Choosing Step 3
The motherboard provides the 'hub' of your computer that everything else plugs into. It also provides the first level of management, so when the computer is switched on, the motherboard figures out what components are where and how to get them all up and running.
Your choice of motherboard will be limited to one that is compatible with your chosen processor and memory. For example if you have chosen a socket775 processor with a 1333MHzFSB and some 800MHz DDR2 memory then you will need to look for a motherboard that has a socket775 and supports these FSB and memory speeds.
As well as being compatible, the motherboard you choose should be complimentary to your processor and memory. So if you have a very expensive processor then you should be looking at the higher end of the motherboards available for that processor. The 'chip-set' is the most important part of a motherboard, as it manages the interaction between each part of the computer and the processor, so make sure the chip-set you choose will make the most of your other components. A good way to do this is to read some reviews of motherboards using a particular chip-set, try searching Google for the chip-set name + 'review'.
The other factor to consider is which features you want included on your motherboard. Manufacturers will produce many models of boards using the same chip-set, but some will have fewer features than others. How many SATA ports will you need to connect drives to? Do you want a motherboard with a graphics card built into it? How many USB ports do you need? Do you want to be able to use more than 1 graphics card? Will you be overclocking? These are all things you will need to consider.
The motherboards for our Budget PC are relatively cheap but still provide a decent feature set. The first two are AMD boards with integrated graphics so we don't need to spend money on an extra graphics card and the last example is a very good, though now superseded P35 ATX motherboard.
AMD 690V, AM2, VGA, M-ATX$45 at
AMD 690V, AM2, VGA, M-ATX$45 at
Intel P35, FSB1333, ATX$85 at
Our home PC will not require a super high performance board, but should have a good set of features to allow flexibility and upgrade potential. Our lowest example has graphics built in to save on costs, while our higher 2 examples are very well featured and provide good performance at a decent price.
Intel G31,FSB1333, VGA, M-ATX$53 at
Intel P35, FSB1333, ATX$85 at
As with the processor our Gaming PC need a good motherboard in order to keep things flowing. Our lowest example uses a very good value P45 board, giving us lots of features and a good price point.
For our medium example a very high spec P45 is a good choice, and the high example has an insanely fast and fully featured board with a price to match.
Intel P45, FSB 1600, ATX$147 at
Intel P45, FSB1600, S775, ATX$270 at
Media Center PC
Integrated graphics will give us the ideal solution for our Media Centre PC provided it has enough power to play HD movies. With this in mind, Intel's G45 is a very good choice as it provides all the power and features needed to play the latest films.
Intel G45, FSB1600, HDMI, M-AT$135 at
Chip-sets (p35, Nforce 7, X48 .etc)
The chip-set is the set of microchips which manage the information exchange between the processor and all the other components in the computer. It is made up of 2 main parts, the north-bridge and the south-bridge. After the socket type this is the primary way to group motherboards, so for example you will see categories like 'p35', 'x48' or 'Nforce 7'. These are the names of the chip-sets on those particular motherboards.
The north-bridge is in charge of giving information directly to the processor from memory and the graphics card(s). It also manages information provided to it by the south-bridge. More expensive motherboards often have north-bridge chips which support faster FSB and memory speeds as well as multiple graphics cards.
The south-bridge chip is like the north-bridge's little brother. It manages the information between all the other components and then shares this information with the north-bridge which passes it on to the processor. More expensive motherboards will usually have south-bridge chips that support faster and more numerous types of input. For example they may support more USB or SATA ports.
PCI and PCI-express slots
Both PCI and PCI-express (PCI-e) slots are used to plug 'card' type components into the motherboard which can then communicate with the processor via the chip-set. These include graphics cards, sound cards, TV and various network cards among others.PCI-e
There are 2 designs of PCI-e slot, 1x and 16x. All Motherboards will include at least 1 of each. The 1x slot is much shorter than the 16x slot (see image left) and accommodates peripheral cards like TV and Network, whereas the 16x slot is designed exclusively for graphics cards which require large amounts of data to be passed to the north-bridge. A 1x slot can transfer 250MB of data per second to the north-bridge. A 16x slot multiplies this speed by 16, giving a total speed of 4GB/s. You will also come across 4x and 8x, which is when a 16x slot is set to run at half or a quarter of its full speed. This happens with some chip-sets when you install multiple graphics cards into its 16x slots.PCI-e 2.0
These are identical to PCI-e slots only their base (1x) speed is doubled to 500MB/s, giving a 16x speed of 8GB/s. PCI-e cards can still be used in PCI-e 2.0 slots.PCI
Although it is now being phased out the PCI slot is still incorporated onto most new motherboards. You can identify a PCI slot as it is much larger in both height and width than its PCI-e counterparts. It is limited to 133MB/s, which is still fast enough for the majority of peripheral cards, hence the fact that many peripheral cards are still only available in PCI form.
