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What is a motherboard?



An MSI Z490 Tomahawk gaming motherboard.,
Maryia_K / Shutterstock.com

The motherboard is where it all starts for the PC. It is the underlying component of everything. There are so many different analogies you could draw, but here̵

7;s our favorite: It’s like the computer’s nervous system. Its primary task is to transmit information in the form of electrical signals between the various components in your PC.

Multiple form factors

There are multiple motherboard form factors, all of which are different sizes and suitable for different applications. Here’s a look at the differences between form factors like ATX, MicroATX and Mini-ITX if you want more information on them.

Generally, however, most people are looking for an ATX card unless they plan on building a more compact PC. Smaller boards are not recommended for novice builders as the smaller space can lead to frustration for beginners.

RELATED: Motherboards Explained: What Are ATX, MicroATX and Mini-ITX?

The essentials

Close-up of a CPU socket on an AMD compatible card.
The CPU socket on a B450 motherboard for an AMD processor.

When we look at a bare motherboard, there are some important parts that immediately stand out. At one end of the board, we have the CPU socket. That socket is built to fit a specific set of AMD or Intel CPUs. An AMD CPU will never fit in an Intel compatible board and vice versa. Not only that, but motherboard socket types can change from generation to generation, and one generation of motherboard can be compatible with multiple generations of processors. Thus, an AMD motherboard is not automatically compatible with every AMD CPU.

To see if a motherboard is compatible with your CPU, look at the chipset, which is located on the end opposite the CPU socket and covered by a heat sink. It is also often referred to as the Southbridge.

A bare Intel-compatible motherboard with a red arrow pointing to the chipset.
The chipset location on the MSI MPG Z390M Intel compatible motherboard. MSI

We have an explanation of what a chipset is, but in short this is the part of the motherboard that acts as the “communication center and traffic controller” for your PC. It determines whether the components you have inserted into your PC are compatible with it, and controls the input and output tasks for components that do not communicate directly with the CPU, such as USB ports and SATA controllers.

RELATED: What is a “chipset” and why should I care?

Multiple chipsets can be compatible with a specific generation of CPU, and the chipsets are usually divided into high end, budget and entry board types. Recent AMD chipsets at the time of writing include the X570, the more budget-oriented B550, and the entry-level A520.

After the CPU socket and chipset, we have all the different slots on a PC. Underneath the CPU are the PCIe slots for graphics cards and other add-in cards such as sound cards, TV tuner cards, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cards (for motherboards without built-in wireless connectivity).

Close-up of a PCIe x16 slot with a red arrow pointing to it.
The PCIe x16 slot on a B450 motherboard. Gigabyte

The graphics card uses the so-called x16 slot. This is a 16-lane PCIe slot for moving data between the graphics card and the CPU. The other slots typically have less than 16 lanes, although some can be the same size as the x16.

The RAM slots on a motherboard with the red arrow facing it.
The RAM slots on an Intel compatible motherboard. MSI

Meanwhile, right next to the CPU socket, there is another set of slots for RAM modules. There are usually two or four RAM slots, depending on the size and price point of your motherboard. Next, on the edges of the board, you have SATA connectors for hard drives and 2.5-inch SSDs and a 24-pin power port that connects to the PC’s power supply.

Finally, we have a number of other power delivery units called headers that have pins sticking out. These are for items like the USB ports, front panel audio (this is the 3.5mm jack on the front of your PC case.), RGB lighting, and so on. The headers are usually highlighted, making it easy to know which cables are connected to each. Near the CPU socket, there is also a smaller power connector for the CPU itself.

Those are the main parts of the motherboard that most new PC builders will have to deal with. Although sometimes you have to understand what the CMOS battery is (it’s that watch battery on the motherboard.) And some jumpers too.

The VRM

Close-up of a CPU socket with two red arrows pointing to the VRM.
The CPU VRM location on a Z490 Intel compatible motherboard. ASUS

Aside from the basic functions, one topic that motherboard critics and enthusiasts love to talk about is the voltage regulator module, or VRM. The VRM is not a single part, but a collection of parts that work together. A high-quality VRM is an important consideration as it plays a role in motherboard life expectancy – not to mention the motherboard’s ability to keep operating under the pressure of overclocking.

