Choose A Motherboard

Motherboard

If you are looking to build your own PC, or to buy a pre-built PC that you may want to expand or upgrade later, then there is a component that will serve as your foundation. That component is the motherboard, and it’s an incredibly important piece of the PC puzzle. It determines many of the other components you will be able to choose from, and at the same time a few other options, such as the processor you will use on your new PC, determine which motherboard you can use.

After choosing a CPU, a companion motherboard will usually be the next component you select for your build. Let’s break down your motherboard selection in a few (relatively) easy steps.

What is a motherboard?
A motherboard is a printed circuit board (PCB) that creates a kind of backbone allowing a variety of components to communicate, and that provides different connectors for components such as the central processing unit (CPU), the graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, and storage. Most computers made today, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and desktops, use motherboards to gather everything together, but the only type you’ll normally buy yourself are those made for desktops.

Platform
Perhaps the first decision to make is which CPU you want to serve as the brain of your PC, which means choosing between two companies: Intel and AMD. Both offer CPUs ranging from entry-level options good enough for web browsing, productivity, and low-end gaming to ultra-powerful beasts that can traverse video editing projects and run today’s most demanding games at high frames per second (FPS).

Both companies are constantly updating their products, so this information can become obsolete very quickly. However, when this how-to was written, Intel is in its ninth generation CPU and AMD has recently introduced its Zen 2 architecture, with Zen 3 expected soon, and third-generation Ryzen CPU. Which one is right for you will depend on your needs, such as whether you’re more concerned about apps that can use multiple processor cores (which could favor AMD’s Ryzen processors) or whether you’re more concerned about games that benefit from faster single-core performance (which could favor Intel’s Core processors).

An Intel motherboard

Once you have decided which CPU is best for you, you will need to choose a motherboard that uses the right socket and the right chipset. Basically, a processor socket is the mechanism through which a CPU is firmly attached to a motherboard. A chipset is the software and hardware of the motherboard that is combined to allow all the various components to communicate.

Sockets and Chipsets namely
Here are the most important sockets and chipsets today:

Socket compatible CPU Chipsets
LGA 1200 10th generation Intel Core Comet Lake( 10th generation): Z490
LGA 1151 8th and 9th Generation Intel Core Coffee Lake( 8th generation): H310, B360, H370, Q370, Z370
Coffee Lake (9. a generation): Z390, B365, B360
LGA 2066 Skylake-X / Kaby-Lake X X299
sTRX4 3rd-generation AMD Ryzen Threadripper TRX40
STR4 AMD Ryzen Threadripper X399
AM4 AMD Ryzen, 7th generation a-series, and Athlon A300, A320, B350, B450, X370, X470, X570
It’s not so important to understand everything it takes to make a chipset, but it’s vital to understand that you need to select a motherboard with the right chipset—and the right socket—for the CPU you plan to buy. It is also important to know that different chipsets support different combinations of components, such as RAM, GPU and others.

Comparison of motherboards in Newegg.com it’s easy

As you research and compare motherboards, you’ll want to make sure everything you want to achieve is compatible. If you use Newegg’s comparison tool, you can get a good idea of which motherboard is best for your new PC.

Form Factor
ASUS Strix motherboardMotherboards come in different sizes, which means you have some flexibility in building your PC to suit your environment. If you have a lot of space, then you may want to use a full-size tower box, while if you are building a home theater PC (HTPC) that is intended to sit under your living room TV, then you probably want a much smaller case.

That’s why motherboards come in various sizes, or form factors, and these standards define not only the size of the motherboard, but also how many of the various components tend to support. There are variations on the latter, but generally speaking, the larger the physical size of the motherboard, the more components it will support. Not all cases support all form factors, so you’ll want to make sure your motherboard and Case match.

Motherboard form factors namely
The following are several of the most popular form factors and their most common specifications:

Mini-ITX MicroATX ATX
Size 9.0 x 7.5 inches 9.6 x 9.6 inches 12 x 9.6 inches
Expansion slots 1 4 7
RAM DIMM DIMM DIMM
RAM slots 2 up to 4 up to 8
GPU up to 1 up to 3 up to 4
SATA ports up to 6 up to 8 up to 12
These are general guidelines for some of the most common motherboard form factors. There are more, and they vary in their capabilities. The most important thing is to decide what size of PC you want to build or buy, how many components you will want to configure now and in the future, and then choose the form factor of the motherboard that best suits your needs.

Motherboard expansion options
Shielded motherboards motherboards can connect a variety of components in addition to the CPU, including graphics cards, sound cards, network cards, storage devices and connections, and a large number of others. There have been many types of expansion ports over the years, but fortunately things have become much simpler. Today, these are mainly PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) ports, with some motherboards also including PCI slots for legacy devices.

