Buying a Motherboard: 20 Terms You Need to Know

MicroATX boards measure up to 9. The 6. With Mini-ITX, you’re usually limited to just one expansion slot.
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MicroATX boards measure up to 9. The 6. With Mini-ITX, you’re usually limited to just one expansion slot. Note that most PC cases that support a particular form factor also support boards of the form factors smaller than it—but always check the specs for confirmation of that before buying a new board or case. Overclockers can also tweak system fundamentals in here, though it’s possible with the right board and software to overclock from within Windows , too.

The UEFI BIOS outlines something closer to a mini operating system, with more modular programmability and much greater customization possibilities for board makers. Now, it’s the standard. Just about every motherboard includes one. The shield will have cutouts for the specific ports on the motherboard, and it protects the rest of the board during everyday use when you insert cables into the ports. The only things standard about them are their overall dimensions, roughly 1.

They tend to get misplaced during upgrades, and it can be tricky getting a replacement that fits, since they are board-specific. Chipset “Chipset” is a broad term encompassing the silicon on a motherboard that provides the pathways between and the controllers for the various subsystems within a computer.

In a motherboard shopper’s context, the chipset, usually from Intel or AMD, defines the board family, the specific AMD or Intel processor lines that the board supports, and many of the possible features that the motherboard maker could implement. A motherboard maker will typically offer a whole host of boards based on a single chipset, but with differences in form factors and feature levels.

The usual course of things in the motherboard world is that when a new processor line debuts, a new high-end chipset will accompany it, and lesser-featured, cheaper chipsets for the same processor family will debut at the same time or a bit later.

These “step-down” chipsets allow for more budget-minded motherboards for different usage cases. When we wrote this in mid, for example, the newest Intel chipsets for its mainstream CPUs in the 8th Generation Core “Coffee Lake” line were the enthusiast-minded Z stacked with overclocking features and a host of lower-featured chipsets geared toward more ordinary boards: The previous generation of Intel boards followed the same rough numeric paradigm: The X, meanwhile, is the latest chipset for Intel’s high-end Socket “Core X-Series” processors, supplanting the X99 for Socket as the “extreme enthusiast” chipset on the Intel side of the aisle.

AMD boards in the past employed a variety of AMD chipsets too extensive to list here, but AMD’s Ryzen processors have coalesced around the AM4 socket and the X and B chipsets, with a few other lower-end Ryzen-compatible chipsets such as the A appearing on budget boards. Knowing which chipset your board runs on is important for two reasons.

For one, it is related to which specific CPUs the motherboard supports though you should check that list carefully, regardless. Second, the chipset indicates the relative positioning of a board and its feature set. CPU Socket This is the square receptacle into which the processor chip that you purchase fits. The processor’s specific socket type not just the manufacturer needs to match the socket type used by the board.

In other words, not all Intel processor chips work in all Intel boards Also, not all processors of a given socket type will work in every board that has that socket.

You’ll want to check the motherboard maker’s CPU-compatibility list for details. For some time now, Intel’s processors have used a design in which the interface pins are part of the socket, with dot-like contacts on the bottom of the processor chip.

AMD’s consumer chips, meanwhile, with the exception of the Ryzen Threadrippers, still use old-school sockets with holes for pins on the chip. The most common socket types you’ll run across here in , as we write this, are Not referring to the year of introduction but the number of pins in the socket, these are the sockets used by Intel’s highest-end processors, such as the Intel Core iX Extreme Edition Socket and newer Core iXE Extreme Edition Socket Note also that Socket comes in two variants, the original and a later Socket v3, that are electrically incompatible.

It succeeds Socket Important to know: Check the board specs! It’s now a dead end, though. It is also a dead end. Levers on one or both sides lock the memory sticks into place. In the latest consumer motherboards, this will be dual data rate 4 DDR4 memory. Where the “DDR” comes in: You’ll generally see a performance benefit if RAM sticks are used in identical pairs and inserted in designated “paired” slots on the motherboard for dual-channel throughput.

It works under the same general principles as dual-channel. DIMM slots on a late-model MSI motherboard RAM is often sold packaged to facilitate dual- or quad-channel operation as a set of two or four modules with the same specs , and the motherboard’s paired slots are sometimes color-coded.

With paired memory, you’d put the two dual-channel or four quad-channel modules in slots with matching colors, or arranged according to the motherboard manual’s instructions. The takeaway: When shopping for RAM, know that two sticks of DDR memory adding up to a certain capacity can deliver better performance than just one stick of that capacity, all else being equal, thanks to dual-channel throughput.

Ditto four sticks versus two or just one, if the board supports quad-channel. The “x” designation describes two things, however: And these two numbers can be different for a single given slot.

