So, you are ready to build your dream laptop or desktop and you are pretty serious about the most important part of that - motherboard. Congratulations! You're in the right direction. So, how to choose a motherboard that satisfies your custom computing needs and can handle your future up-gradation?
So, the question comes down to some elemental issues:
- The motherboard is the foundation of any laptop or desktop.
- You will be able to choose the other components of your system after choosing a motherboard.
- Choosing and buying a motherboard defines the limit of the future expansion or up-gradation of other components.
- The performance of the processor or CPU greatly depends on the motherboard it’s housed on.
I bet, the simple question ‘How to choose a motherboard?’ is now appearing a bit foggy now.
Don’t worry, it’s more enigmatic than you think. While you are reading this article, the advancement of technology has upgraded a sea of newer models already. Hence, you have more choices. Means? You face more difficulties in choosing a motherboard.
Thus, ‘how to choose a motherboard’ starts with ‘knowing a motherboard’. Right?
So, what’s a motherboard?
In the layman’s way, it’s the skeleton of the entire computer system. This PCB or the printed circuit board is the base on which different components like CPU, GPU, and others communicate with each other through various connectors to run the complete process.
The collective system of circuits, power sockets, capacitors, and transistors builds the main organs of the computer body.
After that comes the slots, channels, and connectors to plug in other required sections and chipsets to bridge the relation between all of them and make a path for the entire life cycle of the data signals throughout the computer.
Although any kind of computing system such as smartphones to notebooks stands on a motherboard, the most common trend for buying a motherboard is still confined to typical desktop motherboards among the common buyers.
So, our job is to dissect the crucial components to help you with choosing a motherboard satisfying your specific needs.
The trick is to give it a forethought that whatever you are purchasing today, it’s going to accompany you tomorrow. Hence, it’s always wise to leave some space for future upgrades so that you can opt for an advanced facility anytime you want. The right choice is always on your hand on how precisely you know your needs.
Enough chit-chat. Let’s start with the components.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
How to choose a motherboard? Ohh...Choose processors/CPU first.
The most important decision before choosing a motherboard lies on the shoulder of CPU selection. Because other components make their ways with the brain based on their compatibility with it.
Both the leading manufacturers Intel and AMD offer basic to supreme levels of capability on their CPU ranges. And they are focused on researching more advancements day-by-day. Hence, regular buyers become easily confused over the variety of choices.
Our goal is to optimize your search on how to choose a motherboard, assembling all your present requirements under the lowest possible budget.
For basic requirements like simple web surfing, don't waste much on high-end processors. If your requirements demand app-heavy settings to run on a multi-core system, AMD’s Ryzen CPUs will serve you perfectly. If you are seeking for the highest gaming speed, try Intel’s less core-count but highly powerful performance.
Whereas Intel’s Core i3 processors are basic level options, Core i5 adds some more speed while running some not-so-heavy software. Though Intel has already marketed their Core i9 CPUs with 10th gen technology, running heavy software can still be no bar on 7th or 8th generation Core i7 processors.
Recently, AMD is giving a hard fight with their much affordable but powerful series of 3rd gen Ryzen CPUs ranging from a slim budget choice of Ryzen 3 3200G to highest-end ThreadRipper 3990WX. You may opt for quad-core Ryzen 3 processors instead of Core i3 ones while saving some more money.
And, then comes Ryzen 5, 7, 9, and ThreadRipper for more power-packed options. The hierarchy is similar to Intel Core processors. Ryzen 9 3950X is leading the future of 16-core CPUs. On that matter, Intel’s champion is Comet Lake chips with 10-core flagship technology promising to reach up to 5.1GHz boost.
Suffixes and Numbers in Intel CPU Names
Before making up your mind, run through the naming process of the CPUs in the official websites of both the companies so that you are well aware of what they mean. Such as the first digit (first two for 10th gen) indicates the generation and the last three numbers tell about the series number in the name of Intel Core processors.
If the end letter is ‘Y’, it’s for the highest performance users. ‘U’ mention says about ultra-low power consumption. ‘K’ marked CPUs offer to overclock, whereas ‘H’, and ‘G’ markings tell about powerful integrated graphics, and ‘Q’ designs provide 4-core solutions.