PCIe is the most important port and the one you will use to connect most components today. There are four sizes of PCIe slots, and the latest commonly used standard is PCIe 3.0, with PCIe 4.0 available on the latest Ryzen and Intel Comet Lake compatible boards. These four sizes dictate both the performance of the connection and its size; you’ll want to make sure that you have enough expansion slots and that they’re the right size to meet all your present and future needs.

The four slot sizes are x1, x4, x8 and x16, with x4 and x16 being the most common. Motherboards vary widely in the number of slots they include, and also in their placement. You’ll want to be sure that you have enough slots, and that they have enough space around them to fit all your required components.

GPU support
A GPU on a motherboard, with liquid coolingall PCs need a way to generate information in a visual format that humans can use. In its simplest terms, that means displaying images on a monitor. The component that performs this function on a typical PC is the graphics card, or GPU, and you will need to ensure that your motherboard can support the type of GPU you need for the intended uses.

Some Intel Core CPUs come with built-in GPUs that provide the means to display the output to a monitor, and AMD has its own version of the same thing called Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) that combines a CPU with a GPU in the same package. These are relatively low-power GPUs that are great for the usual productivity tasks, but only support less graphically demanding games (such as esports titles).

If you need a more powerful GPU, either for gaming or for more demanding applications like video editing that can make use of a GPU for faster processing, you probably want a standalone GPU. In that case, you’ll want to consider what types of GPUs you can connect to your motherboard, and even how many GPUs your motherboard can support.

Connecting GPUs
PCIe Slots

Today, most GPUs are connected via PCIe slots, and most use PCIe x16 slots. In addition, most contemporary GPUs require PCIe 3.0 or later. The final requirement is the width available for each PCIe slot, and many GPUs require a width of two slots. This can block some PCIe x1 slots and make them inaccessible, which is fine as long as it doesn’t surprise you. Note that some GPUs can use only the 75 watts of power provided by the PCIe slot, but that most GPUs require more power via six-or eight-pin connectors from a large enough power supply.

Therefore, when choosing your motherboard, you will want to make sure that it provides the right type of PCIe slots. That means reviewing the GPU specs carefully and comparing them to the motherboard specs. If you want to connect two or more GPUs, called “Scalable Link Interface” or SLI from NVIDIA and Crossfire from AMD, you will need two available PCIe slots and a compatible motherboard.

We will emphasize this again because it is very important: be sure to check your GPU requirements with what your motherboard can provide to make sure everything fits properly. We’re not discussing the specifics of the power supply in this how to do, but you’ll want to make sure you select a power supply as well that can meet the needs of your GPU at full load along with the rest of your components.

RAM
RAM slots your CPU needs a place to store information while your PC is on and running. That’s called “Random Access Memory,” or RAM, and today PCs are commonly equipped with at least 4GB of RAM. How much RAM you need for your own PC depends on how you plan to use it, and 8GB is usually a safe recommendation for most lighter users, with 16 or more GB as a good bet for heavier users.

Today’S RAM connects to a motherboard through a rectangular slot named after the type of RAM used today-the dual in-line memory module (DIMM). The number of DIMM slots on a motherboard determines how much RAM you can add, and usually ranges from two to eight slots. You can add one RAM module at a time, but you will get the best performance when you install RAM in matching pairs.

ASUS Strix motherboard

RAM on a motherboard

The capacity varies from 1GB DIMM to 128GB DIMM, the latter are extremely expensive and are usually purchased for use on servers. Most consumer PCs will be equipped with a total of 4 GB to 64 GB, and RAM is usually purchased in two-or four-DIMM kits. For example, if you were looking to equip your PC with 16GB of RAM, you would usually buy a kit with two 8GB DIMMs or four 4GB DIMMs.

When you select your motherboard, make sure it has enough slots, can support all the RAM you plan to set up, and can support the fastest RAM you want to buy. At the same time, you will want to think about how to buy your RAM. For example, if you want to start with 8GB of RAM and then grow to 16GB, and your motherboard has four DIMM slots, then you’ll want to start with a 4GB two DIMM kit and not a 2GB four DIMM kit, as that will allow you to add another kit later and avoid being left with unused RAM.

Storage
Intel Optane SSDs to use your PC, you will need a place to store the operating system, applications and data when the power is off. Today, that means choosing between a hard disk drive (HDD) with rotating disks that store data and solid state drives (SSDs) that store data in a much faster flash memory. Hard drives are usually less expensive to get more storage space, while SSDs are more expensive but offer extra speed and are great for supporting the operating system and applications.

There are a few main storage connectors that you will want to consider when buying your motherboard. That includes the types of connections and how many connections you will have to add storage to your PC. Some of these connections are internal, and others are external.

Side profile of the motherboard NZXT N7the most common storage connection today is serial ATA, or SATA. SATA is in its third revision, and SATA 3.0 is a connection that provides a transfer rate of up to six gigabits per second (Gb/s). That translates to up to 600 megabytes per second (600MB/s) in read and write speeds for SATA SSDs and typically significantly less than 150MB / s of read and write for hard drives.

