motherboard : Computer Hardware Buyers’ Glossary

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motherboard
aka mobo, main board, server board. This is the main board into which the CPU (Central Processing Unit), memory and accessory cards plug. It will have PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots for things like SCSI (Small Computer System Interface), modem, sound card, lan card. It will have an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) slot for a video card. It typically has a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port, a serial port, a parallel port, a keyboard port, a mouse port. It sometimes has built-in LAN (Local Area Network), video, SCSI or sound. Usually these built-in components are low performance, aimed at low cost.

Motherboards are designed for a particular brand and range of CPU. Similarly they are usually limited to a small number of types and speeds of RAM (Random Access Memory). Most motherboards hold only one CPU though some have room for a matched pair. For Dual CPU use you need special CPU models designed to be used in pairs. The dual CPU route is expensive. The motherboards are more than twice as expensive and each CPU is about twice as expensive as the usual type that cannot be used in pairs. A cheaper similar option is hyperthreading where a single fast CPU pretends to be a CPU pair.

One of the most important measures of motherboard speed is the speed of it’s FSB (Front Side Bus), the direct link between CPU and RAM. The other important measure is maximum RAM capacity. RAM prices are always dropping and adding more RAM is the easiest and cheapest way to improve the speed of your computer in future.

The three main chips on the motherboard are the CPU, the northbridge and the southbridge. Other important parts of the motherboard are the RAM cards and the expansion slot cards such as the video card. The northbridge typically handles communications among the CPU, in some cases RAM, and PCI Express (or AGP) video cards and the southbridge. Some northbridges also contain integrated video controllers, also known as a Graphics and Memory Controller Hub (GMCH) in Intel systems. Because different processors and RAM require different signaling, a northbridge will typically work with only one or two classes of CPUs (Central Processing Units) and generally only one type of RAM. Which northbridge and southbridge to use is normally only the concern of the motherboard designer.

Well known motherboard manufacturers include: ASUS (pronounced Ay-soos), BioStar. ECS Elite Group, Gigabyte, MSI and Tyan (Thunder, Tiger, Trinity, Tomcat, Toledo). ASUS manuals are well above average. Gigabyte manuals are below average. Happily you can browse the complete documentation on the web before you buy.

Motherboard Sizes

You must make sure your motherboard upgrade fits your case. Originally cases were all large enough to handle any size motherboard. Now the match is much tighter.

Motherboard Sizes
Form Factor Metric Size Imperial Size Aliases
width × depth width × depth
Mini-ITX17 × 17 cm6.69 × 6.69 in  
Mini-DTX20.30 × 17 cm7.99 × 6.69 in  
Taille Micro-ATX24.40 × 17 cm9.61 × 6.69 in  
Flex-ATX22.90 × 19.10 cm9.02 × 7.52 in  
DTX20.30 × 24.40 cm7.99 × 9.61 in  
Pico-BTX26.70 × 20.30 cm10.51 × 7.99 in  
Micro-ATX24.40 × 24.40 cm9.61 × 9.61 in Embedded ATX, µATX, M-ATX
Micro-BTX26.40 × 26.70 cm10.39 × 10.51 in µBTX, M-BTX
Baby-AT33 × 21.60 cm12.99 × 8½ in  
ATX30½ × 24.40 cm12.01 × 9.61 in Standard ATX
BTX32½ × 26.60 cm12.80 × 10.47 in  
XL_ATX34.30 × 26.20 cm13½ × 10.31 in Ultra-ATX
E-ATX30½ × 33 cm12.01 × 12.99 in Extended ATX
AT35 × 30½ cm13.78 × 12.01 in Standard AT
WTX35.60 × 42½ cm1.17 × 1.39 ft Workstation ATX, WATX

I refer to the depth as the distance from the front of the motherboard to the back where the slots and connectors are. I refer to the width as the distance between the two sides of the motherboard. Others may refer to these as the length and width or width and length. To figure out which terminology a given vendor is using, the bigger number is the width and the smaller the depth.

