The motherboard is the part you have to decide right after processor (CPU) since everything will be connected to the motherboard.
The motherboard is the backbone of your PC and it provides the electrical connections between every component so that they are able to communicate with each other. The motherboard you select will affect what other parts you are able to use on your PC build. This is because all output/input ports and expansion card slots are in your motherboard. You connect other devices straight into the motherboard, directly or via different cables, depending on the device.
This post covers the following topics
- Motherboard cables and connectors
- Socket types, chipsets and form factors
- Multiple GPU support
- Motherboards for Intel CPUs
- Motherboards for AMD CPUs
- Guide on selecting the right motherboard
- Motherboard drivers
With the exception of some expansion cards, you will have to use the outputs provided by the installed component and not the ones in the motherboard. Graphics cards are a good example, they are plugged into the motherboard, but you have to use the video cable connectors on the graphics card.
The motherboard defines what features you will have in your computer, so don’t overlook this component. It is important to look for the features you want to have in your PC when selecting your motherboard. Motherboards are manufactured in different sizes for different uses. We will go through every important step in selecting the right motherboard for your new PC build.
In addition to the motherboards performance, remember to pay attention to the connectors. If you need a specific number of some particular type of ports, make sure that the motherboard has those.
Overview of different connectors in motherboards
Motherboards have a variety of different connectors. They can be divided into outside and inside connectors. The ports that are accessible when the build is done are all on the back side of the computer. They are protected by the piece of metal called I/O Shield, it comes with the motherboard. These are the outside connectors.
The inside connectors are used to cable the components inside the case. There a number of different connectors and expansion slots in the motherboard. Some of the inside connectors will be attached to the front panel of the computer. The ports in the front panel depend on the case you will get, check that your motherboard provides the ports you need for your front panel.
Different cables are used to transfer different types of data. The charts below quickly introduce you the connectors and expansion slots used in modern motherboards. The speeds in the charts are theoretical, the actual real-world speeds are usually lower. The reason is that usually there is some other device bottlenecking the transfer. Get your computer parts in the same performance range and you ran less into this kind of issues, the speed won’t still reach the theoretical speed.
Universal Serial Bus (USB)
USBs are used to connect your other devices to the computer. For example, you can connect external drives with USB. Most motherboards have all of the above versions.
LAN, in this case, means the ethernet cable, all motherboards have this. You plug your ethernet cable in it to get internet access. If you are going to use WIFI, remember to buy WIFI-card as an expansion.
SATA (Serial AT Attachment)
SATA cables are used to connect storage drives to the motherboard inside the computer. SATA 3.0 cables are the most commonly used in modern motherboards.
PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express)
PCIe is used to connect different expansion cards to the motherboard, good examples of these are GPUs, Soundcards, and WIFI-cards. There are different sizes of PCIe slots (x1, x2, x4, x8, and x16). You can plug expansion cards in the right size PCIe slot or bigger. GPUs use the x16 PCIe slot. The most commonly used PCIe version is 2.0 and 3.0.
M.2 can be used to attach SSDs directly to the motherboard, this allows faster speeds than using SATA cables. It uses the NVMe protocol to transfer data. M.2 drives are also smaller than normal desktop SSDs. If you are planning to use these in your build, check that your motherboard has the expansion slot(s) for M.2 NVMe drives. M.2 drives also come in different lengths, which are 2230, 2242, 2260, 2280 and 22110. The most commonly used is 2280, make sure that your motherboard has enough space for your M.2 drive.
DIMM (Dual In-line Memory Module)
DIMM slots are for the RAM memory. Motherboards for Intel’s Coffee Lake processors support only DDR4 memory. The same applies to the motherboards for AMD’s Ryzen processors, only DDR4 is supported. The memory sticks are pushed into the DIMM slots next to the CPU.
