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Description: The motherboard (also sometimes called the mainboard or system board) is the central circuit board of the PC, and in most respects, the heart of any computer. It contains several important core components, including the chipset, which controls many of the most essential functions of the PC. It directly interfaces with other key components of the PC, and is responsible in large part for the stability, feature support, expandability and upgradeability of any system.
Motherboards are complex, and include many different integrated devices, which makes it difficult to describe in simple terms how to buy one. As a result, this section is rather long. Unfortunately, if you want to get the motherboard that is best for you, you need to consider a lot of different issues. In fact, I haven't even listed all the different specific parts and minor selection issues involved in motherboard selection, or this page would be even longer! You do have to do your research if you have a specific need, especially if you are looking to build or have someone build to order something like a server. (For regular PCs the detail provided here should be more than adequate.)
Tip: For a great deal of
additional information on the motherboard and its components, including more discussion of
many of the technical details, criteria and features mentioned below, see the Reference Guide section on the motherboard and
Role and Subsystems: The motherboard is a central part of the system processing core, and directly interacts with every subsystem in the PC. The CPU and memory plug into it directly, the video does as well (and may even be integrated on it), and all peripherals attach to it in way or another. You could pretty much say that the motherboard "has its fingers in everyone's pie". :^)
Expansion and upgrading particularly key off the system's motherboard selection. This is because support on the part of the motherboard is required for the use of just about any hardware. You can only add a new CPU, or expand your system memory, or add a new video card if your motherboard will be compatible with the new hardware. Therefore, if you care about upgrading, choose wisely. At the same time, remember that it is common for new hardware, especially CPU and memory technology, to require a new motherboard due to changes in slot or socket design.
Related Components: The motherboard is most closely related to the CPU, system memory and video card. The CPU and memory are normally specified at the same time as the motherboard; the video card may be as well, but sometimes just the interface for the video card is chosen as the motherboard is selected. The system case and power supply are also related to the motherboard by virtue of the need to match their form factors, and are also specified at the same time.
Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: There are a large number of different criteria by which motherboards are selected. In some cases a specific need of the system will dictate the choice of motherboard, but usually the choices are "narrowed down" by considering the following key issues:
Note: A common design is to share
two slots of different types; you can use one or the other of that set. If you see a
specification such as "1 AGP, 4 PCI, 2 ISA (1 shared)", this means that one PCI
and one ISA slot are right next to each other; only one of that pair can be used. So this
board can use 1 AGP slot (for the video card), and either 4 PCI and 1 ISA, or 3 PCI and 2
ISA. (Sometimes one PCI and one ISA are shared and they don't mention this--assume it
unless you can verify otherwise.)
Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: There are a few issues that most motherboard buyers look for in terms of their impact on overall system performance and capacity issues. Mostly, performance of the system isn't a function of the motherboard but the other hardware it supports and works with (see the discussion of performance impact further down). You may want to look for these when shopping, however:
Quality Selection Criteria: As a key system component, the quality of the motherboard is very important, and often overlooked. As someone who recently spent weeks diagnosing a flaky system that turned out to be a result of a bad motherboard, let me assure you that motherboard quality is essential. :^) Note that some manufacturers, and some models, have generally better reputations for quality and stability than others. Of course you're not going to be able to find this out by asking the manufacturers. :^) Rely on advice from those you trust and a general sense of who has success with what makers based on your research. When assessing quality, look at the following factors:
Important Features: Here are a few other optional features sometimes found on motherboards:
"Magic Numbers" To Watch For: Despite its complexity--or perhaps because of it?--motherboards are relatively free of magic numbers. There are just too many issues to take into account to even try to boil matters down to one or two numbers. Another issue is likely that motherboards are not commonly marketed directly to the general buying public.
Performance Impact: The motherboard is a bit of a paradox when it comes to performance: it is vitally important to the overall performance of the system, but generally is not a major contributor to performance itself. What I mean is this: the motherboard determines what other components you will use in your system, and thus is the key to the overall performance of the system. But the motherboard itself doesn't impact performance greatly.
Traditionally, there has been a lot of "benchmark bogosity" around when it comes to motherboards. Most web sites and magazines that reviewed motherboards over the years would benchmark different motherboards that used the same chipset and CPU, and then highlight what were usually small differences in benchmark scores. These discrepancies were usually not significant, and in fact were often arguably within the margin of error of the benchmark program! Fortunately, many of the better review sites are now recognizing that most motherboards benchmark within a few percentage points of each other, and are explicitly noting that such differences are not very important.
The bottom line is this: for performance issues, pay attention to the chipset on the board, and the CPU and memory you are going to use in it. Choose from different motherboards in the same platform on the basis of quality and features, not benchmark scores.
Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: Motherboards are usually sold as retail boxed items, but are sometimes found as OEM or gray market components. It is strongly advised that you buy a full retail product, even if it costs $10 or so more, as this will ensure that you get all the support components you will probably need to build or upgrade a system, and will also simplify warranty issues.
Importance of Manufacturer: I consider it mandatory to buy a motherboard from a reputable, well-known manufacturer: there are around a dozen big-name manufacturers, most of them based in Taiwan. Buying a cheap generic motherboard is a very bad idea. This is not only because of the dubious quality of some generic boards, but also because in the event that you ever need support, assistance or a BIOS update in the future from a "no-name" manufacturer, you will likely be stuck. Take my advice and "just don't do it". If you can't positively identify the manufacturer of the board, or if it's a manufacturer about whom you can find no information, get something else.
Note that most of the boards made by the big companies are pretty good, but occasionally there are some problems with particular models. Research the specifics before making a decision, and don't assume a company is bad based solely on a couple of bad reports.
Typical Component Lifetime: Motherboards last for the life of the PC. ;^) I'm being cute, but the fact is that the motherboard is the central component in the PC. It is solid state and not likely to ever fail, but may over time become obsolete; still, replacing it really means replacing much of the "guts" of the PC, due to the interconnections between components that I have mentioned above.
There was a time when you could plan for the future and have a good chance of being able to use a future CPU with the motherboard you were purchasing today. Unfortunately, this is not nearly as easy to do today as it was in years past. The sockets and slots used to interface processors to motherboards change too rapidly, and other technologies seem to evolve quickly as well. You may well be able to put a faster CPU of the same type into your system later on, but the next generation of CPU may well require a new motherboard.
Warranty Issues: Manufacturer warranties on motherboards typically range from one year to three years. You must be careful about how this warranty period is calculated, and the manufacturer's policies as well. In some cases the manufacturer only provides warranty support to the distributor or vendor, and will refuse to deal directly with the public--even for retail-packaged boards! The warranty period may begin when the manufacturer sold the board to the distributor, also. Be sure you are dealing with a good vendor that will support you properly.
Driver Support Issues: Some motherboards require drivers for Windows, especially ones that use non-Intel chipsets. Driver support is provided in part by the chipset manufacturer and in part by the motherboard manufacturer. Support is essential, but as long as you stick with a known brand, problems are atypical. Motherboards built around non-Intel chipsets are more likely to require special drivers than Intel ones, because Microsoft usually has support for Intel chipsets built into their operating systems (and for some non-Intel chipsets as well). Any motherboard may require drivers for some of its special components or features.
Special Specification Considerations: I've covered most of the issues in the discussions of compatibility, performance and quality criteria. I would add that it is prudent to avoid the first generation of any motherboard type, to stay away from possible problems that frequently crop up with new technology. This is especially the case when dealing with a new chipset, CPU or memory technology. Let others be unpaid beta testers.
Next: System Processors (CPUs)