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How to Choose a Motherboard: A Complete Guide
February 1, 2020
Many consumers buy a laptop or desktop without giving much thought to the motherboard. But if you are looking to upgrade your PC or build one from scratch, knowing the ins and outs of this essential component is a must.
What role does a motherboard play in your computing experience? How can you pick the right one for your needs? Learn all about purchasing a motherboard in this guide.
What is a motherboard?
The motherboard is one of the most important parts of your computer. This is the circuit board that almost every other component plugs into, from sticks of RAM to your wireless internet adapter.
Because it’s designed to integrate all of the components, your motherboard must be of high quality. This does not necessarily mean expensive, since you can often find them on sale. The motherboard role is essential, and if you experience lag, delay, or computing errors, a failing motherboard may very well be the reason.
How to choose a motherboard
In addition to investing in a brand and model that’s reputable, such as the Gigabyte Aorus AX370 Gaming 5 or the ASRock X299E-ITX/AC. Whichever motherboard you choose, make sure that it meets these criteria:
- The slot type matches your components
- The number of expansion slots is adequate for your ongoing computing needs
- The size of the motherboard works with your desktop PC
We’ll explore how to get these three choices right, as well as other considerations you’ll want to make when picking the correct motherboard for your needs.
Of course, price is also a factor. Within each category of motherboard, there are premium and economy models. Depending on what you'll use your computer for, as well as how many hours a day you'll use it, you can choose within each category to see how much you'll need to spend.
Know your sockets and slots
If you have decided on a CPU or you are replacing a motherboard in an existing computer, be sure that the type of sockets on the board match the CPU. There are a few different types, with the most common being AM4 and LGA 1151v2, but there are variations to be aware of.
Look at the motherboard and read the specifications in the product description or packaging and compare it to the documentation for your CPU.
Inserting the CPU into the motherboard is a matter of snapping it in, so if you find that you are experiencing too much resistance, double-check that you have compatible sockets. Sockets are defined by the size and number of pins.
A Socket 775 has 775 pins, for example. With the exception of the Socket7, which has 321 pins, most socket type numbers match their pin count.
In addition to the CPU socket type, it’s useful to understand the other different kinds of slots on a motherboard. They generally fall into these types:
- PCI and AGP slots, where graphics, sound, and other card types are installed
- RAM slots, such as a DIMM and RIMM, which are specifically for sticks of memory
- BIOS slot, where the BIOS (basic input/output system) chip sits and the battery for the BIOS
- Power connector slots
- SATA, IDE, or optical disc drive connector slots for the storage system
There will also be connectors for the cabinet of the computer, where other lights, buttons, and connections will all feed in to. Most consumers don’t need to worry about these things because they come together on their own and are considered internal connections. You won’t be making changes to them.
RAM and expansion needs
RAM can make or break how your computer performs. If you don’t have enough installed, you can have a subpar experience that makes gaming or process-intensive activities impossible. If you’ve figured out that your issues are related to RAM or you know that you’ll upgrade it in the future, it pays to invest in a motherboard with plenty of RAM slots.
While there are a few small motherboards with room for just 2 sticks of RAM, the norm is 4 to 8. You don’t have to fill all of them; just buy a motherboard with these spaces available for future upgrades.
RAM comes in sticks, measured by 8GB or 16GB per stick. Read the documentation and specs for your chosen motherboard to see the total RAM it supports. There’s a big difference between room for 4 sticks of 8GB RAM and 4 sticks of 16GB RAM.
How many slots do you need on a modern motherboard? Figuring this out ahead of time can help you buy the right product. There are 3 major types of motherboards, with slightly different sizes and plug/slot allotments. They range from ATX motherboards (the most) to the Mini-ITX (the fewest).
At a minimum, you’ll need slots for:
- USB ports, including the traditional USB 2, and newer USB 3/USB 3.1 and USB Type-C
- HDMI and DisplayPort Video
- Thunderbolt 3
- Graphics card
- Hard drive (solid-state or HDD)
- SATA drives port
- WiFi card
- Ethernet ports
- Bluetooth adapter port
Adding RAM is one of the most common tasks that happens long after you choose your motherboard. Many games and applications can use up memory quickly, so adding sticks of RAM to your existing motherboard can give you the power you need.
Installing RAM to your motherboard is fairly simple, provided you have the extra slots to do so. Be sure you anticipate future memory needs when you buy a motherboard and leave enough empty slots for expansion.
Why size matters
Motherboards come in all shapes and sizes. Some are designed specifically for the slim design of a laptop or all-in-one desktop computer. Others are made to take up more space inside large gaming desktop towers.
While there isn't necessarily a "laptop motherboard" and "desktop motherboard" designation, some fit more naturally into the available space. Remember that you will need room for not only the motherboard but the components you snap into it. Make sure that your chosen motherboard is well-suited in size even after you plug in the other parts.