AMD CPU Name Elaboration
Technically, ‘G’ suffix mentions the existence of AMD Radeon Vega graphics chips in both Intel and AMD processors. ‘X’ lettered CPUs are the champion performers from AMD with the highest overclocking system, and ‘U’ says the same as in Intel. Here, ‘H’ talks about high-performance, whereas AMD desktop processors come with no suffix at all.
The first number in the name defines the generation as in Intel, but the second number defines performance level. The last two digits here are for series serial numbers, which also indicate SKU (Stock Keeping Unit).
Motherboard Sockets - The house of the Processor
You are done with the CPU by now, right? Let’s plug it in the motherboard. So, it’s the cue for the socket. Modern pin-based sockets attach the processor with the printed circuit board.
Each modern socket represents a pin package matching the hole-arrangement of their compatible CPU chips (or vice-versa). Hence, you can’t replace one with another.
That’s why you must check which one is compatible with your CPU selection. The official company sites provide lists on that.
AMD AM4 Socket
Most of the recent AMD CPUs can be installed on an AM4 socket with PGA-ZIF (Pin Grid Array-Zero Insertion Force) mechanism. It’s a unified socket to entertain current AMD APU to enthusiast processor lineage. It’s predecessor AM3+ was compatible with FX-series CPUs without graphics chips, whereas FM2 and FM2+ sockets were made for APUs, i.e., on-chip video integration CPUs. But most of these older technologies have reached a dead end.
AM4 has broadened its area of support for the largest group of CPUs including Ryzen members, Athlon, and 7th gen A-series without bothering much on the chipset selection.
Although AMD has planned to keep it for the long run and use it for a large range of latest consumer CPU families, newer AM4 mobos may not support the older AM4-compatible CPU models and vice-versa. Hence, it’s better to flip on the compatibility list before you give it a go with a definite CPU choice.
AMD TR4 or sTR4 Socket
This giant socket with 4096 pins sits under Ryzen Threadripper HEDT CPUs with Zen and Zen+ microarchitecture. This socket works on a special loading system with an LGA mechanism. AMD's Epyc server processors run on a similar socket system.
AMD TRX4 or sTRX4 Socket
This is a similar but more advanced socket system than TR4 models. With TRX40 chipset combination, these sockets attach the latest highest-end 3rd gen ThreadRipper processors.
Intel Socket LGA 1151
These days, the most common Intel socket is LGA 1151 with LGA-ZIF (Land Grid Array-ZIF) technology. LGA sockets offer more pin connections than PGA, but they are a bit fragile than the later. Whereas PGA sockets are also cost-effective, but the highest performance whips out from LGA connections.
Intel socket 1151 is compatible with Celeron and Pentium processors including the Core CPUs. Socket 1151 may have started its journey with 6th gen Core CPUs, the CPU and socket compatibility isn’t enough to run the entire system.
Because the chipset has similar importance on compatibility issues. Latest Coffee lake 8th and 9th gen Core CPUs only work with LGA 1151 socket connection if the chipset comes from the 300-series. And older 6th and 7th gen CPUs can’t be mounted on these boards with newer 1151 socket and chipset connectivity.
Intel Socket 2011 and 2066
Most power-packed Extreme Edition X-series Intel CPUs run on these two sockets. Among them, the current market is more aware with newer socket 2066 having 2066 pinheads than socket 2011.
Intel Core i7-6950X CPU ties up with socket 2011 and advanced Core i9-7980XE runs on socket 2066. Socket 2066 is the perfect combination with Core X-Series heavy-duty desktop (HEDT) CPUs and Xeon processors.
The basic idea of the chipset represents the combined motherboard hardware-software mechanism to manage the entire communicative system between different components. Hence, the chipset selection also has an impact on other sections like ports, slots, and various features, while buying a motherboard. Moreover, the chipset decides the relative arrangement of the feature set in the mobo.