Power Supply Unit (PSU) provides the motherboard with the power it needs to function. The motherboard is carrying the power to other components directly or via power cables. Power connectors on the motherboard are meant for CPU, CPU fan(s), chassis fans, HDDs/SSDs and for any other component that needs power.
If you are having trouble with cabling, refer to my post about PSUs. I covered cabling much more widely in there.
The socket is the place for the CPU.
Motherboard socket types, chipsets and form factors
The first thing to understand is that the socket in your CPU must match the socket in your motherboard. Otherwise, the CPU won’t fit in the motherboard physically. This mistake is easy to avoid because most vendors mark this clearly in the listing. Some vendors also sell processors and motherboards in bundles to make it easier for the customer to select the right parts. I still select my parts individually, unless there is a good discount when buying in a bundle.
The CPU you have selected also determines the chipset your motherboard must have. Different CPUs need different chipsets to work. As said, socket types make sure that the parts fit physically, but the chipset ensures that the CPU will actually work with the motherboard. By checking these two things you make sure you are good to go and won’t run into compatibility issues later.
Now you need to know what chipset your CPU needs. There are different performance levels on the chipsets. Just like the processors have different processor models which perform differently. This is basically the same idea but with motherboards. If you want to get the most out of your high-performance CPU you need to invest in a motherboard that has a high-performance chipset.
The motherboards for consumers come in different form factors (sizes). Motherboard form factors from biggest to smallest are:
- E-ATX (Extended ATX)
- Micro-ATX (mATX)
The most commonly used of these are ATX and micro-ATX. The ATX abbreviation comes from the name Advanced Technology eXtended. Mini-ATX and mini-ITX motherboards usually come with an integrated CPU.
The size of your motherboard affects the size of the case you need for your build. Of course, you can put smaller motherboard inside a bigger case, if the motherboard screw holes align, but the ideal situation is that both the motherboard and the case share the same form factor. ATX motherboards are easiest to install in ATX cases. By selecting both parts with the same form factor you make sure that the screw holes will align for sure.
Support for multiple GPUs
Some motherboards support more than one Graphics Processing Units (GPU). Most people will do just fine with even one GPU in their system and that is the most common setup. Having more than one GPU in your system is usually overkill.
In practice, the support for multiple GPUs means that you are able to use two, three or even four GPUs in your system at the same time. These setups require usually high-performance motherboards with enough expansion slots for the GPUs. Motherboards with two expansion slots are easy to find but finding a one with three or four slots is still difficult.
To use multiple GPUs, the motherboard must support AMD’s CrossFireX or Nvidia’s SLI (Scalable Link Interface) technology. If you are interested in learning more about GPUs in general and how to find the one for your needs, you can read my post here.
Match your motherboard with your Intel CPU
Sockets used for desktop computers by Intel are known as LGA (Land Grid Array). We are covering here only the 6th, 7th and 8th generations of Intel Core processors. All of the processors from these generations use the same LGA1151 socket.
Older 6th and 7th (Kaby Lake and Skylake) generation CPUs need a motherboard with the Z270 chipset or older. There are a number of chipsets that supports 6th and 7th generation processors. For 6th generation processors, the chipsets belong to the 100-series category. 7th generation chipsets belong to the 200-series category. With that information, you are able to find a motherboard with the right chipset for these older processors.
The 8th generation (Coffee Lake) processors need a motherboard with the Z370 chipset, which belongs to the 300-series category. At the moment there aren’t any other chipsets for Coffee Lake processors available. Other chipsets for this generation are going to be published during the year 2018 and they will also belong to the 300-series category as well. Be sure to check that the chipset of the motherboard is the right one for your CPU before buying your motherboard.
The Z370 chipset has the same features as Z270 chipset with the exception of support for DDR4 memory type and that it only supports Coffee Lake CPUs. If you don’t know what DDR4 memory type means, you can read about it in my post about RAM memory, it covers the memory types and RAM in general.
