Motherboard Basics "The Remix"

By Bryan Lambert - Sunday, March 29, 2009

PullQuoteIt’s 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?"

The 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 Intel, ASUS, MSI, Tyan, ECS, Gigabyte, etc. Often, you can visit a manufacturer’s website to get the lowdown on their latest motherboard offering.

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 today’s 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 as PCI, 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).

You 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 DDR and 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 CPU Sockets.

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 they 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 factors are 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?"

OK, 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.