Different chipsets entertain different microprocessors. Inside the mobo, there are mostly two sections of chipset namely north and southbridge sets. The northbridge attaches the CPU with high-powered components such as GPU and memory, and southbridge builds the connection between low-speed peripherals like ISA, PCI, and USB, audio, or Ethernet integrated peripherals.
No matter which chipset you select, it’s important to be cautious about the data transfer rate when you’re learning how to choose a motherboard. If you want speed on hardware-intensive tasks, don’t settle before 8x PCIe speed. Among Intel’s 300 series, Z370 can manage something better than everyday works, and H310, H370, Q370, or B360 are for ordinary budget-minded mobos. These are the similar traits in performance lineage as their predecessor 200-series chipsets.
Intel’s Z390 chipset is the most popular choice in modern motherboards with LGA 1151 sockets. Unlike other 300 series chipsets, this Z-series technology permits overclocking ability and is more power-efficient than the Z370 set. Pricey X299 is only for the geeky-stuff running the muscle-packed LGA 2066 motherboards. It’s the advancement over X99 made for socket 2011.
Most of the Intel chipsets don’t allow overclocking, except the Z-series. Whereas, AMD permits overclocking even with low-end X370 chipsets installed in AM4 mobos. X470 and X570 are more balanced hits on cost vs performance as they support 2nd-gen Ryzen and Raven Ridge CPUs with integrated graphics. B350 and A320 are two budget choices for Ryzen-compatible boards. AMD's enthusiast variant competitors of Core X-Series are the Ryzen Threadripper lineup, and all of them are tackled by a single X399 chipset model.
When you are buying a motherboard, you must be aware of how much space you can allot for your PC. Because, large desktop PCs are way bigger than a portable laptop you carry around, or the tiny HTPC (home theater PC) desktop sitting under the TV in your drawing room.
That said, the PC cases match the environment too, and so the size of the motherboard fitting into that. The technical name of the mobo size is the form factor. Apart from the size, they don’t differ in quality, but quantity.
Since the smaller space can’t carry a lot of features like the bigger factors. Then how to choose a motherboard of the right size as per your need? Compare the board limitations in the list below, and see how much they can carry.
If you are choosing a motherboard for a mid-tower to large tower PCs, the most favored option is the ATX or standard ATX factor. Among the three common factors, ATX and MicroATX options are also beneficial for your pocket and the heat management system of the PC over the Mini-ITX or MITX solutions. The smaller two factors are useful for mini-tower flat-designed chassis or HTPC cases.
Some multi-CPU boards for building workstation or server computers come in XL-ATX or Extended ATX forms, but these are of no use for regular customers.
How to Choose A Motherboard that Runs Fast? Yes, DIMM Slots and RAM.
DIMM or Dual-inline memory module houses the RAM sticks. Modern mobos come with two or four slots. Though you may see eight slots in larger boards.
Although DDR4 (Dual data rate 4) RAM sticks in identical pairs are the current standard, some older models still use DDR3 models. The dual-channel throughput makes a significant difference in data transfer rate over older single-channel technologies.
For instance, the performance of a 16GB RAM placed in a single channel is always lower than the performance of two 8GB paired sticks installed in dual-channel slots. Sometimes, these slots come painted with colors for better understanding.
Some hardware-heavy platforms like Core X-series processors opt for quad-channel memory with four or eight sticks for higher signal velocity. The quad-channel throughput increases a significant rate over dual-channel in the same manner than the later does over a single-channeled one.
As the board-size permits, you get the maximum space for RAM installation in most of the mobos. Feeling them all at once may cost you a lot. So, it’s better to increase the capacity later if budget-shortage is your headache for now. Normally, you get four slots in ATX boards, whereas MITX boards offer only two slots.
Actually, RAM is responsible for temporarily saving your work on screen before you do it manually. Also, it remembers the common applications you open all the time. The more RAM means, you can play more programs without a hiccup. Compared to the other components, these are not so expensive, and you won’t regret spending on them a bit. But, keeping more than your usage demand is always a wastage.
Today’s de facto standard is 16GB DDR4 memory. Because 4GB is never enough when Window 10 occupies 3GB. Every OS, even light as MacOS will eat some of it. Then comes the browser. Chrome browser demands around 2GB. Outlook and similar apps chew around 200MB each. Now you know, 5GB is what you need even for day-by-day stuff. The RAM requirement mostly depends on what software you are going to run on your PC.