In order to power the CPU, the voltage coming from the power supply must drop to about 1.2 to 1.3 volts. It can go higher or lower depending on how much power the CPU is consuming and whether it is overclocked. To reduce power to the CPU, the motherboard relies on its VRM. The VRM is made up of three primary components: capacitors, inductors and MOSFETs. There is also a pulse width modulator (PWM) and integrated driver circuitry, but when people talk about VRMs they are usually talking about the three primary components.

Capacitors are those cylindrical items all over the motherboard. Capacitors can hold a charge and help smooth or filter the voltage supplied to components to protect against surges. It is important to have good quality capacitors on a motherboard as your system may stop working properly if they burn out. Capacitors can be replaced if they break, but sometimes a full replacement is the better option, especially if your motherboard is on the older side.

If you look around the CPU socket on a motherboard, you will find that there are quite a few capacitors. They are usually in front of or close to these small cube-shaped objects called chokes. The chokes are there to help stabilize the voltage, and behind them are these tiny chips called MOSFETs (metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors). On high-end boards, MOSFETs are usually hidden from view under a heat sink behind the chokes. On other boards, for example something low budget targeting Pentium CPUs and Core i3 CPUs, the MOSFETs may be visible near the chokes. In general, you’ll want a board with a heat sink over the MOSFETs, as they can get very hot.

The MOSFETs help provide the voltage that the CPU needs. Then the chokes and capacitors work to stabilize that power and protect against spikes. These parts work together to create so-called phases, which consist of two MOSFETs, a choke and a capacitor. The more phases a motherboard has, the cleaner and more stable the power is, and the more potential power that can be delivered to the CPU socket when overclocked.

You can sometimes tell how many phases a board has based on the number of chokes on the motherboard. For example, a board with six inductors has six stages, but that’s not always that easy.

Some board makers add more chokes per phase, making it look like there are more phases than there actually are. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a cumbersome move, as additional components can help distribute the workload, although it’s not as good as having extra stages.

For example, Gigabyte’s B450 Aorus Elite v1 has 11 chokes, but actually uses a 4 + 3 design where four phases provide power to the CPU cores and have dual chokes on each of those phases. Then there are three more stages that supply power to other components, such as the processor’s integrated GPU (if applicable) or I / O chip.

You don’t have to worry about VRMs and phases if you’re not overclocking. A reasonably good VRM is still important, but the main concern about the VRM is to provide clean power and have durable components that can withstand the pressures of overclocking.

The best way to learn about the quality of VRM is to read reviews. A more expensive board does not necessarily mean a higher quality VRM. Better to consult reviews before buying to get independent reviews of the strength of a board’s VRM.

Motherboard shopping

A bare Mini-ITX motherboard with two RAM slots and a single PCIEe slot.
A Gigabyte gaming Mini-ITX motherboard. Gigabyte

We’re not going to suggest here what motherboard model you should buy, as there are so many variables in it – and motherboard models can undergo several revisions.

The best we can do is provide some basic guidance and let you do your own research. The first thing to consider is the features. Are you planning to have a PC with a graphics card, a sound card, room for a future Wi-Fi adapter, and maybe a bunch of other expansion cards? Then you need something with enough PCIe slots to accommodate all that.

Does it have an M.2 slot for an NVMe SSD? You’ll definitely want to have at least one, as NVMe drives are so much faster than 2.5-inch SSDs and hard drives.

How about wifi and bluetooth? Do you want it built into the motherboard, or do you rely on the aforementioned PCIe expansion card?

Don’t forget about the RAM slots and the maximum memory capacity they allow. This is critical, especially if you are trying to future-proof your installation as closely as possible.

Then you want to make sure it has enough SATA ports for expansion drives, and don’t forget RGB. LED lighting can look very nice, and it is easier to think about this now than after the computer has been put together.

Once you know what you’re looking for for features, it’s easier to narrow down your choices. Then, if you have a shortlist of contenders, consider VRM quality (especially if you’re overclocking) by looking at reviews.

These are just some general tips, but the basic rule is this: Get the features you want that fall within your price range, then pay attention to things like VRM quality if you’re planning on overclocking.

Conclusion

The motherboard isn’t quite as exciting as picking up an overloaded CPU or an incredible graphics card that can pump high frame rates at 4K. Nevertheless, a good quality motherboard with the features you need is an important part of your PC, and is especially important when it comes to overclocking. Doing a little research to get the right board will go a long way towards creating a rocking PC build.




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