Real World Motherboards

The basics I look for in a motherboard are: Am3+ slot, DDR3 RAM. RAM is the bottleneck, so fast RAM (not counting overclocking) is very important. Your CPU may have three levels of cache L1, L2 and L3. The bigger and faster these are the better. Modern software requires at least 8 gigs of RAM. Thankfully the prices have come down considerably. (I am old to enough to remember the first time it was cheaper than $1,000,000 a megabyte.) 16+ gig max RAM, correct form factor for my existing case, SATA-3, or even better, SATA-III aka SATA-6G disk controller, support for a wide range of AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) CPUs so I can upgrade later, AMD/ATI onboard video and an abundance of USB-2 ports and a few USB-3 ports If I can look at the board in person I look for precision in the soldering and clean neat traces. Make sure you save some of your budget for a CPU, RAM and possibly a video card. Memory speed is what limits modern computers not the CPU. So go for faster RAM and bigger caches rather that the much more expensive, marginally faster CPUs. If you have only one drive, you don’t need more than one SATA (Serial ATA) port. Only servers with multiple drives (usually with RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) ) can exploit multiple SATA controllers. Motherboard prices don’t make much sense. Older design boards with less capability can sell for more than new ones because when they were first introduced they were the cat’s meow. If you get the latest RAM and socket, you have a chance of upgrading the CPU and RAM without replacing the motherboard. If you get onboard video it won’t be quite as snazzy as a separate video card, but it will be considerably cheaper. Ditto for onboard sound. Onboard Ethernet will be just as good as a separate card. Make sure you have a suitable connector for your existing keyboard.

USB Catch

Your motherboard may have 4 USB ports accessible at the rear panel and 8 internal ports. These 8 ports are useless unless you buy some cables that you fit over the motherboard headers with 4, 5 or 9-pins, M/F with female USB ports at the other end with mounting hardware. The wires are colour coded. It is extremely important to get the connector on the right way around. These internal ports are better than using a hub which has to share a single port among many devices.