- 2 GB: It’s only an option for budget tablets, and not even enough for smartphones these days.
- 4 GB: It’s a Chromebook standard and can run budget notebooks.
- 8 GB: Minimum requirement for Windows and macOS systems for entry-level gaming and light software installation.
- 16 GB: This one is your sweet spot for price and performance balance in a professional desktop.
- 32 GB: If your PC is a purpose-built workstation, you should consider this much. If you work in photo-editing fields, remember basic photo-editing apps demand 8GB to 16GB for standard choices.
- 64 GB: This is an overkill for ordinary demands. If your profession requires 8K video editing applications or similar hardware-intensive software, you must start with this RAM capacity.
Storage and Connectors
Gone are the days of HDD (Hard Disk Drive) spinning platters only. Modern PCs can’t even think of a situation without the faster SSD (Solid-state Drive) flash memory. But these are really expensive.
Hence, the budget-friendly tip is a combination of a smaller SSD for helping the OS and heavy programs, while you store large files in a larger HDD space. If you are wondering how to choose a motherboard supporting both of them, there are ways folks.
Among the main storage connectors, some are internal built, and some are open externally with the mobo. SATA interfaces are swarming in the modern market not only as storage connections but also for other optical drives and features. Just make sure that your SSD and HDD support the specific version.
Serial ATA or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment interface is responsible for connecting HDDs, SSDs, and optical components. The SATA connector in this drive attaches the SATA ports with the motherboard, while the wider SATA power connector bridges with the electric supply connection.
The third revision of the SATA interface SATA 3.0 flows data at 6GBps speed. Technically, you get 600MBps read-write speed in SATA SSDs instead of only 150MBps for HDDs. This technology churns out the best result when the motherboard and the drives are tuned with the same SATA version. SATA ports are also compatible with RAID functions and similar.
Though some mobos provide a lot of SATA ports, buying a motherboard with more than six SATA ports is overkill in most cases.
The market is already acquainted with newer SATA 3.X technologies offering more speed but a bit of different connectivity. SATA 3.2 runs on the M.2 mechanism, and some are also offering the added advantage of NVMe storage protocol through PCIe bus for larger bandwidth even in a low power consumption state.
That’s not the end, as these connections have even more to offer in different directions including a lower latency system. NVM Express or NVMe SSDs can read the data at 3GBps velocity and write at 1.5GBps speed. They come in both card forms installed in PCIe slots, and other compact factors can be attached through the M.2 connector.
Modern M.2 form factors come in various sizes to house high-end features including SSDs. Their compact and advanced avatar is removing the mSATA standard. The M.2 connectors and expansion cards internally mount all the current bus interfaces like USB 3.0, SATA 3.0, PCIe 3.0.
When you are choosing a motherboard, you must go for at least one M.2 slot. Two of them are sufficient for a professional mobo. And if they provide an attached thermal cooling solution, they should be self-sufficient for whatever you throw at them.
PCIe Expansion Slots
PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slots are basically the extension bus for installing graphics and audio cards and network-connectivity chips like Wi-fi adapters. PCIe x16 slots offer the highest speed for GPU support. Though the data flow remains mostly under an 8x speed range, which is sufficient for high-end graphics compatibility.
Modern standards mostly offer 3rd gen PCIe channels. Although the 4th generation PCI express has already launched in the market and high-definition motherboard manufacturers are competing over those better features to provide the highest potential for their customers,
Today’s most common PCIe slots are x16, x4, and x1 types. Moreover, shorter-length but open-ended channels of x4 and x1 can be connected inside the longer slots. And high-speed channels work perfectly with low-speed compatibility chips.
Therefore, it’s always better to have more than one x16 slot in your mobo, instead of having many x4 slots. Because the x1 channels suffice the need for low-bandwidth cards.
The numerical quantity of these slots doesn’t mean getting the full advantage from them. As high-speed cards can only be mounted on similar high-end PCIe (at least 8x speed) or High-speed Input/Output (HSIO) channels.
