If you're looking to build your PC or buy a pre-assembled PC that you might want to expand or upgrade later, then there's a component that will serve you basic. That component is the motherboard and is an incredibly important piece of the PC. It determines many of the other components you'll have to choose from, such as the processor that will be used in the new PC.
After you choose a CPU, the motherboard will be the next component to select for the build. We divide the selection of the motherboard in a few simple steps.
Before we start, though, here's a great tip. One way to simplify your decision is to use Pangoly's comparison feature. If you go to Pangoly's Motherboard Comparison Page, you can select up to four motherboards and get a detailed look at how many of the topics discussed in this article compare.
What is a motherboard?
A motherboard is a circuit board (PCB) that creates a kind of skeleton that allows a variety of components to communicate with each other and that provides different connectors for components such as the central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, and storage. Most computers made today, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktop computers, use motherboards to put everything together, but the only type you typically buy are those to assemble a desktop PC.
Looking at the motherboard from top to bottom, you see a collection of circuits, transistors, capacitors, slots, connectors, heat sinks and more that combine to route signals and power throughout the PC, allowing you to connect all required components. It is a complicated product and many technical details go beyond the scope of this guide. However, some of these details are important to your purchase decision and we'll discuss them below.
While you're deciding on the right motherboard, you'll need to make sure it meets your needs both today and tomorrow. If you know you'll never want to upgrade your PC beyond its original configuration, you can choose a motherboard that provides exactly what you need. But if you think you want to expand your PC later, make sure your motherboard supports your needs as they grow.
Perhaps the first decision to make is which CPU you want to use as your PC's brain, which means choosing between two companies: Intel and AMD. Both offer CPUs ranging from entry-level options good enough for web browsing, productivity and low-end games to ultra-powerful beasts that can handle video editing projects and run today's most demanding games with high frames per second (FPS). Both companies constantly update their processors, so this information can become obsolete very quickly. Which is right for you will depend on your needs, for example if you are more concerned about apps that can use multiple processor cores (which could favor AMD's Ryzen processors) or if you are more concerned about games that benefit from the single fastest core (which could benefit Intel Core processors).
Once you've decided which CPU is best for you, you'll have to choose a motherboard that uses the right socket and chipset. Basically, a processor socket is the mechanism by which a CPU is firmly connected to a motherboard. A chipset is the motherboard software and hardware that combine to allow all the various components to communicate.
Sockets and chipsets to know
Here's a list of some recent sockets:
You need to select a motherboard with the right chipset and socket for the CPU you intend to purchase. It's also important to know that different chipsets support different combinations of components such as RAM, GPUs, and others.
As you search and compare motherboards, you'll need to make sure everything you want to buy is supported. If you use the Pangolycomparison tool, you can have a good idea which motherboard is best for your new PC.
Motherboards come in different sizes, which means you have some flexibility in building your PC to fit your environment. If you have a lot of space, you may want to use a full-size case tower, while if you're building a home theater (HTPC) PC intended to fit under your room's TV, you'll probably want a much smaller model. That's why motherboards come in various sizes or form factors, and these standards define not only the size of the motherboard, but also the number of components they tend to support. There are variations in the latter, but in general, the greater the physical size of the motherboard, the more components it will support. Not all homes support all form factors, so we recommend making sure your motherboard and case are compatible.
Motherboard form factors to know
Here are some of the most popular form factors and their most common specifications:
These are the general guidelines for some of the most common motherboard form factors. There are more and they vary in their abilities. The most important thing is to decide the size of the case you want to buy, how many components you want to configure now and in the future, and then choose the motherboard shape factor that best suits your needs.
Motherboards can connect a variety of components in addition to the CPU, including graphics cards, sound cards, network cards, storage devices and connections, and many more. Over the years there have been many types of expansion doors. Today, you'll be primarily have to work with PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) ports, with some motherboards also including PCI slots for legacy devices.
PCIe is the most important port and one you'll use to connect most components today. There are four sizes of PCIe slots and the last common standard is PCIe 3.0. These four dimensions determine both the throughput of the connection and its size: we recommend that you make sure that you have enough expansion slots and that they are the right size to support all your present and future needs.
The four slot sizes are x1, x4, x8, and x16, with x4 and x16 the most common. Motherboards vary widely based on the number of slots they include and also their placement. You'll want to make sure you have enough slots and have enough space around them to fit all the required components.
All PCs need a way to produce information in a visual format that we humans can use. Simply put, this means displaying images on a monitor. The component that performs this feature on a typical PC is the graphics card or GPU, and you'll need to make sure that your motherboard can support the type of GPU you need for your intended use.