In terms of the slot size, the higher the “x” number, the longer the slot, and you’ll ideally want to match a card with the same kind of slot. In practice, you’ll see these days only x16 long and x1 short physical slots on new motherboards.

A card with a lower “x” designation can be used in a higher-numbered slot, but not vice versa. Board close-up showing x16 and x1 physical slots x16 slots are long and banded in silver Where things get complicated is with PCI slot bandwidth, though it’s mostly relevant only when installing dedicated graphics cards. Modern video cards all slot into PCI Express x16 slots, and a motherboard may have several of these. It’s possible, however, that not all of the x16 slots on a board and perhaps, just one of them supports full PCI Express x16 bandwidth or lanes, despite being capable of fitting an xlength card.

Simply put, the lanes are electrical pathways that enable throughput; more is better. If you’re installing just one video card, it’s important to put it in an x16 slot that supports full x16 bandwidth, as opposed one with x8 or x4 lanes only. Using one card in one slot might give you x16 bandwidth with that card, but adding a second card might bump both cards down to x8, or one might run at x16 with the other at x8 or x4.

Examine the bandwidth specs before buying if multicard gaming is your aim to make sure you’ll get the most performance possible from your card investment. SLI and CrossFireX Two flavors of the same dish, these terms refer to the ability of a motherboard to accept more than one graphics card and have the cards work additively to increase graphics performance. The cards need to employ the same graphics processor.

A physical bridging connector between cards, often supplied with SLI- or CrossFire-compatible motherboards, may be required for adequate bandwidth for communication between the cards. CrossFireX can be two to four cards; check the board specs for how many are supported. It’s a modest boost at best, though.

Also, know that a given game needs to have specific support for SLI or CrossFireX to see much of a benefit, and that this support is being de-emphasized by many game developers these days.

For most users, a single powerful video card will more than suffice. See our guide to the best graphics cards. USB 2. These connect to matching wires in your PC’s chassis that lead to “front panel” USB connectors situated on the case’s exterior. A USB 2. The matching cable connector on your PC’s case will have 10 pinholes powering two ports or five powering one port. USB 3. They are a pin rectangular grid that accepts a cable powering one or two USB 3. You’ll want to make sure any board you’re buying has connectors that match what’s on your PC case—and vice versa.

All three kinds of USB header, left to right: Only a few PC cases, however, so far have a cable that works with this header. The header on the board looks like a cross between a regular USB Type-A port it’s rectangular and an HDMI port in that it has a protruding set of contacts in the middle.

Front-Panel Header The front-panel header is a grid of pins on the motherboard, often with some color coding or other on-board labeling, that accepts wires from your PC case.

To this set of pins, you’ll connect the thin cables for the case’s power and reset switches, as well as the hard drive activity and power-on LEDs and, in some designs, an onboard speaker. Most of the time, the pins for each connector are in pairs; know that the polarity of the pairs doesn’t matter for the switch cables, but it does for the LEDs.

The motherboard manual will contain a schematic that shows where the header is and which pins power what. This lets you plug in the appropriate wires outside the PC case, then plug in the connector as a whole. The actual components are often hidden beneath a passive heatsink to keep them cool during operation. As for capacitors, you’ll see these electronic components scattered across a typical motherboard performing in a variety of subsystems, but their base function is to act as “holding pens” for electrical charge.

Depending on where they are used, they can take on different shapes though usually, little drums , sizes, and colors.

As a buying consideration, they are relevant only insofar as the type of capacitor is sometimes heralded as a premium feature. Run-of-the-mill capacitors are electrolytic, containing a small volume of material soaked with a liquid. Depending on the quality of manufacture and the expected lifespan, these kinds of capacitors can swell and leak over time, leading to board failure. The PC-enthusiast community generally rallies around Japanese-made electrolytic capacitors as a better bet for longevity, and motherboard makers tend to trumpet “Japanese capacitors” if they are present.

We can’t verify how accurate this longtime claim is, however. Solid-state capacitors, on the other hand, are immune to leakage and thus preferred. This plugs into a pin grid on the motherboard called an “HD Audio” header. In a nutshell, HD Audio brings auto-detection functionality to the ports, allowing the system to sense the presence of devices plugged into the ports and behave accordingly. The pin header is sometimes labeled on the motherboard as “AAFP,” for the “analog audio front panel” cable.

For your case’s audio cable: The pin connector is physically the same. Ignore the latter. And with a new motherboard and case, you’ll definitely be using the former connector, as HD Audio is the current standard.

Form Factor (ATX, MicroATX, Mini-ITX)

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