What is a motherboard & what does it do?
A motherboard (also called a system board, mainboard, logic board, or baseboard) is the core of a computer system, with the most critical components of a system connecting directly to it. A motherboard is designed to distribute power to each of its attached components and to provide a communications channel between each device (including devices built into the motherboard itself). The motherboard is what houses the CPU, the RAM, BIOS, ports, chipset, video & sound cards, etc. and can come in many varieties.
The motherboard handles and allocates system resources (such as IRQs, DMA channels, I/O locations, etc.) and contains the connectors for attaching additional boards.
Some motherboards have built-in components such as onboard video, onboard sound, onboard LAN, etc. Motherboards are oftentimes characterized by the type of CPU they can support and their Socket Type.
Which motherboard should I get?
What are the differences between the motherboards?
Motherboards differ in several ways including size (ATX, Micro ATX, iTX), Manufacturer, chipset, socket, slots available, and more. It's important to match the compatibility of your motherboard first and foremost with the processor you are interested in. This is easy to do by looking at the motherboard's CPU support list on the manufacturer website. Next you will want to know what type of case you will be using - if it's a standard ATX computer case you can choose from both ATX or Micro ATX sizes. If it's a different size you will need to make sure your motherboard will mount properly in it. With regards to the socket type, you will want to make sure your motherboard matches the correct type of your processor - so if you're building based on an LGA1151 CPU, you will need an LGA 1151 motherboard. If you're going with an AMD FM2+ processor, you will need an AMD FM2+ compatible motherboard. Beyond that you can look at the features of each motherboard to compare and find the one that suits your need the best.
What are integrated / built-in components?
You will find an array of add-ons and features built into different motherboards out there. These can vary greatly from chipset to chipset and model to model. Some of these features involve upgradeability such as the speed and number of PCI Express lanes or SATA ports available. Other features can include built-in sound, Gigabit LAN, onboard graphics (many times determined by the processor now), and similar factors. While different manufacturers will build using the same chipsets, it's always important to look at your product's details to see exactly how many expansion slots (PCIe X16/X8/X4/X1, PCI) and memory slots you'll have, what type of media ports or drive connectors you'll have available to you, what I/O ports are available externally (Sound, USB 2.0 / 3.0, Video, Ethernet, Keyboard/Mouse, etc.) As motherboards have become more and more advanced over the years, the need to upgrade these integrated components on a lot of fronts has decreased so it's important to determine what you will want to take advantage of and what you'll want to upgrade right out of the box. The most common hardware upgrade taken usually come in the way of bypassing the onboard video in favor of a discrete or stand-alone graphics card. Typically this is the best route to take when it is affordable as discrete graphics processors tend to out-perform integrated ones.
What motherboard should I buy?We get asked this question a lot - what motherboard should I buy for gaming or (if they have their CPU already) what board is compatible with my chip? There are definitely a lot of choices out there and each motherboard is specifically designed to fit only one type of processor socket. So choosing the right motherboard for your PC starts there: make sure your CPU socket and motherboard are compatible. A motherboard will typically take almost all CPUs of the compatible socket type, though high power CPUs may require a higher-end motherboard. Usually motherboard manufacturers like Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, etc. have very good websites detailing their supported processors in the form of compatibility lists. Always check a motherboard's compatibility list to make sure your processor is supported by it before proceeding. Otherwise you don't know whether or not the two will be compatible.
Motherboards come in two major size categories, ATX and MicroATX. ATX motherboards are larger and tend to be designed to accommodate multiple expansion cards, while MicroATX motherboards are smaller and tend to favor integrated peripherals (such as on-board graphics). Performance gaming PCs tend to use ATX motherboards, while office machines tend toward MicroATX boards, though any combination of power and form factor is possible.
High speed expansion slots are required for gaming PCs, since higher end graphics cards require them. Most motherboards have at least one PCI Express x16 slot, but note that later PCI Express versions, such as version 2.0 and 3.0, offer better performance. Some motherboards have more than one PCI Express x16 slot, allowing you to use multiple graphics cards for increased performance - something you can usually only get when you build your own PC.
Motherboards that support modern connectivity standards like USB 3.0 and SATAIII tend to be slightly more expensive, but the increased speed offered makes them a worthy investment. You can tell if a motherboard supports USB 3.0 if the back panel has blue-colored USB ports.
Connectors on a motherboard
1. Firewire Ports: Firewire(IEEE 1394B) supports 800Mb/s for high speed transfers to external video cameras and external disk drives.
PCI Express: The latest technology in upgrade component is PCI Express (PCIe). With PCIe, data flows much faster to expansion cards.
2. PCIe x16 supports the latest graphics cards. Many motherboards have have 2 or more PCIe x16 slots to support running two graphics cards simultaneously.
3. PCIe x1 supports accessory cards such as wireless adapters and TV-tuners.
4. Onboard Audio: Most motherboards have onboard 5.1 surround sound audio. Feature rich motherboards support high quality 7.1 audio ports.
5. CPU Popular types of CPU Sockets:
6. Fan Headers: Increased performance components radiate more heat to the motherboard. It is important to have a motherboard with many fan headers to allow more system fans. 2 pin headers provide simple power, while 3 pin headers provide power as well as bios controlled speed and smart control. Motherboards can control the speed of the systems fans to reduce noise and improve efficiency.
