OK, so you know it's important in the "grand scheme of things", and you're confident every computer's got to have one, but do you actually know which sort of motherboard your desktop PC contains? Chances are, you'd have to go and look it up.
You're not alone. When weighing up the components of a PC they intend to buy, most people first check the processor and clock speed, then the size of the hard drive, and will probably also have a peek at which graphics card is lurking inside. This is a perfectly legitimate way of sizing up a PC, but the motherboard is crucial, too. Often, however, when it comes to evaluating a system, the motherboard rarely gets a look in.
Those who are upgrading their existing systems, or building new ones may also look at the components they need to improve or optimise system performance, but will often forget the impact the motherboard can have on the whole package. For instance, your motherboard needs to be able to handle the type of expansion you require, such PCI slots, FireWire ports or Serial ATA (SATA) ports.
Never fear - PC World has put together this comprehensive buying guide on motherboards, to tell you what this mystery component is and how it functions. This guide is also designed to equip you with the criteria you need to choose the right motherboard for your PC setup.
What is a motherboard?
Also sometimes referred to as the system board or main board, the motherboard is the physical board that houses the computer's basic circuitry and components, and is perhaps the most important feature of your system.
If you consider the processor as the brain of your machine, the motherboard is the central nervous system, responsible for relaying information between all the internal components. It's the bit that all the other bits plug into. In other words, the motherboard is the electronic glue that pulls together all the parts that make up the PC and presents you with a working machine. While the motherboard itself is unlikely to make your machine operate any more quickly (this will be determined by the speed of your CPU), it is essential to have a stable, reliable unit on which to build the rest of the system.
The motherboard plays home not only to your processor and memory, but also all of your expansion cards, such as your graphics controller, your hard drive and CD-ROM connectors, plus external ports. It houses the BIOS (the basic input/output system), an integral part of the PC that controls the simplest configuration of your machine, and performs the POST (power on self-test) health check when you switch on your machine. It also manages the data flow between the computer's operating system and attached peripheral devices.
Differences between motherboards
All motherboards are not born equal, and you can encounter myriad differences. The most important is the type of processor it supports. In addition, there will be memory module slots; expansion slots (such as PCI, PCIe and AGP) so you can add extras like sound and graphics cards; support for the hard and CD-ROM drives; and, finally, connectors for keyboard, mouse and peripherals. It's also becoming quite common for certain models of board to have some built-in basic sound or graphic capabilities, and even integrated networking capabilities. Some motherboards even have 2 network ports built in!