Pricing your motherboard
Motherboard prices range greatly, and they depend on the number and type of slots and how you'll use it. It's possible to get one for less than $100, and brands will often determine how much you'll pay for similar features. Intel®, for example, will be priced higher than an off-brand motherboard, but you'll have the customer service, warranty, and support of the Intel team.
It’s possible to invest hundreds of dollars or more in your motherboard, but the typical user will have no need for the highest-end products designed for enterprise-level computing or a professional gaming PC.
It’s a good idea to go with a name brand if you are just building your first computer and may need to avail yourself of their support. If you are confident in your troubleshooting skills, going with a lesser-known brand will save you some money.
If money is tight, use the port calculations we mentioned above to determine the minimum you’ll need from a motherboard. You’ll find a variety of products that fit your specifications, priced according to optional features.
While it may be tempting to buy the lowest-priced model, don’t buy one that may be inadequate for your needs in just a few months or even a year. If you think it’s likely you’ll need to install additional RAM, for example, don’t try to save by buying a motherboard that leaves no option for expansion. You’ll end up paying to upgrade the entire motherboard, which is certainly more expensive than just buying the more flexible option from the jump.
How to choose a motherboard for a gaming computer
Gamers need more power, memory, storage, and speed from their computer. To support those ambitious goals, it is essential to have a robust motherboard solution. Have you wondered how to choose a motherboard for gaming, specifically? Consider these tips.
Gaming motherboards are ideal for those who plan to overclock their CPU. Remember that overclocking can void your computer warranty, but if you’re willing to take the risk (and many gamers are), you need a motherboard that can handle the demands of an 8th Generation Intel Core i7 processor or higher, or an AMD Ryzen™ processor.
Don’t consider the motherboard as just one piece of the puzzle. Overclocking requires more than just a premium motherboard.
You need additional fan or liquid cooling, as well as a CPU that can run those processes. In the end, you have to decide the right combination for your gaming pursuits. For many, a fully-loaded, pre-built gaming computer has all you need, which means you don’t need to worry about picking a motherboard.
Other motherboard features to consider
Most of us won’t consider motherboard requirements beyond what we already discussed. But there are some additional perks, and the popular extras that you can find on today’s motherboards include:
LED lights that highlight issues
These are available on the more expensive boards and can tell you, at a glance, if a component isn’t compatible or may be faulty. It’s a nice-to-have feature for anyone building their own PC and anyone who wants some additional feedback on whether they are putting everything together correctly.
There are also purely decorative lights that add some personality to your machine.
If you need to disrupt the power supply from the motherboard to the components on a part-by-part basis, additional switches could be handy. Some also include reset switches to give your components a full power reboot. It’s not really something most people look for, so consider it a bonus feature that shouldn’t make or break your purchase.
Built-in WiFi capability
Instead of adding it as a separate component, some boards include built-in WiFi.
If you are a casual gamer or use your computer for basic office tasks, you probably won’t deal with overheating. However, serious gamers and overclockers should be on the lookout for additional temperature safeguards in addition to cooling towers and high-powered fans.
One of these safeguards could come in the form of a motherboard that keeps an eye on internal temps and lets you know if your circuit board is in danger of overheating.
Additional power slots
The more complex your motherboard features, the more power it will use. Prepare to see more than one power cord slot on deluxe models. While they are necessary to power these high-end products, it’s not the norm for most motherboards. If you see that your motherboard comes with two, it could be an indication of the power it will use. It’s up to you to decide if that’s something you need.
Additional USB slots
Some motherboards come with a place to run a cable to the case where you can insert more USB slots. While all motherboards come with some level of USB functionality, not all will have a way to easily expand the number of slots. Consider this if you frequently use your computer to charge your devices or if you use a lot of accessories.
All of this information may seem like overload, and it’s definitely a lot to take in for a first-time motherboard shopper. But when it’s time to choose the right motherboard for your computer, there are a few questions you can ask to narrow down the large field of available products.
- Do I want an AMD or Intel processor?
- What CPU am I interested in using? What slots and chipset work with that CPU?
- Will I need a small profile motherboard for a laptop or slim desktop?
- How many slots do I need at a minimum? How many would be nice to have?
- Will I be gaming heavily or do I have an interest in overlocking my computer?
- What’s my price range?
With any shopping choice, it's wise to rank these answers by order of importance. You may be a serious gamer and need 8 RAM slots but only want to spend $100. In that case, you have to decide what's more important: budget or performance.
By deciding ahead of time what your "must haves" are compared to your "nice to haves," you're more likely to walk away from the buying process feeling satisfied with your pick.
About the Author: Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.