Buyer's Guide to PC Motherboards

Tips on selecting the right motherboard for your desktop PC

Motherboards are the backbone of all personal computer systems. The choice of a motherboard determines the type of processor you can use, how much memory it can store, what peripherals can be connected to it, and what features it can support. Accordingly, it is important to know what to look for when selecting the right motherboard for your needs.

Standard- and Micro-ATX motherboard, and a Mini-iTX motherboard
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Processor (CPU) Support

A motherboard typically has a specific processor socket type. This socket determines the physical packaging of the AMD or Intel processor that can be installed on it. Also, the motherboard's chipset determines what specific model processors can be used with the motherboard.

It's best to get an idea of what processor you intend to use with your desktop computer before choosing a motherboard.

Motherboard Size or Form Factor

Do you want to put together a feature-packed desktop tower for lots of performance? Maybe you want something a bit more compact? Motherboards come in three traditional sizes: ATX, micro-ATX (mATX), and mini-ITX. Each of these is defined by the specific dimensions the boards have.

The physical size of the board also has implications for the number of onboard ports and slots it can support. For example, an ATX board often features around five total PCI-Express and PCI slots. An mATX board generally only has three total slots. The mini-ITX board is so small that it typically only features a single PCI-Express x16 graphics card slot. The same is true for the memory slots (four for ATX, two or four for mATX, two for mini-ITX) and SATA ports (six or more for ATX, four to six for mATX, two to four for mini-ITX).

Memory

The chipset plays a direct role in selecting which processor should be used with which motherboard. The chipset also determines the type and speed of RAM that can be installed.

The motherboard size and the number of memory slots determine the total amount of memory that can be installed. Consider how much memory you will need, and if you want the ability to add more later.

Expansions Slots and Connectors

The number and type of expansion slots and connectors are important for what will be placed in the computer. If you have peripherals that require a specific connector or slot type (such as USB 3.0, eSATA, Thunderbolt, HDMI, or PCI-Express), get a motherboard that supports that type of connection. It is possible to get an expansion card to add some connectors, but these often perform better when integrated into the motherboard chipset.

Features

Features are extras added to the motherboard that are not required for operation but are useful to have. These features can include onboard wireless, audio, or a RAID controller. If the board has more features than you need, it is not a problem since many can be turned off in the motherboard's BIOS. These features can save money by not requiring additional expansion cards.

Overclocking

If you plan on overclocking a processor, make sure the board supports it. For instance, the chipset must be able to support adjustment of the CPU multipliers and voltages, which not all chipsets allow. If you are not sure which motherboard you have, here's how to find out your motherboard model.

Also, motherboards that offer improved power management and solid capacities can offer a better level of stability. Finally, overclocking can stress the components, so any additional heat-dissipating elements can also be beneficial if you plan to do some major overclocking.