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Beginners Guide to Motherboards

This guide covers the basics of hunting down the perfect motherboard and the key points you need to look for when choosing one

What is a Motherboard and why do I need one?

A motherboard is considered by many to be the most important component in a system. It will determine the overall performance of the computer and what future upgrades are possible; it is not possible to attempt to future proof your computer without the right motherboard!

The motherboard is the largest component in a computer after the case and consists of many ports, slots and connectors that allow you to connect the processor, memory, hard drives, optical drive, graphics cards, USB devices and many more to the machine. Today’s high end motherboards will support connections allowing millions of components to be used in your dream computer.

How do I work out if the Motherboard will fit in my case?

Cases vary in external appearance and size; you can find cases that look like giant mobile phones or the sails from a ship. One thing is standard on the internals and that is the form factor. The form factor enables you to purchase components with confidence they will fit into the case, the screw spacing on hard drives and motherboards is standardised for example.

The main form factors you will encounter are the following, these have been organised in order of largest to smallest:

- E-ATX = Extended ATX form factor for use on the highest end motherboards and servers. Found normally on premium cases and motherboards only.
- ATX = The most common form factor that most motherboards and cases conform to.
- mATX – Micro-ATX form factor, usually found on pre-built computers or home media centres. mATX motherboards will fit in mATX cases and also into ATX cases.
- mITX – Mini-ITX is a very small form factor found in nettop PCs and Eco Computing. A Mini ITX motherboard will fit into a mATX or ATX case.

What do the different sockets on a Motherboard mean?

All motherboards will list a socket they are compatible with. Generally speaking this will give you a good idea of what processors are compatible with the motherboard; it is always recommended checking the supported CPU list of any motherboard before you purchase it or ask for advice.

What is the chipset?

On most motherboard specifications you will see reference to Northbridge and Southbridge chips. They refer to the main two chips that make up the motherboards chipset that is the technical backbone that determines the features and performance of a motherboard. The northbridge manages the high speed connections between the key components including CPU, RAM and PCI-Express devices. The southbridge is responsible for communication between lower speed components such as PCI devices, Optical Drives and Hard Drives.

What are rear-panel ports?

The rear panel ports on a motherboard are the external connectors you will see when the motherboard is installed into a case. It is common to see Ethernet ports, USB ports, PS2 ports to connect mice and keyboards and also VGA/DVI/HDMI connections if the motherboard or processor feature integrated graphics output.

How do I make sure my motherboard is ready for the technology of tomorrow?

When purchasing a motherboard you need to consider if you plan upgrading your system, it is worth looking at what higher powered processors are supported and if it has free slots to install extra memory. PCI-Express slots on motherboards with onboard graphics are a welcome addition to enable discreet graphics cards from manufacturers such as ATI and Nvidia to be installed onto the motherboard. A little thought into what you intended to use the system for throughout its lifespan will go a long way at this stage to ensuring you get the most out of your system.

What is overclocking?

On high end motherboards you will often see features mentioned such as overclocking and core-unlocking. These are terms that enable the motherboard to access performance from other components like the CPU that would normally be neglected. This can void warranties so it is worth checking specifics of what the motherboard is letting you access in the manual and in warranty documentation before beginning.