You can buy both hard drives and SDDS that support SATA 3.0 connections, and motherboards can contain multiple SATA ports. There are variations of SATA 3.X that provide faster speeds and slightly different connections, including the SATA 3.2 revision that uses an M. 2 form factor.

An increasingly common type of storage connection is NVM Express, or NVMe, which connects via the PCIe bus. This is a newer protocol that offers higher bandwidth, lower power, lower latency, and other advantages. Common NVMe SSDs today can provide theoretical speeds of more than 3 GB/s read and 1.5 GB/s write. NVMe SSDs come in two formats, cards that connect to PCIe slots and compact versions that connect to M. 2 connections.

A small SSD and a large HDD
One M. 2 connection

As with many of the components in this how-to, there are many factors involved in choosing the right storage. A common tactic is to buy a relatively small SSD for the operating system and applications, which makes performance Significantly better, and then larger hard drives to store massive amounts of data such as photos and videos.

Regardless of the storage you choose, you’ll want to make sure your motherboard supports your needs for now and in the future. That requires carefully studying the specifications of a motherboard to ensure that you can plug in all the storage you may need one day. Remember that you can also connect external storage devices if necessary, and that is a requirement for the data you need to carry with you.

Connectivity
Motherboard I/O Panel we’ve covered several different ways to connect components to a motherboard, including PCIe, DIMM slots, and storage connections. There are a plethora of other connection types that motherboards can support today, and once again, you’ll want to consider your needs very carefully when selecting a motherboard.

In addition, some connections are located directly on the motherboard and internal to the box, and are sometimes intended to connect to ports on the front, top, side, or back of a box. You’ll also want to consider which ports your case supports and make sure your motherboard provides the necessary internal connections. Motherboards also have externally accessible connections on an input/output (I/O) rear panel that fits a generally standard location on the back of a box.

Motherboard connections to know
Some connections are located directly on the motherboard and internal to the case, and are sometimes intended to connect to ports on the front, top, side, or back of a case, as well as other internal and external components. You’ll want to consider which ports your case supports and make sure your motherboard provides the required internal connections, and the same goes for other additions. These connections include a variety of on-board headers that are used to support things like fans, external USB ports, RGB lighting systems, and a variety of manufacturer-specific patented products.

This is something you’ll want to check carefully as you’re selecting components for your new PC. For example, your case could have multiple USB ports that require multiple internal USB headers. In addition, some water cooling systems require specific headers to connect to the software that controls lighting and thermal sensors. You will need to ensure that a motherboard includes all the headers necessary to support all these types of additional components and case features.

Gigabyte motherboard

Connector location purpose typical number
Internal rear panel Audio allows connection to the rear external audio jack of a box (if any). 1
Audio for front panel internal allows connection to the external front audio jack of a box (if any). 1
Digital audio header Internal allows connection to a digital audio connector. 1
#The internal front panel header provides pins for connecting LED lights and font panel buttons, such as power on and restart. 1
Internal 8-pin CPU power connector allows the delivery of power from the power supply through the motherboard to the CPU. On modern motherboards, this is usually an eight-pin connector. 1
The 24-pin main power connector allows the delivery of power from the power supply through the motherboard to a variety of connected components, such as PCIe components, RAM, and certain types of storage. On modern motherboards, this is usually an eight-pin connector. 1
Internal auxiliary power connectors in addition, there may be power connections for fans and other additional components. Vary
Internal or external USB provides USB connections, including USB-A 2.0, USB-A 3.X and USB-C 3.1 ports. Internal connectors will be available for external box ports, as well as USB ports for direct connections on the back I/O panel of the motherboard. Vary
Internal or external Firewire an older connection allows you to connect a Firewire device. Vary
SATA Internal these are connections for SATA hard drives and SSDs. Vary
External display ports if you have chosen a CPU with integrated graphics, then you will want to use one of the display ports found on the back I/O panel. These can include VGA, DVI, DisplayPort and HDMI ports. Vary
External audio connectors if your motherboard has built-in audio, and most do today, then you will have audio connectors for connecting speakers and microphones. The number of jacks and the type of speaker configurations they support (from stereo to 7.1-channel surround sound) will vary depending on the motherboard’s audio system. Vary
External Ethernet today’s motherboards usually come equipped with gigabit Ethernet ports to connect to wired networks. 1
External Wi-Fi antenna connector if your motherboard includes a built-in Wi-Fi network, there will usually be a thread connector for connecting an external antenna. 1
Motherboard manufacturers
ASUS ROG motherboardNow that you have identified what kind of motherboard you need to build your specific PC, or that should serve as the basis for that pre-built PC you’re going to pick up, you’ll want to give your manufacturer a little thought. Some companies focus on providing gamer-oriented motherboards, with tons of space to add GPUs and with LED light systems, while others focus on more conventional systems.

Some of the best-known motherboard manufacturers are ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI and ASRock. You can see the different options of those companies, as well as others, on the Newegg motherboard page.

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