We all know that a motherboard is a vital part of every PC. But why? What exactly is it, and what does it do? The more you know about computer components, the better your position as a user, which is where this article strives to help you.
What is a motherboard?
A motherboard is also known as a main board, system board and logic board. A common abbreviation is ‘mobo'. They can be found in a variety of electrical devices, ranging from a TV to a computer. Generally, they will be referred to as a motherboard or a main board when associated with a complex device such as a computer, which is what we shall look at. Put simply, it is the central circuit board of your computer. All other components and peripherals plug into it, and the job of the motherboard is to relay information between them all. Despite the fact that a better motherboard will not add to the speed of your PC, it is none-the-less important to have one that is both stable and reliable, as its role is vital.
A motherboard houses the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), which is the simple software run by a computer when initially turned on. Other components attach directly to it, such as the memory, CPU (Central Processing Unit), graphics card, sound card, hard-drive, disk drives, along with various external ports and peripherals.
What is the difference between motherboards?
There are a lot of motherboards on the market to choose from. The big question is, how do you go about choosing which one is right for you? Different motherboards support different components, and so it is vital you make a number of decisions concerning general system specifications before you can pick the right motherboard.
If you purchase your case before the rest of the components, the first factor to think about concerning motherboards is the size, or form factor. A form factor is a standardised motherboard size. If you think about fitting a motherboard in a case, there are a number of mounting holes, slot locations and PSU connectors. The most popular motherboard form factor today is ATX, which evolved from it's predecessor, the Baby AT, a smaller version of the AT (Advanced Technology) form factor. Generally speaking, nowadays a standard computer will have an ATX form factor motherboard: only special cases require different form factors.
So now you know which size you need, what comes next? The following are all factors you need to consider.
The first important differential is which CPU the board supports. Two of the biggest makes of CPUs at the moment are Intel and AMD, yet you cannot buy motherboards that support the use of either: it will support one or the other, due to physical differences in the connectors. This is often referred to as a type of platform; for example, an ‘Intel platform motherboard' means a motherboard with an Intel CPU. Furthermore, you must choose a specific type of processor; for example, an AMD Athlon 64 or Pentium 4. Therefore, you must choose which CPU you want before you can choose your motherboard. Both Intel and AMD processors are capable of running the same applications, but there are differences in price and performance depending on which one you choose.
Chipsets are a crucial part of a motherboard - they control the system and it's capabilities. Furthermore, a chipset supports the facilities offered by the processor. I mentioned previously that the motherboard relays information between vital computer components: it is the chipset specifically which performs this operation. A chipset is part of the motherboard, and cannot be upgraded without upgrading the whole board. It is therefore important to make sure you choose the right one for you in the first place. There are a few main producers of chipsets, which are AMD, Intel, NVidia and Via: The latter two make chipsets for both AMD and Intel processors; AMD and Intel only make chipsets compatible with their own processors.
The next thing to think about it how much RAM you want. RAM, or Random Access Memory, is the main memory in a computer, and is used mainly to store information that is being actively used or that changes often. It is always wise to choose a motherboard that can support more RAM than you currently need. For example, if you want 512MB of RAM in your computer, it would be wise to buy a motherboard that supports at least 1GB of RAM (many now support 4GB). This is simply to help make your computer ‘future proof': if you need to upgrade your memory, you will not need to upgrade your motherboard too.
I mentioned previously that there are many components that plug in to the motherboard. You are likely to want various expansion cards (such as graphics cards, sound cards and so on). These components tend to have physically different connectors, and so this is the next factor you need to take into consideration. The PCI-E slot is the most common graphics card interface nowadays, but the AGP slot is still in use. Just be sure you have enough PCI slots for any other expansion cards you require. Again, this choice is down to personal preference: this is another decision you must make before choosing your motherboard.
Aside from the main differences I have covered, there a few more details to consider. All motherboards have USB sockets for peripheral devices, but some have Firewire sockets too. If you wish to use peripherals that require a Firewire socket, then this is a must, although generally speaking USB is dominant in the market for peripherals. You also need to ensure that your motherboard has the right socket for your drives (hard drive, CD ROM drive, etc), which are generally SATA and IDE.
One of the best things you can do when looking for a motherboard is to read lots of reviews. They will give you good information about how the board performs and what it is compatible with. Never make a judgement on one review alone, and wherever possible ask for recommendations from other people.
Unless you have limitless resources, price is always a consideration when buying computer component. A motherboard usually takes up a fairly large part of any PC budget, so it requires careful consideration. It is worth bearing in mind that cheaper boards sometimes support only more expensive components: If this is the case, work out the total cost of buying the board and components, as sometimes it may be worth spending a little more on a more expensive board. A cheap motherboard may be more unreliable and more trouble than it is worth. A motherboard is one of those components where it pays to spend a little extra.
Finally, try to buy from a reputable retailer: It is always worth doing so just in case you have any problems.