What’s in your Computer: Motherboards

Motherboards

The motherboard is perhaps the most important part of your PC, as it controls all of the other internal parts such as the hard drive, memory, graphics card and audio. Also known as a mainboard or system board, the motherboard is found not only in PCs, but many other electrical items such as TVs or even washing machines.

Basically, a motherboard is the central circuit board for your machine which relays information from one component to another, which plug in to the board via cables or expansion cards. Without one, your PC just won’t work at all; they can also be used by your PC repairman in order to diagnose any problems that may occur with other essential parts, such as memory and the processor.

Motherboards can cost anything from £40 to £300 (and more), depending on what you need your computer for and how much power you require. For example, many boards have an on-board GPU (graphics processing unit) which allows you to view your operating system on the monitor. However, they also generally have a slot on the board which allows you to fit an additional, more powerful card so that the machine is capable of gaming.

The motherboard connects to the BIOS (basic input/output system), which is basic software needed to run the computer when it’s first switched on, before the operating system loads. It also controls memory, which slots into the board, the CPU (central processing unit), graphics card, sound card (most machines have on-board sound, but sound specialists may want the extra power of a card), hard disc drives, DVD drives and various peripherals via the ports to the front and rear of the casing.

There are so many, which should I choose?

There are a lot of motherboards on the market and anyone intending to build their own machine should carry out their research thoroughly before making a commitment. For most of us, which board to choose will never be a consideration, unless we’re planning on building a machine from scratch.

However, there are a few basics that it never hurts to know, even if you’re not planning on fitting a motherboard yourself, just so that you understand when it comes to upgrades.

The first thing to read up on is whether the intended board will fit into the case you want, or have. The form factor is a standardised motherboard size and the most popular is ATX, with AT being a smaller version. It’s important that you discover which is which in order to ensure that the board can be mounted properly within the case. Most modern motherboards and cases use the ATX form factor, unless a special case is purchased.

CPU

Once it’s been established that the form factor is correct, then you have to consider what CPU the motherboard takes, as these vary in size and shape, depending on the manufacturer. Currently, Intel is at the top end of the game with a variety of processers, whilst AMD CPUs are less popular due to differing technology, this changes with time though and these two are fiercely competitive as the two biggest chip manufacturers in the world.

Basically, the CPU is the ‘brain’ of your computer and comes in two main types, 32 bit and 64 bit. The way they connect to the motherboard varies slightly, depending on which processor you choose. They come in a variety of speeds and at variable prices.

This means that before purchasing your motherboard, you have to know which processor is compatible with it. Further consideration will have to be made on the compatibility of every other part that plugs into the board, such as the type of memory used.

Chipset

This is an important part of the motherboard as it controls the system and its capabilities. A chipset communicates with other parts which are plugged into the board, such as the CPU. This can’t be upgraded or changed, it’s an integral part of the board and as such, may be something worth reading up on too before making any commitments.

AMD and Intel make chipsets which are compatible with their own processors, but there are also other reputable manufacturers such as VIA and Nvidia.

RAM (memory)

Many people confuse memory with the hard drive of a computer; the RAM is the main system memory and you will never access the information stored on it, whilst the hard drive is where the operating system and all of your personal files are found.

Many motherboards allow you to fit a minimum of two sticks of RAM, up to around 4GB and right now, this is generally DDR3. It’s worth taking into consideration what memory your board takes, so that you can upgrade in the future. If you buy a board that takes older RAM, then you will more than likely have to change the board if you upgrade.

It’s important when choosing a motherboard to do your reading, as you can see, in order to ensure that all of the parts you’re going to buy, or already have if upgrading, are compatible. Mistakes can be expensive, especially if you’re looking to have a top spec gaming computer; specialist gaming motherboards can be purchased if this is the case, with the option of adding up to four graphics cards, lots of memory, sound card and so on.

It’s also worth considering that there are many cheap boards on the market which may not necessarily be cost-effective in the long run. Spending that little bit extra on a reputable board that you’ve read good things about is a good idea when it comes down to the most important component in your PC.

The best motherboard manufacturers include Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, ASRock and Intel, although this is far from a comprehensive list. Gaming motherboards tend to be a fair bit more expensive than standard as they offer a lot of power and it’s vital to gamers that their machine is stable and capable.

It’s also well worthwhile thinking about the future and checking that the board is upgradable, so that more memory, larger hard drives, graphics cards, USB and sound cards can be added at a later date.

To sum up, there’s a lot of choice when it comes to choosing the best motherboard for your PC. If you’re a novice and don’t particularly want to get into the nitty gritty of what makes your PC tick, then it’s wise to buy one outright, or have one built to your specifications at a computer shop.

However, it never hurts to know what you’re buying so it’s wise to have a read-up first, so that you can effectively ensure that the machine is built to your requirements. A gaming machine is always going to be more expensive than a basic, entry-level PC so first, decide what you want, then do your research and you’re ready to go!

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