7. Memory: DDR2 Most motherboards support dual-channel architecture. By installing memory modules into matching banks, it is possible to double the speed that date moves from RAM to the CPU. Memory can be purchased in kits to provide maximum compatibility.
8. ATX Power: This is where ATX power is connected to the power supply with 20+4 pins. Todays components require more power, so it is important to take into consideration how much power, especially video cards, will require so your system will run smoothly.
9. Serial ATA(SATA): There are two kinds of Serial ATA(SATA) ports, SATA I and SATA II. SATA has many advantages including slim, flexible cables and a simplistic serial link. SATA I hard drives can transfer data at 1.5GB/s and SATA II hard drives are faster at 3.0GB/s. All current motherboards have SATA to support the latest hard drives as well as optical drives.
10. USB Headers: The total number of USB ports on a computer can only be accessed using the internal USB headers. Every internal USB header can support two additional full speed USB ports.
11. EIDE: This is where ATA100/133 hard drives and optical drives connect.
Motherboard Troubleshooting Tips & Tricks
The most difficult component to install and troubleshoot in a computer is the motherboard (also called the system 'mainboard'). The main reason behind this is that different motherboards rarely install in the same way or require the same settings. Not only do installation procedures differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, but dissimilar models created by the same manufacturer could also vary greatly. The good news for beginners is that the recent trend has been toward simplification. Setting jumpers manually or physically adjusting dials on the mainboard are now things of the past. Most settings today are controlled through the CMOS Setup or are automatically set on the first boot (CPU Frontside Bus and Multiplier specifications in particular). While experienced professionals and Overclockers will tell you that the lack of control is a bad thing, the general public has accepted the simplified procedure with open arms. Even with the streamlined installation procedures and wonderful (sometimes) step-by-step instructions provided, however, people can still find a way to mess things up. This page is written as a guide to motherboard installation troubleshooting. Before reading, please note that this guide was written particularly for the case of a 'NEW' installation. While some of the procedures will apply to troubleshooting a failed unit, this guide is not intended to target that problem.
How can I get my motherboard to power up?
Oftentimes a novice installer will conclude that there is a problem with their new motherboard if there is no response on the first boot attempt. It is important to realize that sometimes things don't work on the first try. Don't give up! Troubleshoot.
If you aren't receiving any signs of power (ie- when you hit the power switch and neither the CPU fan nor the Power Supply fan begin spinning) when you first hit the switch on the front of your case, the problem could be many things. The first thing to check may seem obvious, but any technician will tell you that it happens far too often: check to ensure that the Master On/Off switch on the back of your power supply is set to 'On'. This can be a very time-consuming mistake so always check it first. No matter how great a troubleshooter you are, if your motherboard is not getting power it will not function.
Secondly, ensure that BOTH the ATX Connector and ATX 12V (if needed) connectors are plugged into the motherboard securely. The ATX connector is a 20-pin or 24-pin connector (depending on your motherboard) and the ATX 12V is a 4-pin connector. Both of these come directly from the power supply. In cases in which it is required, the ATX 12V connector will provide additional power required by a newer processor for proper operation. Without it, your processor will probably not start up and your system may seem unresponsive. Most new AMD and Intel motherboards require the added power so when shopping for a power supply it's a good idea to make sure it is ATX12V or P4 ready.
Next, ensure that you have set the 'Clear-CMOS' jumper correctly to the 'Normal' position. Some motherboard manufacturers set the 'Clear-CMOS' jumper to 'Clear' while shipping to conserve battery life. The problem with this is that a motherboard cannot function with the CMOS set to clear. Other manufacturers simply leave the setting on 'Normal' to avoid the installation issue with users who do not know about it. What this means is that you never really know what has been set and should check the jumpers. For information on this, reference your motherboard manual to obtain the correct configuration. If the Clear-CMOS jumper is indeed set to clear, switch it to Normal before proceeding.
After ensuring that your power supply is properly connected to your motherboard and the jumpers are set, make sure that the power switch cable is plugged in correctly. The power switch on the front of your computer connects to your motherboard via a cable leading from the front of the chassis. This cable must be properly attached to the corresponding power switch pins as illustrated in your motherboard manual. It is very easy to plug this cable in incorrectly or to mix up pin assignments, so be very careful with this. Always reference the location and pins you are plugging into with the picture in your manual. With ATX power the ON/OFF switching mechanism is vital; without a proper 'ON' signal received, your power supply will not trigger. Thus properly plugging in the switch becomes very important.
If you still haven't gotten a response, check to make sure that you are not 'shorting out' the motherboard. Ensure that the board is in no way touching the case chassis (just the spacers that come with your case) and that no metal touching the bottom of the motherboard is touching the chassis panel. Without properly attached spacers a motherboard could be shorted out and will fail to function. Also make sure that each spacer is correctly aligned with a hold on the motherboard. Sometimes stray spacers the aren't aligned with a hole (and are touching metal contacts on the bottom of the motherboard) can create a path for current to flow and short out the board.
If none of the methods illustrated above help you with your problem, you may want to look at compatibility issues with the components you are looking to install or possible failure issues with other critical components (such as your memory, CPU, video card, etc). If you know all of your devices to be functional there could be a problem with the motherboard itself. Before determining that, however, read the motherboard manual all the way through to see if there are any necessary steps that you skipped. Manuals can be tough to decipher at times, but are generally helpful in setting up and troubleshooting a motherboard.
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