been awhile since the last
Tech Tip on
motherboards, hence some readers have requested a
refresh (as it were) on the topic of motherboards. In this Tech Tip,
we’ll be looking at different aspects of that all important
main circuit board in your computer known as the motherboard.
Whether you are just looking for more information on motherboards in
general, or perhaps looking into
purchasing one, it is always better to get to know some
things about the current generation of motherboards.
Track 1 - "Who Are You?"
motherboard, as just mentioned, is the main circuit board of your
computer. Much of how your computer works, how it runs, and its
characteristics are determined by the motherboard. Just as
CPUs can be classified as value, mainstream and
performance, so too can motherboards. If you open up your computer,
your motherboard (sometimes called a mainboard or
simply “the board”) is the main circuit board that
all other components (such as processors, memory, add-on cards, etc)
are plugged into. A few popular branded motherboards are
ASUS, MSI, Tyan, ECS, Gigabyte, etc. Often, you can
visit a manufacturer’s website to get the lowdown on their latest
One of the primary things that will determine the capabilities of
what a motherboard will support is the
chipset. Many persons when contemplating buying a
motherboard will first look at that particular component. Popular
chipset manufacturers are Intel, nVidia, VIA and SiS (the later two
usually seen on more value oriented boards). Chipsets as well as
CPUs are constantly changing, and thus they are hard to
future-proof against – that is, the latest greatest chipset today,
while it works with
processors, may have trouble supporting the processors of tomorrow.
Motherboards these days will usually havea ton of built-in
features, such as
integrated graphics, integrated sound, integrated
Ethernet, etc. Believe it or not, at one time all these functions
were handled by add-on cards. Motherboards will also offer
expandability, usually by means of a number of internal slots (such
PCI-express (both 4x and 16x varieties) slots), as well
as many external ports (such as USB, eSATA, FireWire, etc.) for
adding cool gadgets to your computer. Some higher end boards will
also offer capabilities such as
RAID or the ability to use two linked PCI-express video
cards (such as SLI enabled boards).
can also expand your computer’s memory on the motherboard as well,
(the most popular type of memory used today is known as
DDR2 - other memory types are
DDR3). The age and design of your motherboard (as well
as the chipset used) will determine the type and how much
system memory your motherboard will support.
Of course, one main aspect of the motherboard is what kind
of CPU it will support. That brings up the question of
Track 2 - "Sockets of all Sorts"
The term CPU socket is almost a misnomer these days. For example,
the very popular
Socket 775 Motherboard used on many boards that support
a wide array of
Intel processors is not really a socket at all (since
it has no socket holes), but instead has bent pins that touch
contact points on the bottom of the processor. A CPU socket
is simply the place where a CPU connects with the motherboard
and most motherboards offer modest CPU upgrades via the CPU socket.
As far as what CPUs will actually work, this is often determined by
the chipset as well as the type of socket your computer has.
By far, the most popular socket these days (as it was when the last
Tech Tip on this subject was written) is the Socket 775 used by
Intel’s line of Celeron, Pentium, Pentium D, Pentium Dual Core, Core
2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors. Socket 775 is actually named
LGA775 (and sometimes also called Socket T), so if you
see these terms bantered around, you'll know that
refer to the same thing. Before buying or upgrading your
motherboard, you’d want to know what socket that board has and what
type and speed processor it can handle (information that is also
readily available on many motherboard manufacturers websites). With
the advent of Intel’s new Core i7 line comes a new Socket: the
Socket 1366. The Socket 1366 is also called LGA 1366
and Socket B. Older Intel sockets include Socket 370, Socket 423 and
Socket 478 (also Socket 604 and Socket 771 which are used on server
and work station computers).
For the AMD crowd, the most prevalent processor
socket used by them is the
Socket AM2+. Note that plus sign at the end of the
name, which is used to distinguish it from the older Socket AM2. The
AM2+ socket is backwards compatible with AM2 processors, but AM2+
processors will not necessarily work on Socket AM2 boards
(technically, some may work but only in a more limited way).
Examples of processors supported in the AM2+ socket are the Sempron,
Athlon 64 , Opteron and the Phenom series. The newest
processor socket for AMD-based boards is the socket AM3 used for the
new Phenom II processors. Older AMD sockets include Socket A, Socket
754 and Socket 939 (also Socket 940 and Socket F (1366) which are
used on server and workstation computers).
Track 3 - "Will it Fit?"
Another thing to consider with motherboards is whether it will fit
in your current computer case. Computer cases come in all sorts of
shapes and sizes, but the shape of the motherboard that they will
support has not varied much for awhile now. By far the most popular
motherboard shape (also called a form factor) is
microATX (also written mATX and uATX). Lesser used form
ATX (a bigger board than microATX, usually with more
expansion slots), BTX, microBTX and micro-ITX. Before
embarking on any kind of motherboard adventure (buying one to
upgrade a computer you have, or building one from scratch), be sure
you know what form factor motherboard your case will support.
Track 4 - "What About the Board I have?"
all this info may be fine and dandy for someone buying a board, but
what about the board in your computer RIGHT NOW? How can you find
out what you have, what it supports (can you add more RAM or a
faster CPU), or replace the board outright. One very simple way is
to open up the case and find out the model number of the board you
have and look it up on the Internet. An even simplier way to find
the model without cracking the case is to use a utility to “sniff
out” your board and give you all that info on a silver platter. It
may still take looking up your board on the Internet for specifics,
but this gives you a great place to start. One terrific utility I
have been using for a long time is SiSandra. The
Lite version of this program is free and it will give
you loads of data about your motherboard.
Bonus Track - "In Conclusion"
While all the “thinking” on a computer may be done by the central
processor, much of how a computer works and what its capabilities
are tied up in the motherboard. It is our hope that this refresher
Tech Tip on motherboards will help you not only learn a little more
about motherboards, but also arm you with the knowledge to make
motherboard buying decisions.