Sometimes, the wrong arrangement can confine the potential of long PCIe lanes, as some PCIe M.2 drives can block a few SATA ports. Similarly, installing heavy cards on the third channel can keep the first two lanes from working.
Therefore it is advisable to read the manual before buying a motherboard with a lot of bucks to check on the settings of its components.
Generally, Intel’s purpose-built Core X platforms provide around 44 channels based on the on-board CPU. But these bandwidth-hungry beasts are of no use in day-to-day life.
If you are planning on using a single dedicated video card, you should put it in an x16 lane with the full potential of the same bandwidth. In the case of multi-card GPU support, both graphic chips may not run on the same speed, as they go down to 8x speed, or sometimes one with x16, and other with x4 confinement. Learn about the bandwidth specs before splurging money on it.
MOSFETs and Capacitors
Low-resistance RDS(on) MOSFET transistors regulate the voltage in the motherboard. Sometimes, they remain hidden under heatsink for better thermal control. More MOSFETs can always provide better control of voltage regulation.
Further, drum-like capacitors are used for holding electrical charges. Solid-state capacitors outrun the electrolytic ones on the fact of leakage control.
All the modern motherboards provide the main power supply connection through 24-pin (mostly 12-pin division in each lane, sometimes 20 and 4-pin division for older cases) ATX power connector.
‘+12V’ CPU power connector (near CPU socket) provides a separate source for power supply than the 24-pin main connector.
PWM Fan Header
These four-pin (sometimes three-pin) Pulse-width Modulation (PWM) fan headers connect the fans in the motherboard chassis. Having enough of them in your mobo gives you better control over fan speed.
Game developers are focused in such a way that a single high-power GPU can make your day perfect for almost all gaming purposes. But if you are developing and testing professional games, multi-GPU support may become your concern. AMD CrossFireX (CFX) and NVIDIA SLI platforms are the leading technologies focused on that purpose.
The multiple cards are connected using a high-bandwidth bridge connector rising the data flow substantially.
AMD CrossFireX is the current name of the older CrossFire mechanism. The third revision of this technology started using SLI-type CFBI linking (CrossFire Bridge Interconnect), which connects at the top of each GPU adapter.
The advancement in CrossFireX technology made sure not to confine faster GPU’s clock for another model from the same GPU family. Therefore, it is now possible to infuse two different cards with different clock velocity in a series connection.
AMD’s hybrid CrossFireX model makes communication between onboard graphics chips with some specified dedicated cards using northbridge technology. This feature is totally different from the CFX or SLI bridge connection.
The oldest bridging technology SLI (Scalable Link Interface) is the updated form of Scan-Line Interleaving technology from 3dfx manufacturers.
Two-way SLI Configuration: Here, the Split Frame Rendering (SFR) system couples two video cards.
Three-way SLI Layout: The Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR) mechanism is able to communicate between three cards.
Four-way SLI Design: For merging the potential of four GPU chips, NVIDIA used AFR engineering over SFR.
Theoretically, the GTX 1000 series Pascal cards allow only two cards to be mounted with SLI bridging, although they don’t work properly on this interface.
Generally, the SLI or CFX connector is delivered with your motherboard providing the corresponding support. Only the highest-build mobos offer both CFX and SLI compatibility. But they also need sufficient PCIe x16 lanes to use up the complete potential.
These mean devices also take care of metal-protection and heat sink connectivity to reduce thermal throttling. But the improper arrangement of steel-armors or heat sinks can waste the allocated space for long graphics cards.
Before buying a motherboard, look through the I/O section offering all the external connecting ports. Having a USB header can give you more connectors if you need to attach a lot of devices.
- Video ports: HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI-D are used with integrated graphics. Discrete cards are equipped with their own.
- USB 2.0: Low-bandwidth connections as a mouse, dongle, keyboard, or similar can be connected.
- USB 3.0 or 3.1 Gen 1 (USB 3.2 Gen 1 as the third name): High-speed ports used by most peripherals.