Match your motherboard with your AMD CPU
AMD processors use a different type of sockets than Intel processors. The socket for AMD Ryzen 7 processors is AM4. The same socket is used by AMD 7th generation A-series processors and AMD Athlon X4 processors. We will focus on the Ryzen processors.
Therefore, if you have or you are planning to get one of AMD’s Ryzen processors, you need to get a motherboard with the AM4 socket and it must have one of these chipsets: X470, X370, B350 or A320. There are also two chipsets for Ryzen 7 that are mini-ITX size, they are X300 and A300, we will skip those this time because mini-ITX isn’t very common.
Checklist for selecting the motherboard for your AMD or Intel CPU
- CPU and motherboard have the same socket (Intel CPU and LGA1151 socket or AMD CPU and AM4 socket)
- Coffee Lake CPUs need a motherboard with Z370 chipset or newer, AMD Ryzen CPUs need a motherboard with X470, X370, B350 or A320 chipset
- Make sure that the motherboard has all the connectors you need
Now that we have the basic understanding of the sockets, chipsets and form factors, we are ready to learn about the other specs of the motherboards. We are now able to get the right motherboard for our CPU, but there are a lot of other things that will affect the other components we haven’t selected yet. There can also be a lot of differences between motherboards with the same chipset since there are so many manufacturers out there. It is good to understand these little things that can have a huge impact on your PC, depending on what you are looking to have in it.
I will list and explain common terms used in ads selling motherboards. Not all ads have even much information about the motherboards, which can make selecting between the different manufacturers’ motherboards difficult. If that’s the case, you can find the specifications for those particular motherboards from other places and compare them that way. I hope this list helps you make premeditated decisions when you are selecting the motherboard for your new PC.
- Socket - The socket type of the motherboard
- Chipset - The chipset of the motherboard, chipset defines features the motherboard has
- Form Factor/Size - The size of the motherboard. ATX and Micro-ATX (mATX) are the most common sizes
- Audio card - The type of audio card on the motherboard
- Memory Support - What type of memory the motherboard supports and what default and overclocked speeds of RAM the motherboard is able to use
- Network Interface Card - What type of Network Interface Card (NIC) the motherboard comes with, integrated MAC address
- PCIe - The sizes and number of PCIe slots on the motherboard
- PCIe Armor - The PCIe slots or some of them are reinforced to prevent bending and twisting
- CrossFireX - Technology to support multiple AMD GPUs
- SLI - Technology to support multiple Nvidia GPUs requires physical device between GPUs
- AIO Pump Header - If you have water cooling, plug the pump power cables here
- Clear CMOS jumper - A jumper that is used to clear CMOS
- Dual M.2 - This means that the motherboard has two directly connected M.2 SSD slots
- RGB/Power for RGB - This means that the motherboard has RGB lighting and/or power connectors for additional RGB lighting
- Intel Optane Memory Supported - Non-volatile memory between storage and system memory. This enhances the system’s performance by making load times faster (for example, file search or opening programs).
- Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/0 /VT-d - Intel’s technology allows virtualization, you can use virtual machines with this motherboard
- AMD-v - AMD's technology allows virtualization, you can use virtual machines with this motherboard
Drivers enable us to use all the hardware we have in our PC, they work kind of a translator between the hardware and the applications that use the hardware. You need to install all drivers to be able to use your computer to the fullest. You can install drivers from the CD that comes with the motherboard, but if you don’t have CD drive, you can find the drivers for your motherboard from the website of the manufacturer of your motherboard. When you have installed all of the motherboard drivers you need, you can manage them from the Device Manager in Windows. Device Manager is a good tool for troubleshooting your problems with drivers. Windows will update your drivers automatically.
If your CPU, RAM, and GPU are overclockable or any of those three, you need to make sure your motherboard or the one you are getting allows overclocking. If it doesn’t, you need to upgrade your motherboard to a one that allows it or settle for a not overclocked PC. Not overclocking your system is the safe option here and I do recommend that to new PC builders at first.