Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What's a Motherboard?

The motherboard may seem like the most intimidating part of the whole computer. This is the largest chip that is fastened into the computer case. Everything that is part of a computer goes through this chip. Despite its complex look, there are only a few things you need to know about it.

Most of what you need to know is where the CPU, RAM and expansion slots are located. Everything else is either explained in the motherboard's owners manual or you can find it online.

The main purpose of a motherboard is to provide a way for all the computer parts to communicate. Not all the ports will have something plugged into them in the end. They are there so you can expand your computer's capabilities as you need to. When you are trying to figure out where to plug something in, don't ever force it. Most devices should be able to settle into the ports with just a little pressure and a lot wiggling back and forth.

CPU's are simple to match your motherboard. Your motherboard should state someway in the details what CPU socket type it has. Some examples of socket names are LGA 775, LGA 1155, LGA 1366, AM2, AM3, AM3+ or FM1. Memorizing these names is not important. All you need to make sure of is that the socket type listed on the motherboard matches the socket type listed on the CPU.

RAM is probably the easiest to upgrade. RAM slots can be easily identified because they are the only slots that have clips at the ends of them. Simply pull the clips open and wiggle the stick of RAM into the slot. Then close the clips into the ridges of the RAM so it solidly fits in. It is usually best to choose the slots closest to the CPU to reduce latency (delay between transfers). The motherboard's owners manual should have specific instructions on the best way to place the different components.

Expansion slots are a little more complicated than RAM but are still relatively easy to figure out. Expansion slots are always on the side of the motherboard that faces the back of the case. This makes it easy to add various plugins behind the case. These slots are either called PCI, AGP or PCI Express slots. PCI is an old standard and is still built into most motherboards. However, it is quickly being replaced by PCI express. The older PCI slot is pictured third from the right on the motherboard above. Older PCI slots are positioned a little closer to the edge of the motherboard. AGP was a faster port than the older PCI but has been replaced by PCI express.

The most advanced port right now is PCI express. All PCI express slots are aligned so they are flush on the side closest to the edge of the motherboard. You will see them at a variety of lengths. (PCI express x1, x4, x8 or x16) The number represents how many lanes are physically there to transfer data. PCI express x1 is the smallest slot in the picture above. This can be used for a large variety of purposes such as adding additional network functionality or more USB ports. PCI express x16 is another popular slot. It is mostly used for video cards because of its huge bandwidth. PCI express x16 is the largest slot in the picture above.

We are now in an age where regular PCI express x16 doesn't provide enough bandwidth to meet demands. Since then, the slot has been upgraded to PCI express 2.0 and currently is up to 3.0. PCI express 1.0 could handle speeds up to 4 GB's per second. 2.0 doubled that to 8 GB's per second and 3.0 now allows 16 GB's per second. This speed is necessary for handling the latest complex games. Each version is backwards compatible with the previous.

Overall, the motherboard is there to provide a way for everything to communicate. When searching for a motherboard, make sure you filter your results so you only see motherboards that have the ports you want.

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