and want enough room for multiple video cards (SLI/CrossFire), large CPU coolers, etc., it’s best to stick with this form factor since most will come with plenty of expansion slots.
MicroATX/Mini-ITX: If you have a smaller case with little room for expansion, these may be better options since they are much more compact and can allow for installation in an enclosure smaller than what would normally be possible for standard ATX boards.
E-ATX: This form factor is typically used for servers or workstations. However, motherboards are available that are designed specifically to fit inside a full tower chassis despite being somewhat larger (longer) than the other two alternatives. These could be used if someone were building a LAN box or some type of server, where size is not restricted, but you must still carefully consider power needs.
Most people will stick with ATX and MicroATX due to their popularity along with the availability of cases to fit them. So, even if you do decide to build a unique setup or stick with standard computer towers, that’s probably what you’ll want.
This refers to a group of integrated circuits or chips placed onto the motherboard on either side of the processor. These are what allow communication between other components like RAM modules, video cards, and network adapters. Hence, these are essential considerations when picking out your motherboard since they determine which pieces of hardware can work together well in any given setup.
Most modern motherboards use two main chipset setups called Intel (Haswell or Ivy Bridge) and AMD (Kaveri or Richland). Both are pretty good, but they vary slightly in terms of performance, features, and cost. It is entirely up to you which one you pick as long as it has the onboard ports required for your system but make sure that it supports everything you need first if possible.
Due to their importance, chipsets are another item that you should check out before buying a motherboard to match them well with your parts and needs if possible. Once again, there is no right or wrong choice here but keep in mind that more advanced setups will almost always have more expensive motherboards (and chipsets) due to their additional features and capabilities.
This refers to the system firmware that is stored in a chip on your motherboard. The BIOS allows you to access specific settings, ensure everything boots up properly, and get other components ready for regular operation. In most cases, it also allows you to configure various settings as necessary, like clock speeds, memory timings, boot order, etc. In contrast, some boards have more advanced setup menus than others.
If your motherboard has newer features or capabilities, it may sport a more modern BIOS interface, but they can still vary greatly depending on what you are used to and what your hardware has these days. Just be aware of this when shopping around so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises later when setting things up (or trying to make some changes).
You should be aware that motherboards use expansion slots to connect different pieces of hardware to the system. These include things like video cards, sound cards, network adapters, specialized memory modules (like ECC or Rambus DRAM), and so forth. Modern boards generally have PCI Express x16 slots for high-performance graphics cards and a couple of PCI Express x1 slots for smaller add-in parts.
Some may also have a legacy PCI slot which is helpful if you need something from older times due to limited availability or price reasons, but otherwise, it isn’t used too much these days outside of some cases. More advanced setups may also feature additional slots such as mSATA sockets or onboard SATA controllers (for things like SSD drives), but the exact configuration will depend on the board you have in front of you.
Front Panel Connectors:
This refers to the connectors found near your system power button, and the case reset switch would usually be placed. These generally include USB 2.0/3.0 ports, Firewire headers, audio jacks, card readers, or other primary inputs/outputs (I/O). You can often find a lot more right on the front of some boards now, so keep an eye out for this feature if you need it.
Some motherboards may also sport additional lights or switches here to allow for direct control over certain parts of your setup without having to go into menus or BIOS screens. Front Panel USB headers are also helpful for cases with built-in ports. Still, they aren’t familiar these days due to the popularity of wireless connectivity (and the fact that most people have extra USB slots available inside).
The Northbridge is a chip that sits on your motherboard between where the CPU normally goes and where all of the other integrated components sit. It handles communication between these two main parts in the system and controls things like memory timing, voltage regulation, etc. Motherboards can have one or several Northbridges depending on their capabilities so keep an eye out when looking around if you need additional functionality here. Some setups also have limited support for more than one CPU at once, which is helpful if you want to upgrade in the future but don’t need it now.
PCI Express Slots:
These are a more modern expansion slot specifically designed for use with graphics cards or other high-performance add-in hardware, and they have largely replaced older standards (like PCI) over time. They also offer great flexibility due to their ability to split into smaller portions for multiple purposes, ideal for smaller devices that often need discrete bandwidth (or at least their dedicated lanes).
Northbridge chips generally include at least one of these slots, whereas some motherboards may also sport additional ones, especially on higher-end models from major manufacturers. The exact total depends on what else you will be doing with your system, so always make sure you have the right combination for your needs.
You should be aware that RAM slots come in different widths, with the most common being either DDR2/DDR3/DDR4. Motherboards will usually support one or each standard as long as they are paired with a compatible CPU, but not every pair of slots available will always be populated for whatever reason. This can cause complications if you try to install something more extensive than what was intended. Ensure that it matches what is supported by your chosen CPU to avoid losing potential speed/functionality down the road.
