Greetings everybody! With the recent release of the Skylake CPUs and the Z170 chipset (…ok, not so recent anymore, I’ve been a bit slow lately since I’m very busy with school life… ._.), I’m kinda motivated to write a blog post about motherboards. I know that I have written one to introduce the Chipsets before, but this blog post is not about the chipsets, it’s about the motherboard itself. I’ll also introduce the Z170 chipset in this blog post.
Chipsets and Sockets
Anyway, the most important thing when considering the motherboard is to see if its CPU socket and chipset will be compatible with your CPU and RAM (other things are less socket-dependent). The modern sockets that are relevant to current hardware, and their chipsets, are:
- LGA1150: Intel socket for Haswell (4th generation) and Broadwell (5th generation) CPUs. All of the chipsets in this blog post (save for the X99) are for this socket, which include B85, H87, Q87, Z87, H97 and Z97.
- LGA1151: Intel socket for Skylake (6th generation) CPUs, as well as the upcoming Kaby Lake and Cannonlake CPUs. Currently, only the Z170 chipset is compatible with this socket, but the H170 chipset will follow soon.
- LGA2011: Intel socket for Sandy Bridge (2nd generation) and Ivy Bridge (3rd generation) Extreme CPUs. Only the X79 chipset is compatible with this socket.
- LGA2011v3: Intel socket for Haswell Extreme CPUs. Only the X99 chipset is compatible with this socket.
- AM3/AM3+: AMD socket for FXxxxx CPUs (to be honest, I’m a bit hazy about what CPUs these sockets support, but the AM3+ should be compatible with every “modern” AMD CPU). The AM3+ socket can also work with AM3 CPUs, but the AM3 socket can’t work with AM3+ CPUs.
- FM2/FM2+: AMD Socket for their APUs (an APU, or “Accelerated Processing Unit”, is basically a CPU with a strong onboard GPU), named Ax-xxxx.
The second thing to look at is the form factor of the motherboard, to see whether it’ll fit in your case. There are many form factors out there, but I’ll only list the common ones:
- Mini-ITX: The smallest common PC motherboard form factor, for mini PCs.
- mATX: The micro-ATX is the smallest motherboard form factor for a normal PC. Mini-tower cases can fit these motherboards.
- ATX: The standard form factor for mid-tower cases and above. Most cases that support ATX will also support mATX.
- E-ATX: Stands for Extended ATX. This form factor is larger than ATX and is meant for full-tower cases and above. However, some larger mid-tower cases can also fit these boards. Most cases that support E-ATX will also support ATX and mATX.
- SSI-CEB and SSI-EEB: Standard multi-CPU motherboard form factors for mini-servers and workstations. The SSI-EEB is larger than the SSI-CEB, but most cases will opt for it anyway, which will also result in most SSI-EEB-compatible cases to support SSI-CEB boards. These boards will also normally support mATX, ATX and E-ATX.
Main Components of a Motherboard
- First and foremost, the motherboard has the socket. This is where your CPU goes in. Workstation boards may have multiple sockets.
- Then, the next most important part is the chipset.
- Going onward, we have the I/O area (Input/Output area) where the ports (whether it’s an audio port, USB port, PS/2 port, graphics port, network port, etc.) are located. Normally, an I/O shield will also be provided to secure this into the case.
- Next, the motherboard should also have DIMM slots, where your RAM modules go in.
- Next is the PCI slots, where your expansion cards go in. Common expansion cards include graphics cards and sound cards, but there are other more niche expansion cards as well, such as USB 3.1 cards or wireless cards (just a side note: network cards are often not needed these days since most decent motherboards already have very good network chips on them anyway). PCI slots have many forms: x1 (normally used for sound cards and other “minor” cards), x4, x8 and x16.
- Afterwards, of course, we also have the network chip(s). This is not very prominent but it’s there. Hi-end boards may also use multiple network chips, for whatever reason (like to provide both wired and wireless connection, or just to provide multiple choices).