Shopping for a Motherboard

electronic product image recommend electronic⇒Asus M5A78L-M LX Plus Motherboardto electronic home
asin B005WUUFBW
Low cost motherboard for the ATX form factor. It has an AM3+ socket for CPUs up to 125 watts, e.g. FX-8150 Bulldozer/Zambezi with eight cores. It has in itegrated ATI HD 3000 GPU video. Up to 8 Gig of DDR-3 1866MHz RAM (not counting overclocking). 6 SATA-2 ports, 2 USB-3, 10 USB-2, 1 x PCIe 2.0 x16, 2 x PCIe 2.0 x1, 3 x PCI. No onboard video. The main weaknesses are the lack of SATA-3 and max RAM limit of 8 Gig. Specifications.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
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India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒ASUS M5A97 R2.0 motherboard, AM3, ATXto electronic home
asin B008V9959O
AMD 970 chipset, SATA 3 - 6Gb/s, DDR 2133, 4 DIMM slots, 6 SATA 3 ports, Ethernet, 8-channel audio, 2 × USB3, 12 × USB2, 1 × PCIe 2.0 x16 (blue), 1 × PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4 mode, black), 2 × PCIe 2.0 x1, 2 × PCI. TPU switch for auto-overclocking. EPU switch for low energy mode. There are specialised processors to control the TPU and EPU features. Specs.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒ASRock 970 EXTREME4to electronic home
asin B005AOFJE8
Has AM3+ slot. ATX form factor. Suitable for 8-core CPU such as the AMD FX-8350. Supports up to a 140 Watt CPU. That means it will not support the FX-9590 which consumes 240 watts. 3 × PCIe 2.0 x16. 2 × PCIe x1. 2 × PCI. Supports Dual Channel DDR3 2100(OC). 4 DIMM Slots up to 8GB each for a total of 32 GB. 4 × USB 2, 2 × USB 3, 1 × serial, 5 × SATA3, 2 × IEEE 1394, 7.1 CH Realtek ALC892 Audio Codec. 1 × Ethernet port. Has no onboard video. You will need some sort of Video card. Specs.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒ASUS M5A99FX PRO R2.0to electronic home
asin B008B6ONXK
AM3+ socket. Suitable for 8-core CPU such as the AMD FX-8350. ATX form factor. Supports up to a 140 Watt CPU. That means it will not support the FX-9590 which consumes 240 watts. 4 × USB-3 with USASP. 14 × USB-2, 7.1 audio. DDR-3 2133. 4 × 8GB DIMM. 2 × PCIe 2.0 x16 (dual x16). 2 × PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4 mode, black). 1 × PCIe 2.0 x1. 1 × PCI. 5 × 6 GB SATA. 1 × Ethernet port. 1 × com port. Has no onboard video. You will need some sort of Video card. Specs.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒ASUS Sabertooth 990FX Motherboardto electronic home
asin B008YDJHWM
This board is ruggedised ATX form factor. It will handle high heat. It has a 5 year warranty. It has an AM3+ socket for Suitable for 8-core CPU such as the AMD FX-8350. Supports up to a 140 Watt CPU. That means it will not support the FX-9590 which consumes 240 watts. Up to 32 Gig of DDR-3 1866MHz RAM (not counting overclocking). 6 × SATA-3 6 GB ports, 4 × SATA 3GB ports, 4 × USB-3, 14 × USB-2, 4 × PCIe 2.0 x16, 1 × PCIe 2.0 x1, 1 × PCI. 1 × Ethernet. 8-channel audio. 2 × IEEE 1394a ports. Has no onboard video, but supports up to quad video cards. Specifications.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒ASRock 990FX EXTREME9 AM3+ ATX Motherboardto electronic home
asin B00DCW23E4
This is AsRock’s premium motherboard. The capacitors are literally gold plated, not for any practical reason, just to show off. It has three triangular alumium fins that conjure up Batman, but which also have practical value in cooling. Supports 8-core AMD CPU such as the FX 8350 and even the FX 9590. This is one of the few motherboards capable of running the AMD FX 9590. If you run an AMD FX 9590, you had better get a liquid cooled system. Amazon sells this motherboard under 6+ different part numbers, at 6+ different prices. Ack! AM3+ slot. Supports Dual Channel DDR3 2450(OC). 4 × 240-pin DIMM slots giving 64 GB!!. 4 × PCIe 2.0 x16. 1 × PCIe 2.0 x1. 1 × PCI. 8 × SATA3. 2 × eSATA3. 8 × USB 3.0. 8 × USB 2.0. 1 × Intel Gigabit Ethernet. Fast Boot: 1.5 seconds to start windows. No onboard video. You will need a video card. GUI BIOS interface. Specs.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock
electronic product image recommend electronic⇒Asus Crosshair V 990FX Formula Motherboardto electronic home
asin B00906DHLE
This is a high performance gaming keyboard. It has an AM3+ socket for CPUs up to 140 watts, e.g. FX-8150 Bulldozer/Zambezi with eight cores. Up to 32 Gig of DDR-3 1600MHz RAM (not counting overclocking). 6 SATA-3 ports, 4 SATA ports, 2 USB-3, 6 USB-2, 4 x PCIe 2.0 x16, 1 x PCIe 2.0 x1, 1 x PCI. Has no onboard video, but supports up to quad video cards. Mainly what you get for the extra cost is ROG features to removetly tweak the overclocking. Specifications.
American flag amazon.com bestbuy.ca Canadian flag
Canadian flag amazon.ca canadacomputers.com Canadian flag
German flag amazon.de ncix.ca Canadian flag
Spanish flag amazon.es newegg.ca Canadian flag
French flag amazon.fr staples.ca Canadian flag
Italian flag amazon.it tigerdirect.ca Canadian flag
UK flag amazon.co.uk bestbuy.com American flag
India flag junglee.com ncixus.com American flag
UN flag other stores newegg.com American flag
staples.com American flag
tigerdirect.com American flag
Greyed out stores probably do not have the item in stock

Motherboard Descriptor Language

I have found it take hours and hours to collect information about motherboards, and to compare them. I propose that we adopt a standard MDL (Motherboard Descriptor Language) where a motherboard is described in a standard way, using XML (extensible Markup Language). If vendors provided MDL files for all their products, then retailers could generate catalogs and websites with the entire catalog with almost no work. It would also be much easier to compare two different motherboards. A computer program could highlight the differences. We could also put these into a database and search for motherboards fitting any given set of specifications. Eventually there should be similar specifications for disks, RAM, DVD (Digital Video Disc) burners, CPUs, etc. If you have any ideas on improving the MDL language, let me know. Also if you have any motherboard descriptions, please pass them on and I will work on setting up an online database of them. Here is a sample description of the ASUS M5A88-M motherboard I own.

AGP
Canada Computers online Canadian retailer
case: rear connectors
CPU
EPU
FSB
hyperthreading
LAN
Motherboard finder: student project
motherboard form factors
Newegg.ca: online Canadian retailer
Newegg.com: online US retailer
PCI
RAM
ROG
SCSI
socket
TigerDirect: Canadian motherboard vendor
TigerDirect: US motherboard vendor
TPU

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