7 Things to Consider Before Buying a Motherboard

Choose the right form factor and chipset for your PC

This article explains how to pick a motherboard, including finding the correct motherboard for your computer case and central processing unit (CPU) and other things to consider.

What Is a Motherboard?

A motherboard is a computer hardware element that connects various internal computer parts, including the CPU, memory modules, hard drives, expansion cards, and ports. Computer parts connect to the computer directly or with appropriate cables.

Both Macs and Windows PCs have motherboards, but Mac motherboards are generally called "logic boards." When you hear the term "motherboard," it's likely a Windows PC component.

A motherboard is like the backbone of a Windows PC, holding its elements together. It's one of your computer's most critical components because the rest of the computer is assembled around it. The CPU plugs into a special socket on the motherboard; expansion cards like your video card also plug into the motherboard, as does your hard drive and everything else.

ASUS ROG Strix Z270I Gaming Motherboard

 Amazon

Top 7 Things to Consider When Buying a Motherboard

When buying a new motherboard as a replacement or as the backbone of a new PC you're building, there are some key factors to keep in mind.

Here are seven crucial elements to consider when picking out a motherboard:

  • Cost
  • CPU
  • CPU socket
  • Form factor and case
  • Expansion ports
  • Built-in ports
  • RAM (memory)

How Much Should a Motherboard Cost?

Motherboard prices vary widely by model and manufacturer and can be as little as $50 or less or as much as $1,500. However, the more you spend on a motherboard, the more features you'll get. Here's a general overview of motherboard prices in basic, average, and high-end categories.

Price Range  Category What You Can Expect
>$150 Basic Chipset: H510 and H610 (Intel),
A520 (AMD)
Socket: LGA1200 and LGA1700 (Intel), AM4 (AMD)
Form Factor: mATX or Mini ITX
 >$250 Mid-Range Chipset: B560 and B660 (Intel),
B550 (AMD)
Socket: LGA1200 and LGA1700 (Intel), AM4 (AMD)
Form Factor: mATX, ATX, Mini ITX
$250 and higher High-End Chipset: Z590 and Z660 (Intel), X570 (AMD)
Socket: LGA1200 and LGA1700 (Intel)
Form Factor: ATX, Mini-ITX, E-ATX

What CPU Should a Motherboard Have?

A CPU is a critical PC element that interprets and executes your hardware and software commands. If you're replacing or upgrading a motherboard, you can choose one that works with your existing CPU. But if you're buying a new CPU or building a PC, you'll need to select the best processor for your needs.

A mid-tier CPU will be powerful enough for multitasking and smooth operations if you want to ensure maximum productivity for your PC for business uses. If you're a gamer, you'll want a CPU with higher clock speeds and extensive RAM support. You'll want a CPU with enough RAM to support 4K video if you're a content creator.

Check your CPU specs carefully to determine if they will suit your intended uses.

What CPU Socket Should a Motherboard Have?

The CPU socket is a critical factor when deciding what motherboard to buy. A motherboard's CPU socket type determines what CPUs you can use with the motherboard.

If you have a computer and need to replace the motherboard due to component failure or upgrade it, select a motherboard with a socket that fits your existing CPU (and in its current case; see below). Or, you can buy a new CPU.

If you're buying a new CPU replacement or building a new PC, determine what socket it fits after deciding on the CPU you want. For example, an Intel i7 Core i7-9700F processor requires a motherboard with support for the LGA 1151 socket, and an AMD Ryzen 9 5900X needs a motherboard with support for the AM4 socket.

To find out what socket you need, check your CPU's documentation or look it up on the CPU manufacturer's website. If you're shopping online, the socket is usually found somewhere on the listing for the CPU.

Close up of the CPU socket and motherboard laying on a table.
Close up of a CPU socket and motherboard.

Narumon Bowonkitwanchai/Getty Images

What Form Factor and Case Should a Motherboard Have?

Along with the CPU socket, a motherboard's form factor is one of the most critical elements to select.

If you have a computer and need to replace the motherboard due to component failure or upgrade it, select a motherboard with a socket that will fit your existing CPU and fit in your current case unless you want to buy a new CPU and case.

If you're building a new computer, select a motherboard that will accommodate the CPU you want and fit in the case you chose. When choosing a case, aesthetics plays a part, of course, but the more important consideration is the case's size and the type of motherboard it supports.

Here are the main types of motherboard form factors you'll use when building a custom PC:

  • ATX: This is the form factor used in most desktop computers. It's 12 inches long and 9.625 inches wide and offers room for expansion cards and peripherals.
  • Micro-ATX: This is the same width as the ATX but two inches shorter. That means it fits smaller cases but doesn't have as much space for expansion slots.
  • Mini-ITX: These motherboards are only 6.75 inches wide and 6.75 inches long, so they fit in small cases but don't have much space for expansion slots. You may get one expansion slot or none at all.

