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Deciphering A Motherboard's Sacred Entrails

Updated on April 5, 2009

Although I'm aware that this is a topic that will primarily interest only the most geekizoid computer upgrader, enthusiast, prosumer, or technician, the fact remains that more and more of us are involved in the innards of our computers, and it's a very confusing place!

The modular aspect of our personal computers and the explosion onto the market place of more and more component upgrades which within a few weeks can obsolete whatever is in our PCs in the first place, has created a situation where many computer users find it inevitable to velcro on that static strap and start digging through the guts of our rigs to upgrade RAM, video cards, sound cards, power supplies, cooling, or even the CPU and entire motherboard!

It's when you get to the motherboard replacement bit, (whether you're just moving your existing components into a new and snazzier case, or just keeping your system and stepping up a generation by just replacing the CPU and motherboard) that things can become quite confusing indeed.

After all, motherboard connectors are byzantine, Soviet-era, retrograde junk that snap together with so much force that you wonder why you didn't just crack your circuit board in half. Hardly the way to treat an electronic component you might have spent upwards of $300 on!

Worst of all, it is modern practice to make the motherboard connectors indecipherable to anyone who doesn't have one eye on the manufacturer's manual, as many connectors are either badly labeled or not labeled at all!

This situation made itself painfully aware to me when the HTPC I use to drive the TV in my living room just gave up the ghost. It was an older AMD Sempron but it was doing a fine job with its weeny Nvidia FX5200 card so there was no reason to upgrade it.

My HTPC does absolutely nothing but playback. It's not connected to the web in any way, it doesn't have any software on it other than the operating system and a VLC media player (which by the way is the single best player to be found anywhere as it will play darn near anything you can throw at it without burying you in a mess of missing codecs), and thus has absolutely no requirements for it to be a powerful, up to the minute system. All it really needs to do is have enough CPU and RAM grunt to run the video card in non HD mode (I'm not an HD fan... but that's the subject of another Hub someday), and the rest is irrelevant.

Unfortunately the time my trusty old Sempron HTPC chose to die was on a Saturday evening leaving me no choice but to come up with something else or be HTPC-less until Monday.

I have 5 computers of varying configurations for different uses in my house, including the Big Bertha mother of all PCs that I use as my main computer: Core i7 920 in Turbo, 12GB RAM, VelociRaptor for C Drive, 1TB RAID1 Mirrored, ATI Radeon HD4670, etc. etc. etc. If you're not up on the latest specs, let it suffice to say that this rig is to the average PC what an F-18A Hornet is to an Ultralight.

However, all my computers are allocated to specific purposes and I couldn't just yank one out to serve as my HTPC. So I had to go down to the garage to plough through old junk until I found a 1999 vintage PC which had been amply utilized as a public washroom by field mice. I brushed off the cobwebs and found that it was a SL3FY Celeron 500 MHz CPU on a Socket 370 BI440ZX Intel motherboard. This puppy cost three grand when it was new, and right now it's not even worth the effort to throw it into the dumpster.

Given that the amount of excrement on the case was nothing short of disgusting, I ripped the motherboard and hard drive out of it, plugged into my HTPC system and it immediately fired up with that nostalgic old Windows 98SE startup screen and tone.

Not only was I overjoyed that in about ten minutes I was able to get my HTPC back up and running (and very well indeed, as I can't tell the difference between the playback on the two systems) but the actual installation of the motherboard went off without a hitch and in a much smoother fashion than any recent component switching festival.


Because the motherboard was exquisitely well labeled! It was clear, straightforward, everything was legibly and logically named and indicated, and although I didn't have the motherboard manual I was able to plug in all the pertinent connectors in mere seconds!

Try that on a new motherboard! It seems that the more advanced motherboard manufacturers get, the less they give a damn about labeling anything on the board so that mortals can decipher what goes where! Just look at the front panel jumpers on a new ECS X48T-A motherboard:

OK, so what the hell goes where? Which one is the Power Switch? Reset? Hard Drive LED? Power LED? Now look at the exact same panel from the ten year old Intel motherboard:

Want to hook up your own audio connector on the old Socket 370? Check out this lucid guide:

 In the old IDE days it was important to differentiate between primary and secondary. Do you know how many motherboards didn't label their IDE ports? The old Intel did!

 Indeed, the entire motherboard is so clearly labeled that a kindergarten student could plug everything in with very little difficulty!

There is absolutely no excuse for a new X48 or X58 motherboard, some of which can cost $500 to not have imporant connectors clearly labeled. Any error in connection can cause your system to not POST or even fry! Is there any reason why the designers can't take the time to indicate what is where on the motherboard itself?

It's nothing but lazy and inexcusable design. If it could be so elegantly and easily done a decade ago, why can't it be done today? Shame on the motherboard manufacturers who don't give a damn. We consumers should show them how we don't give a damn about their badly designed products by not purchasing them!


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    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks! Much appreciated!

    • eovery profile image

      eovery 8 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

      Good Hub

      I have found good experiences and bad experiences on boards. I found to try to avoid the cheapies. They are cheap for a reason.

      Keep on Hubbing!

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      Hey, if you can squeeze six years out of one mobo, then more power to you! :) As my main computer, I've had four different systems in the past two years, but now that I have that killer Core i7, I'm expecting to keep it for at least two to three years. It also helps that due to the economy collapsing there really doesn't seem to be anything on Intel's CPU roadmaps that is going to be a significant step forward in the next couple of years, so I can rest assured that I've got some time when I don't have to upgrade/upgrade/upgrade to keep up with the requirements of the newest editions of the software I use every day.

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 8 years ago

      I used an Asus motherboard for six long years. Only the VGA card was on-board. Do you think six years is good enough?

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      Absolutely, Daryl Davis! I have had some motherboards where the only way to attach some of the connectors is to use needle nose pliers. The main power connector to the PSU is especially ridiculous. I've had to rip the plastic tongue right off a couple just to get them off!

    • Daryl Davis profile image

      Daryl Davis 8 years ago from San Jose, CA

      Spot on, Hal. I've been shopping for a motherboard and have noted not just a labeling problem, but connectors so badly placed as to be unusable. It's as if the manufacturers no longer have design teams, or those teams aren't keeping up with new technologies.

    • Hal Licino profile image

      Hal Licino 8 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks! I couldn't agree more. Standardization could be too much to hope for as almost every mobo has different features and different circuitry, but labeling is really the most efficient way to design these components!

    • Headstrong Farm profile image

      Headstrong Farm 8 years ago from Rhode Island

      Right on. Even after eight years of putting together PCs, sometimes I get the front panel connecters wrong if I don't have a diagram. I generally affix a copy of the front panel bus diagram from the MB manual to the side cover, but having it right on the MB was nice. Or better yet, if they would standardize them, finally.