Northbridge chips also often include a small amount of memory to supplement your slots’ combined capacity. RAM can be used to store data or instructions for the CPU. This is useful for power management routines, but it isn’t standard on modern motherboards unless you’re overclocking heavily or have a specific need.
It is created primarily to handle things like networking capabilities to free up resources needed by other parts of your setup.
Southbridge chips began including additional functionality over time, such as Firewire ports, onboard audio support (on older setups), USB 3.0 expansion headers, and optional RAID controllers (for better hard drive performance/reliability under load), chip security features/management software and so forth.
The exact capabilities will vary based on what your board supports. There may even be dedicated chips explicitly designed for some of these purposes if you look for something more efficient or higher-end.
The one exception here is that almost every piece of hardware in your system will need to have an interface (or at least a path) back to the Southbridge which means that it normally includes ports/slots for everything from USB headers from your keyboard and mouse, cooling fan connections, serial/parallel ports, etc. Although it’s not as common on newer boards, this can come in handy since most people prefer wireless connectivity.
North and Southbridge functionality has largely been integrated into modern motherboards over time. However, you may still see older models with both presents on the same chip, depending on what is included. This is most common on cheaper motherboards since they usually lack more advanced features, but it’s still an option for people who need/want it.
As a general rule, you will have to choose between one or the other based on your hardware needs, and like most things, integrated functionality tends to be better in theory than actual practice. Although this kind of design saves money and space, security concerns relate to both functions being held on a single chip. On top of that, you lose flexibility by tying everything together, which makes upgrading more problematic down the road when there may not be room to add something new if something else won’t fit.
Most boards should have at least a few connections for the CPU cooler and case fans to plug into, although some models may come with more (or none) depending on how they are designed. This is just an example of the kind of thing you should be thinking about when it comes to spacing out your hardware and making sure that everything will fit as intended.
Modern PCs are commonly used for media streaming, gaming, and other intensive workloads which means that they require solid graphics cards to function properly (without bottlenecking). However, using multiple video cards can also provide benefits such as faster rendering times or increased performance with certain applications so there may be instances where you want more than one card regardless of your system’s primary use.
Considering how all of the slots will be related, it’s important to think about whether or not you’re going to use multiple cards before you decide what else you want in your build. If they are going to be used primarily for gaming/heavy graphics work, then having space between them will allow better airflow which is crucial for achieving high clock speeds and stable operation.
However, if you are planning on using something like a video editing setup where the CPU is responsible for most of the workload (and therefore needs as much power as possible), it might make more sense to have everything plugged into adjacent slots with one card sharing a memory from another (if supported).
Some motherboards are designed with a specific layout in mind such as placing PCI Express slots directly adjacent to ECC memory slots, but if you need the extra space for other hardware, it may be worth looking into something with more flexibility to accommodate your needs. On top of that, it never hurts to buy a model with multiple expansion slots which can make saving/reusing them much easier since you don’t have to keep track of what went where; just put everything back where it was after taking out the card you want to replace and plug in the new one.
Alongside integrated video cards (and various other components), most motherboards will include at least one or two connections for a power supply though some will come with additional cables for higher wattage models. It’s probably best to stick with a quality unit for your build so you don’t have any problems down the road, but if you already have one that needs replacement or is using a lower wattage model, it might be possible to save some money (especially on higher-end boards).
These days, most people will want at least 6 USB connections to connect everything they need and more without having to use up too many of the other ports. Most motherboards should come with the basic 4 or 5 which gives enough space for most setups though some models may include an additional 2 to provide more spacing between them. Other than buying a model with more connections, there isn’t much else you can do unless you plan on adding some type of expansion card that may take up space already used for USB connectors.
Just like the video headers, the number of fan connections should be something you consider when buying your motherboard. With 6 fans connected to a board, they must be spaced out properly so long cables don’t get in the way or even worse, short out against other components on the board due to poor connections. Alongside this, having more than one pin for each header can reduce noise and wear on individual fans since they will have less resistance with more power available while leading to better overall performance.
Some models will come with just 2 pin or 3 pin fan headers though most higher-end boards at least include 4 pins (2 per header) which is the minimum amount I would personally recommend.
Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to find out exactly how many fan headers are on a board before making your purchase so you’ll have to rely on detailed information from other reviews or look at the layout yourself if available before buying.
If you’re planning to overclock any of your components as far as possible while still maintaining stability, there will come a point where you need better cooling than what’s available with stock fans and heatsinks alone. This can reduce temperatures dramatically which directly relates to a higher maximum frequency/voltage that can be reached without risk of damage; in turn, improving performance by a significant margin.
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