Some Intel Core CPUs have built-in GPUs that provide the means to view output on a monitor, and AMD has its own version of the same thing called a accelerated processing unit (APU) that combines a CPU with a GPU on the same package. These are relatively low-power GPUs that are great for normal productivity activities, but only support less graphically demanding games.
If you need a more powerful GPU, both for games and for more challenging applications like video editing that can use a GPU for faster processing, you'll probably need to buy a dedicated GPU. In that case, keep in mind which types of GPUs you can connect to your motherboard and also how many GPUs your motherboard can support.
How to connect your GPU
Today, most GPUs connect via PCIe slots and most use PCIe x16 slots. In addition, most contemporary GPUs require PCIe 3.0 or later. The final requirement is the available width for each PCIe slot, and many GPUs require a width of two slots. This can block some PCIe x1 slots and make them inaccessible. Note that some GPUs can only use the 75 watts of power provided by the PCIe slot, but that most GPUs require more power via six-pin or eight-pin connectors from a sufficiently capable power supply.
When choosing your motherboard, therefore, you'll need to make sure it provides the right kind of PCIe slot. This means carefully checking the GPU specifications and comparing them with the specifications of the motherboard. If you want to connect two or more GPUs, called "Scalable Link Interface" or AMD's SLI and Crossfire, you'll need two pcIe slots available and a compatible motherboard.
A CPU needs a place to store information while your PC is up and running. It's called "random access memory," or RAM, and today PCs commonly come with at least 4 GB of RAM. The amount of RAM required for a PC depends on how you plan to use it, and 8 GB is typically a safe recommendation for users, with 16 or more GB being a good bet for discerning users.
Today's RAM connects to a motherboard via a rectangular slot named after the type of RAM in use today: the double inline memory module (DIMM). The number of DIMM slots on a motherboard determines the amount of RAM you can add and generally ranges from two to eight slots. You can add one RAM module at a time, but you'll get the best performance when you install RAM in paired pairs.
The capacity ranges from 1 GB TO 128 GB DIMM, the latter extremely expensive and generally purchased for use on servers. Most consumer PCs will have a total of 4 GB at 64 GB and RAM is generally purchased in kits of two or four DIMM modules. For example, if you were looking to equip your PC with 16 GB of RAM, you typically buy a kit with two 8 GB DIMMs or four 4 GB DIMMs.
When you select your motherboard, make sure it has enough slots, it can support all the RAM you plan to set up and can support the fastest RAM you'll want to buy.
To use your PC, you'll need a place to store your operating system, apps, and data when power is off. Today, this means choosing between a hard drive (HDD) with rotating plates that store data and solid state drives (SSDs) that store data in a much faster flash memory. HDDs are typically less expensive for more storage, while SSDs are more expensive but offer higher speeds and are great for containing the operating system and applications.
There are some main storage connectors that you should consider when buying your motherboard. This includes both the types of connections and how many connections you'll have to add storage to your PC. Some of these connections are internal and some are external.
The most common storage connection today is serial ATA or SATA. SATA is in its third review and SATA 3.0 is a connection that provides a transfer rate of up to six gigabits per second (Gb/s). This translates into up to 600 megabytes per second (600 MB/s) in read and write speeds for SATA SSDs and typically significantly less than 150 MB/s in read and write for HDD.
You can purchase both HDD and SDD that support SATA 3.0 connections, and motherboards can contain several SATA ports. There are variants of SATA 3.X that offer higher speeds and slightly different connections, including the SATA 3.2 revision that uses an M.2 form factor.
An increasingly common type of storage connection is NVM Express or NVMe,which connects via the PCIe bus. This is a newer protocol that offers more bandwidth, less power, less latency, and other benefits. Common NVMe SSDs today can provide theoretical speeds of more than 3 GB/s in reading and 1.5 GB/s in writing. NVMe SSDs come in two form factors, cards that connect to PCIe slots, and compact versions that connect to M.2 connections.
Other motherboard connections you need to know
Some connections are located directly on the motherboard or inside the case and are sometimes thought to connect to the doors on the front, top, side or back of a case, as well as other internal and external components. We recommend that you consider which ports are supported by the case and make sure that the motherboard provides the required internal connections, and the same applies to other additions. These connections include a variety of built-in connectors that are used to support items such as fans, external USB ports, RGB lighting systems, and a variety of manufacturer-specific proprietary products.
For example, the case might have multiple USB ports that require internal connection. In addition, some water cooling systems require connection to software that controls lighting and thermal sensors. You'll need to make sure your motherboard includes all the ports you need to support all these types of add-ons and case features.
So the more complex your new PC is, the more you will have to dig into the choice of your motherboard.