Form Factor (ATX, Micro-ATX, Micro-ITX)
Motherboards come in various sizes or 'form factors'. The most common is the ATX form factor. ATX boards are full size with 6 or more PCI/PCI-e slots and are designed to fit into ATX 'midi-tower' cases. Micro-ATX boards are slightly smaller than ATX, usually having 4 PCI/PCI-e slots and integrated graphics (see below). They are designed to fit into both ATX 'midi-tower' and micro ATX 'mini-tower' cases. Micro-ITX boards are very small, with only a single PCI-e slot and often reduced features in other areas (such as fewer SATA ports and Memory slots). They are designed for specialist micro-ITX cases which are very small, such as those shaped like a cube.
Some motherboards come with a graphics card built in. This is called 'integrated Graphics' and can be very useful on systems that do not require powerful 3D graphics (for games or animation). If the model name has 'VGA' in the title it means the board has integrated graphics. These boards are usually in small form factors such as micro-ATX and micro-ITX.
Apart from not having much 3D power, the downside to integrated graphics is that they use part of the computers main memory, so if your machine has 2GB of memory and your integrated card uses 256MB, then you will only have 1.75GB left for general use. Standalone (also known as 'discrete') graphics cards have their own memory, and so do not affect the rest of the computer. Integrated graphics can also offload some graphical calculations to the main processor if it cannot handle them itself. This can cause the system to slow down, although this is usually minimal.
Motherboards with integrated graphics will still have a 16x PCI-e slot so that you can add a more powerful discrete card if you need to.
Memory Slots (DIMM)
Memory or DIMM slots are where memory modules go. Other than making sure they are compatible with the memory you have chosen (DDR2 or DDR3), the only other factor you need to consider is how many there are. Most boards will have 4, but some cheaper or smaller boards may only have 2, giving you less opportunity for upgrading in future.
SATA ports are for plugging your hard drive and optical (DVD) drives into. The speed of these ports is measured in Megabytes per second. So a 'SATA 300' can pass data through at a rate of 300MB/s.
RAID is a system for using more than one Hard Disk in an 'array'. An array is a group of Hard Drives which work together to improve performance or reliability of the information stored on them. Many motherboards that have SATA ports will support some type of RAID system. For more information on what RAID is and how to choose whether you need it, read our page about RAID.
USB ports will be referred to as 'external ports' or 'internal headers'. External ports are those already installed on the motherboard and are the ones that will end up on the back of your computer. Internal headers are pins on the motherboard that allow you to connect extra USB ports, such as those on the front of the case.
IDE (ATA, P-ATA & U-ATA)
IDE is an old port which can be used to connect IDE Hard Drives and Optical Dives. Most boards these days only have a single IDE port on them which can hold 2 Drives, however as these two drives must share the port one drive must be specified as the 'master' and the second as the 'slave'. The master will then always have priority over the slave if both drives are being used simultaneously. To set a drive as master or slave, you simply move the 'jumper' on the back of the drive to whichever position selects the status you want.IDE is limited to 133MB/s transfer rate. If you are building a new system, we would recommend choosing SATA (see above) as your drive interface.
All motherboards come with sound systems built into them. They usually have 7.1channel support for up to 8 speakers. The quality of sound varies depending on the price of the board, but most will be more than enough for everyday use. For those wishing to have the very best quality sound for home cinema, music production or hardcore gaming, a standalone sound card may be a better option.
The BIOS sends the first instructions to the processor when you turn on your machine. It also controls all the clock speeds and basic settings of the computer. Think of it as the lowest level settings. If you are planning on overclocking, then the BIOS is where all the fun happens!