Decide which case you want, and check if it's an ATX, Micro-ATX, or Mini-ITX case. You can look for an ATX, Micro-ATX, or Mini-ITX motherboard that matches the CPU socket you want to use.

The form factor of the motherboard doesn't affect the type of CPU you need to use. If the motherboard has the correct socket, you can use the same CPU with an ATX, Micro-ATX, or Mini-ITX motherboard.

A CPU laying on the table with computer hardware components.
CPU computer hardware components.

Narumon Bowonkitwanchai/Getty Images

What Expansion Ports Should a Motherboard Have?

After the CPU socket and form factor, the next most important factor is how many expansion ports, usually PCIe ports, the motherboard has and how many you think you'll need.

The two most common expansion ports are to look for are PCIe x16 slots, which can accommodate graphics cards, and PCIe x1 slots, used for other expansion cards like adding extra USB ports. If you want to install two video cards, make sure the motherboard has two expansion ports that can accommodate video cards.

Most motherboards support PCIe 3.0, but some support the newer PCIe 4.0 and 5.0, which provide more bandwidth. If you have any PCIe cards or want to future-proof your selection, look for a board with PCIe 5.0 support.

What Built-In Ports Does a Motherboard Need?

It’s also worth looking at the ports built into the motherboard. Motherboards will include a mix of USB-A, USB-C, HDMI and DisplayPort, audio ports, and even legacy ports like VGA, PS/2, parallel, and serial ports. Motherboards can also include Ethernet ports and other connectivity like built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Consider which ports you’re most likely to need, and select a motherboard that fits your requirements so you won’t have to add an expansion card or USB hub immediately.

How Much RAM Does a Motherboard Need?

It’s also important to look at how many RAM slots the motherboard has and how much total RAM it supports to meet your memory needs. This factor isn’t crucial if your computer will only need to stream media, surf the web, and play basic games. Still, having the option to install more RAM is vital if you do video or photo editing or play resource-intensive games.

Who Should Buy a Motherboard?

You'll need to purchase a motherboard if you're building a new PC. When upgrading or fixing your current PC, you may need to replace the motherboard. If you're buying a new motherboard as a replacement or building a PC, ensure you have the knowledge and instructions on how to proceed.

Teenage boy building a computer.

Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

What Should I Do After Buying a Motherboard?

After buying a motherboard, you'll need to install it on your current PC or the PC you're building. Before you begin, be sure to have your motherboard and PC manuals. If you're not an expert, consult an experienced tech for help, or outsource the task.

Ensure all peripherals are removed and disconnected, and the computer is off and unplugged. You'll open the desktop case, disconnect all internal hardware, and place the elements somewhere safe and static-free. Ensure all power supply cables are unplugged. Remove any screws securing the motherboard in place and carefully remove the motherboard tray.

How you proceed depends on whether you're reusing your old CPU and other hardware or installing new elements. Proceed carefully according to your motherboard's replacement instructions.

More Tips for Buying a Motherboard

Before purchasing your motherboard, consider these additional tips.

  • Ensure your motherboard can support these connections if your peripherals need specific connectors, such as USB 3.0eSATA, Thunderbolt, HDMI, or PCI-Express.
  • The components that motherboards support vary widely. The motherboard you choose may support only one CPU type and specific memory types.
  • Laptop motherboards aren't as easy to upgrade because they may include elements like video cards as built-in components.
  • Make sure any motherboard you're considering has adequate cooling mechanisms, particularly if you plan to overclock.
  • When connecting devices to your motherboard, you may also need to install device drivers, so they work correctly with your operating system.
  • Consider additional motherboard features and if they'll be helpful to you. For example, a motherboard may include onboard wireless, audio, or a RAID controller.
  • If you want to overclock your CPU, ensure your motherboard can handle the job concerning CPU multipliers and voltages.
FAQ
  • How do you pick the right case for a motherboard?

    If you're building a PC, you must make sure all the parts you need for your PC fit in the case, so get the exact dimensions of the motherboard and other components before deciding. Your motherboard will work in any case as long as it fits.

  • How do you pick a motherboard for gaming?

    Your motherboard must be compatible with your processor and other components and support the amount of RAM you intend to install. The best gaming motherboards include the ASUS ROG Maximus XI Hero (Intel) and the MSI MPG X570 Gaming Pro Carbon Wi-Fi motherboard (AMD).

  • How do I pick a sound card for a motherboard?

    Most standalone sound cards will perform better than ones integrated into the motherboard. Some of the best sound cards include the Creative Sound Blaster Z and the EVGA NU Audio Card.

  • How do I pick a GPU for a motherboard?

    Some GPUs are integrated into the CPU or motherboard, and others come as standalone cards. Either way, most GPUs are compatible with most motherboards. Some of the best graphics cards include the Nvidia RTX 3080 and the MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Super.

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