- USB 3.1 Gen 2 (USB 3.2 Gen 2 now): Double speed (10GBps) over USB 3.0 connects special accessories.
- USB Type-C: USB 3.1 Gen 1 or 2 communicate with the latest devices like phones.
- USB 3.2 or USB 3.2 Gen 2x2: Double-speed over USB 3.2 Gen 2.
- PS/2: Older mouse, keyboard connector.
- Audio jack: Supports wired speakers, headphones, and microphones.
- Optical Audio: Advanced soundbars or surround systems can be attached here.
- Thunderbolt 3: Highest-bandwidth of 40GBps. These rarest ports are presented via discrete add-on cards.
Modern mobos already provide standard quality HD audio codec chips with Analog Audio Front Panel (AAFP) cable. Sometimes you get DAC connections for advanced options. You can also install them later or even the dedicated sound cards converting analog technology into digital.
So make sure of choosing a motherboard compatible with these future upgrades.
Only the high-demanding games or professional jobs call for this feature. Most of the AMD Ryzen chips including A300 budget chipsets come bearing this mechanism. In the case of Intel, only Z-series chipsets combined with “K” mentioned CPUs are unlocked for overclocking. Not to mention, high-definition X299 chipset connecting Skylake X processors always come with these settings.
Though there is an option for AI-tuning, the manual overclocking is always better for controllability.
Aesthetics is not an area of concern as far as performance is the chief player. Both in laptop and desktop, motherboards stay well covered by the cabinet or the calm shell body cover in case of laptops.
Still, there are some minor issues like RGB lit ports with indicators and the arrangement of the ports. The more vertical the ports are, the more problematic it becomes for obtaining a clean arrangement for the external devices.
It’s completely your choice. You know the best about your fat wallet. But, technically, any budget is the thin line between your need and your dream. Personally, I prefer the need all the time and you should too.
On the other hand, the budget for a gaming motherboard is never the same with an entry or mid-level all-purpose motherboard. So, your specific need is the main player here. Added to this, always remember, you will have to buy equally powerful parts for a powerful motherboard to yield the performance. And, flashy features like dual-ethernet ports and CMOS buttons can wait a bit as your future expansion.
Motherboard Features that You Probably Don’t Need
Everyone has a specific budget and often, that budget turns out to be the most important factor in choosing and buying a motherboard. On the other hand, a more expensive motherboard means it has more features. Longer the list of the features, better the motherboard. Right?
And, this is where we get misdirected and worthlessly pay bucks for the features that we do not need. Yes, the longest list of features does not ensure that it’s the best motherboard for you. Maybe you are overshooting for the features that you will never use.
Likewise, these following features are rarely used in common computing:
- More than 6 SATA ports - Unless you are building a server that requires more than 6 SATA SSD lanes on your motherboard, even with NVMe SSDs, opting for more than 6 SATA ports is not realistic.
- Opting for 10 GBPS Ethernet port - Most of the home internet connections offer 100 MBPS speed which is 10% of the standard 1GBPS GigaBit ethernet bandwidth. Unless you are backing up a sea of media files into your local network, 1GBPS ethernet port is enough for most of the computation tasks.
- Opting for more than 1 ethernet port - Without the requirement of bonding/teaming (the technique of integrating 2 physical ethernet ports into a single port) 1 ethernet port is more than needed. Nowadays, most of the home computers use a central Wifi hub to access the web and now even budget motherboards are coming with inbuilt wifi cards along with ethernet ports.
- Premium Integrated Audio Card - Non-premium or standard sound cards are enough to deliver an awesome level of media experience. Further, if your headset or your speakers, attached to your computer, are not that smart, then opting for a premium audio card is a bad decision.
- Opting for a Video Port - Does your CPU have an integrated GPU on top of it? If it’s not old school, then probably not. Then you do not require a separate video port. Lately, almost all of the existing and upcoming motherboards have separate slots for the dedicated GPU cards.
Ok. We are at the fag end of this article. I bet, this article will help you to solve the cardinal issue- 'how to choose a motherboard', both technically and commercially. Having said that, this is not the only Bible on choosing a motherboard but it will help you to reach the best motherboard that you need for sure.