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Beginners Guide To Motherboards

Updated on March 20, 2011

The motherboard truly is the "mother of all boards" as it represents the base of the foundation that the rest of your PC is built upon. Just like you wouldn't use a bungalow's foundation for a skyscraper, you also have to be extremely careful to choose your motherboard properly to suit your needs, or you'll be looking at expensive upgrades down the road.

Here are the basics so any computer user can master the lingo:

Socket: This is the number one factor to consider when buying a motherboard. By the end of the year, there will be AMD computers being used with sockets 478, 754, 939, 940, QFX, AM2, AM2+ and AM3; and Intel computers being utilized with sockets 771, 775, 989, 1160, 1366, and 1567! Why the heck are there so many? Different CPUs have different requirements to exchange data with the motherboard thus they require different sockets. Yes, it's more difficult than it has to be, but you had best make sure that your CPU and motherboard sockets are identical or you'll be stuck.

Chipset: Intel's socket 775 is notorious for having different chipsets which work with some processors and not others. So if you have a new Core 2 Quad 775 CPU and figure your old 775 motherboard with the 915 chipset will run it just fine, guess again. You'll need a new motherboard with a much more modern chipset or you won't boot.

Form Factor: For most computer users the answer is simply: ATX. That is the most common size and layout of PC motherboards and is guaranteed to fit in virtually every PC case on the market. There are variants such as MicroATX which is smaller and has fewer slots but those are generally used for Home Theatre systems and not general usage PCs. There is also a BTX format, but that was just a bad dream Intel had and you'll be hard pressed to find BTX form factor motherboards available as components from most retailers.

Connectors: If you want to use newer SATA or older IDE hard drives, you had better confirm how many of each connector are on the motherboards. Generally you can only attach one SATA drive per SATA motherboard connector and two IDE drives per each IDE connector. If you need more drives than your motherboard will allow for, investigate external hard drive options.

PCI Slots: The PCI slot has replaced the older ISA slot and is now the de facto standard for expansion cards. Some motherboards will have as few as two and as many as six or more PCI slots. Ensure that the motherboard you want has sufficient slots for your expansion needs or you'll be kicking yourself later. Having said that, most computer users generally only use one PCI slot and that is for a telephone faxmodem, ethernet, or an audio card. Check the PCIe slot which is the one that is generally dedicated to your video card for compatibility with the graphics subsystem you wish to install.

RAM Slots: Most lower-priced motherboards offer two RAM slots and my advice always is to seek out the ones with four slots. Why? Let's say you buy your motherboard with two RAM slots and have a 512 MB DDR2 in each slot. You'll soon find that 1 GB of memory isn't enough these days and you want 2 GB. You'll have to buy 2 x 1 GB RAM and throw away your two perfectly good 512 MB units. If you had four RAM slots, you could just buy two more 512MB or if not going for Dual Channel, one 1 GB DDR 2 and you'd get the 2 GB you desire.

Always shop around as a motherboard fetching $120 at one etailer will be $75 at another, and remember that if you are a basic user, most of the expensive bells and whistles on costly motherboards are just wasted money!


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