A motherboard is one of the most important parts of your computer, as it is a carcass to which all the other PC parts are connected. You need to know the main features and important details every platform offers so that your PC can deliver the best experience for you.
If you want to know how to pick a motherboard consider the following:
Choose the right form factor of the motherboard depending on the size of the PC case.
There are 4 main types of motherboard form factors:
- Extended ATX / eATX (305 × 330 mm / 12” × 13”) — the largest form factor for professionals and enthusiasts for maximum hardware configuration flexibility.
- ATX (305 × 244 mm / 12” × 9.6”) — the standard form factor for full-size motherboards with 7 expansion slots, up to 8 RAM slots, up to 12 SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) ports, and the place for up to 4 GPUs.
- Micro ATX (244 × 244 mm / 9.6” × 9.6”) — a form factor that can fit in a smaller PC case. It comes with 4 expansion slots, up to 4 RAM slots, up to 8 SATA ports, and you can connect up to 3 GPUs to it.
- Mini-ITX (170 × 170 mm / 6.7” × 6.7”) — the smallest size for the most compact cases. It has only 1 expansion slot, 2 RAM slots, up to 6 SATA ports. And you can use only 1 GPU with it.
The smaller your motherboard, the less hardware can be connected to it.
A processor you want to use in your computer determines your motherboard model because it has a chipset and a socket for a certain CPU type. So choosing a motherboard, make sure its CPU socket coincides with the interface type of a processor. Read more about choosing processors.
There are only 2 major CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Intel’s most used sockets are LGA1151, LGA2066, and a new socket for 10th Gen Core processors (launched in 2019-2020) — LGA1200. AMD sockets are AM4 and TR4 for Threadripper processors.
Chipset models today vary by inbuilt features, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth technology, support of a certain number of PCIe lanes or SATA ports, and overclocking.
If you are planning to overclock, there are only Z-series boards (Z390 with the best features for mainstream users and Z490 for 10th Gen CPUs) and X-299 for high-end Core X processors on the Intel side.
On the contrary, all AMD chipsets support overclocking except the low-end A320 and A-300. For better features, stick to X470 and X570 boards.
Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) slots are used for the installation of such hardware as graphics cards, solid-state drives, and other expansion cards.
There are 4 types of expansion slots on a motherboard: ×1, ×4, ×8, or ×16 slots. A PCIe×1 is mostly used for USB and SATA expansion. A PCIe×16 slot is the longest one and is usually used for graphic cards. They also vary by generation, each new generation doubling the bandwidth of the previous one.
If your motherboard is equipped with a PCIe 2.0 x16, you can use a GPU with a PCIe 3.0 x16 interface type, but you won’t benefit from the higher data transfer rate and bandwidth of your PCIe 3.0 video card.
It is also possible to put a ×4 expansion card into a ×16 slot. The bandwidth will be of a ×4 slot, and the other 12 lanes will remain unused.
Some motherboards have more lanes than all the PC parts can use. In this case, a motherboard can compensate for bandwidth limitations by switching off some ports. PCIe slots also can switch to lower bandwidth if all the lanes are used.
So you better check the manual for these issues because they vary depending on the motherboard model. If you want to connect as many components as possible, consider high-end premium motherboards, as they have more PCIe slots.
Modern motherboards also come with M.2 slots for small expansion cards like NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) SSDs, Intel Optane memory, or Wi-Fi cards.
The main advantage of M.2 devices is their compact size or the ability to be plugged directly into a motherboard, which increases the speed of data transfer and eliminates the necessity of using SATA cables.
An older type of SATA connection is still used for HDDs, SSDs, or optical drives.
If you are going to install a basic set of components, you’ll be fine with most ATX and Micro ATX motherboards.
RAM (Random-Access Memory) is also important for picking a motherboard. There are usually 4 slots for RAM sticks or DIMMs (dual in-line memory modules) on most mainstream motherboards, 2 on Mini-ITX boards, and 8 on high-end models.
The type, size, and speed of RAM depend on the motherboard and CPU of your computer. Check the manuals of a processor and motherboard for the amount of RAM supported by them in total and per stick.
The minimum amount of RAM for a computer today is 8 GB, for heavy users, 16 GB. You should always use memory sticks of matching capacity and frequency.
You can connect an HDD or a standard SSD to any motherboard with a SATA cable. The latest and fastest technology is SATA-III, which delivers a maximum read speed of 600 MB/s.
There are also other types of SSD, such as an M.2 SATA SSD, a PCIe SSD, and an M.2 NVMe SSD. M.2 devices are small and flat like RAM sticks. The most common form factor is 2280 (22 mm x 80 mm). They have different “keys” that determine their compatibility with the motherboard’s socket.
M.2 SATA SSDs use the same protocol as standard SSDs. Their speed is thus the same.
PCIe SSDs are larger than M.2 drives. The exact size depends on the number of lanes a certain model can use. The speed is around 1500 MB/s.
M.2 NVMe SSDs are the fastest (up to 3500 MB/s). They use different interfaces, the most common is PCIe 3.0 x4.
If you want to install an M.2 NVMe SSD on your motherboard, make sure it has a slot for this drive. All modern boards support this technology, though.
Although the speed of new-generation drives is higher, you may not see the difference unless you work with huge amounts of data. Not to mention that they are pricier than standard SATA SSDs.
External devices are connected to your motherboard through the I/O area, the back panel. Check if you have all the necessary external ports there and also USB headers to provide USB ports on the front of a PC case.
Most peripherals are connected through USB ports. Some boards have older USB 2.0 types with the lowest speed that still work fine for keyboards, mice, and other devices.
Mainstream motherboards today come with USB 3.2 Gen 1×1 ports (previously known as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.0) that have a higher transfer speed of 5 Gbps and with USB 3.2 Gen 2×1 ports (USB 3.1 Gen 2) which are not supported by many peripherals yet but deliver 10 Gbps of bandwidth.
Newer USB generations are backward compatible with older ones. These ports can be either classic USB Type-A or newer USB Type-C connectors. A USB-C interface type with USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 technology provides up to 20 Gbps transfer speed.
Thunderbolt 3 ports (use USB-C connectors) are rare in motherboards today. They transfer data up to 40 Gbps. The next new type of USB technology (USB4) will also provide 40 Gbps speed and Thunderbolt 3 compatibility.
You may also need a PS/2 port for old keyboards and mice.
A DisplayPort or HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port is necessary for integrated graphics.
There are usually 2 analog 3.5 mm audio ports for headphones and a microphone on the front of a PC case and 6 or 3 audio jacks for speakers on the rear panel.
Motherboards also feature LAN (Local Area Network) ports to connect a computer to the Internet.
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