- What is a motherboard?
- Differences between motherboards
- The parts - processors
- Socket formats
- Intel processors
- AMD processors
- Dual processors and dual-core processors
- Choosing a chipset
- Memory support
- Hard drive support
- Peripheral devices
- Expansion slots
- Integrated interfaces
- Motherboard form factors
- The functions - BIOS and POST
- Questions to ask the retailer
Considerations when choosing the motherboard for you
When you're choosing a motherboard, you're also choosing which type of processor, chipset and memory you will be able to use. Although most chipsets can support more than one type of memory, most motherboards will only allow you to choose one.
There are also general considerations besides performance to keep in mind when evaluating motherboards. Since motherboards by different manufacturers with the same chipset will usually have similar performance in terms of speed, other factors have been emphasised. Reliability and special features, for instance, are more important overall than a couple of percentage points' difference in speed.
Not all the important things about motherboards are electronic - as the central connection for all the computer's components, a motherboard needs to be physically sound. Although boards are made to an official size standard, they're not all identical. Small variations in case shapes and in the placement of sockets can occasionally mean that it's difficult to fit some motherboards into some cases, or to add expansion cards. Alongside the physical size of the motherboard, it is also important to ensure the board has enough expansion slots to accommodate all of your network, sound and graphics cards.
If you're upgrading an older computer, the case may not support some motherboards. Remember, older AT-style cases won't fit the ATX-type motherboards currently in use. Even newer ATX cases may need to have the power supply upgraded to cope with the requirements of the latest processors. The latest Pentium 4 boards require supplementary 12V power connectors that are only available on ATX +12V power supplies.
What to ask yourself
Before investing in a motherboard, ask yourself which tasks you intend to perform with your system. If, for instance, you plan on using your setup primarily for office applications and do not need 3D graphics, then a basic motherboard with integrated sounds or graphics will most likely suffice. On the other hand, if you're into games and plan on using the system to test run the latest software on the market, then a board with extra expansion slots for graphics and sound cards or one that is easily upgradeable would be more suitable.
Of course, the kinds of additional features that can be found on the motherboard, such as additional expansion or memory slots or RAID functionality, will cost you. In addition to what you consider to be your needs, you must also decide how much money you want to spend.
How much is the motherboard?
Motherboards can vary in price, with the majority of desktop models ranging between $120 and $400. Basic dual and multi-processor boards start at around $400.
The cost of a motherboard is not quite as relevant as the cost of the total package. You may, for example, buy the cheapest board on the market, but find that the type of RAM it supports is more expensive than the next board up. Or, you may opt for a motherboard with integrated graphic and sound support, but realise when you're playing the latest Quake game that you need a higher level of both.
The best thing to remember is to compare the costs with the features you are receiving and take into account all of the components you need to buy before selecting the board.
What sort of warranty do I get with this?
Warranties generally last for 12 months, for both Intel and AMD platforms.
Is this a validated board?
Both AMD and Intel maintain certification levels for motherboards, and test and evaluate motherboard products from a variety of manufacturers. This is particularly useful for buyers, as it will mean the board has been tested and approved to work with the processors and chipsets it has specified and is thus clear of bugs, 'quirks' or related problems.
Both companies advise that when you are investing in a board you should check whether it has been validated. It could save you unnecessary problems later.
Should I check its RAM compatibility?
Not all motherboards and memory modules are compatible. Prior to purchasing memory for your motherboard, check out the motherboard vendor's web site to see if it has a list of memory modules that are compatible with its boards.
Check out PC World Magazine for regular reviews and performance tests of the latest motherboards on the market.
This guide was last updated in March 2006.