What is a motherboard?

The motherboard is an essential component of a computer, most of the computer components are installed on the motherboard in the same way that most parts of a vehicle are attached to its chassis.

Asus Prime Z590-A Motherboard

What is it used for?

A computer is made up of many different elements (called components): RAM memory, CPU, hard drive, graphics card, sound card, network card for example. The motherboard allows these different components to communicate with each other so that the computer can function. In the case of desktop computers, some of these components are removable and can be replaced easily. Whereas in the case of laptops most of them are soldered to the motherboard and therefore cannot be replaced.

What are the different motherboard form-factors?

Laptop motherboards have no standard format in general, they are made by the manufacturer for a specific laptop model and cannot be replaced by that of another model. This is also the case for the motherboards of some desktop computers from major brands such as Acer, Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo for example. However there are several standard form-factors for the motherboards used in desktop computers depending on their dimensions. The most common form-factors are:

  • Extended ATX (EATX) with a size of 305 mm x 330 mm (12″ x 13″). These motherboards have many slots (connectors) but will not fit in all computer cases due to their size.
  • ATX with a size of 305 mm x 244 mm (12″ × 9.6″). It is the most common form factor for desktop computers motherboards.
  • Micro ATX (MATX) with a size of 244 mm x 244 mm (9.6″ × 9.6″). They are used in small form-factor computer cases and sacrifice a few slots (connectors).
  • Mini-ITX with a size of 170 mm x 170 mm (6.7″ x 6.7″). For even smaller form-factor cases, office computer or home theater PC for example.

What are the  main characteristics of a motherboard?

As we said before, motherboards allow the different components of the computer to communicate with each other. They have many characteristics, and the main ones are:

  • CPU socket: AM4 for AMD CPUs, FCLGA1151, FCLGA1200 or FCLGA1700 for Intel CPUs in 2021.
  • Motherboard Chipset: The chipset is an integrated circuit soldered on the motherboard that manages the communication between the CPU and other components (memory and peripherals for instance). The two main CPU manufacturers, Intel and AMD, provide chipsets compatible with their CPUs to the motherboard manufacturers. A chipset is only compatible with certain generations of CPUs, which means that the motherboard will only work with certain CPUs. The list of CPUs supported by the motherboard can be found in the documentation or on the manufacturer’s website.
  • RAM memory slots (connectors): Most motherboards have 2 or 4 RAM memory slots. This number determines the maximum amount of RAM memory that can be installed in the computer.
  • PCI Express (or PCIe) slots (connectors): these slots are used to install graphics cards, sound cards, additional network cards for example. They have different speeds depending on their use and the motherboard will have more or less of these slots depending on its form-factor.
  • Connectors for internal storage units (hard disks, DVDs): nowadays they are either SATA or M.2 connectors and they allow you to connect hard disks, CD / DVD / Blu-Ray readers or writers for example. Their number will depend on the chipset and the size of the motherboard.
  • Connectors for external peripherals: these connectors are usually found on the front or back of the computer case and they are used to connect printers, external hard drives, keyboards, mice, screens, speakers for example. They have many different types: USB, PS2, Ethernet, Jack, HDMI, DVI, VGA, DisplayPort, etc … and their number and types vary a lot from one motherboard to another.

Price and choice of a motherboard

The choice of a motherboard will depend on the usage of the computer, many basic motherboards cost only a few tens of euros or dollars and provide everything needed for a light usage of the computer while others can cost several hundred euros or US dollars and offer much more advanced possibilities. The choice of motherboard is also linked to the choice of the CPU, the two form a couple and must be compatible with each other. We will see in a later post how to change the motherboard of a computer.

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