- Another very important part of the motherboard is the audio area. This is like a sound card integrated into the motherboard. While smaller, older motherboards may only have a simple APU (this time stands for Audio Processing Unit) on the board, most newer boards will have a dedicated area for this, completed with capacitors and Op-Amps and EMI protection and stuff, hence “audio area”.
- Next, we have the SATA ports, where your hard drives’ SATA cables (NOT SATA power cables) go in.
- Then, we have the BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). This is where the motherboard stores the pre-OS environment, you can basically understand this as the time before you enter Windows/Mac/Linux/whatever.
- And last but… perhaps least, we have the heatsinks. These are pretty straightforward and have the mission of radiating the heat from the chipset and other parts of the motherboard. The chipset heatsink should be most obvious, but some boards have very serious “supplementary” heatsinks too.
Fancy Features You Should Look Into
- Multiple BIOSes: When one BIOS is not enough, some boards also offer a second or even third BIOS to act as backup, just in case your primary BIOS dies because someone tasered it.
- Fans: Very serious motherboards also have tiny fans on their chipset heatsink, and some even have fans in other places!
- Upgradable Op-Amps and non-Realtek sound processors: Because they know you want a sound card but don’t want to shell out money for a sound card!
- Ambient LEDs: Because, I can’t stress this enough across my blog posts, everything needs LEDs! Some Gigabyte boards even have pulsating LEDs and LEDs that follow your music!
- Multiple Killer network chips: Killer network chips are considered the “pro-gaming” chips, as opposed to the “regular” Intel chips. Plus, like I said, some boards have multiple network chips so you won’t have to buy a wireless adapter!
- mSATA, SATA Express and M.2 ports: These ports are the “special”, super fast storage ports, which are provided because lately, hard drives (especially SSDs) are quickly approaching the 6Gb/s limit of the SATA 3 standard.
- Specialized Ports: Some boards have specialized gaming USB ports and such, which have more gold than the regular ports (really, that’s pretty much all there is).
- Umpteen phases power delivery: Generally speaking, more phases equal more overclocking potential.
- Motherboard Shields: Because electrical circuits are really ugly! Asus is the one behind most shielded motherboards, by the way.
Some Motherboard Brands Worth Considering
I’ve already said this in my blog post about chipsets, but please allow me to copy-paste this here, because my original opinions still stand:
- If you are going for a badass hi-end gaming motherboard, look no further than Asus! They are the most popular motherboards brand, as well as perhaps the most popular computer components brand in general. They usually do all kinds of crazy things with their hi-end boards (Z97, Z170 and X99), like the TUF and the ROG series. However, they do have boards for the midrange too.
- If you want some durable boards for the midrange and upper-midrange (H97 and Z97) with good audio quality, you can consider Gigabyte! They are the second most popular motherboards company, and although their X99 boards weren’t so popular, they have some quality products for the less extreme users. Like I said, I’m personally using their H97-D3H.
- If you want to save some bucks and need none of that overrated pro-gaming BS, then ASRock would be your choice. They have some quality products and their customer service is excellent (they will even replace blown-up motherboards, provided you didn’t mess with it), yet their boards’ prices are usually cheaper than those from Asus or Gigabyte. However, even though they can be considered a “budget” brand, they are more than capable of making more expensive boards too. As stated earlier, the most expensive motherboard in the world is actually from them, too!
- If you want both an aggressive look and a durable build, then you can consider MSI too! Their Z97 Gaming boards are very well-received, and “military-grade” components are one of their main marketing points.
- If you want a more refined board in the hi-end segment, then maybe you can take a look at EVGA. They have some of the most expensive boards in the market (like their X99 Classified) that are still very well-received, and they may just deliver that cold, mysterious look you’re going for. They are also the go-to brand for larger motherboard form factors, such as E-ATX or SSI EEB!
To conclude, as you can see, motherboards can range from the really simple to the truly crazy. Plus, as a final note, motherboards’ overviews are usually the lengthiest and most colorful product introductions of any PC component ever, so they definitely deserve some attention! Well then, happy building, and see you later!