Mainboard Buyer’s Guide
A mainboard, also known as a motherboard, is the circuit board into which all the components such as the processor; memory; hard drive and peripherals are connected and controlled.
The variety of mainboards available on the market makes selecting the right one an intimidating task for the beginner. This expert guide will help clarify some of the key factors to consider when reviewing and buying a new motherboard. It will also provide examples of the different types within the different budget ranges: entry level; medium and advanced users.
Available types of mainboards
PC’s can be used for a variety of different functions, including gaming; business application processing and general home operations like reviewing photographs or reading email.
When upgrading a mainboard, or building a new PC from scratch, it is important to know what functionality is important to you; for instance if you want a gaming machine then a fast processor with advanced graphic handling capability is important.
The following specifications are important to note during the mainboard review and selection process.
Most modern motherboards contain two chipsets, the north bridge and the south bridge. Together they control all the functions of the motherboard including the processor communication; RAM; PCI slots; BIOS; USB ports; modem and all other peripheral devices.
Keep in mind that different processor lines require a different socket type on the mainboard. For instance some Intel CPUs use either socket 775 or 478, while some AMD CPUs use socket AM2 or Socket 754. Before selecting your mainboard ensure that it can support your processor by referring to the motherboard manufacturer’s manual.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is the dynamic memory within the PC system. If you intend reusing RAM from another PC then you need to ensure that it is the correct speed for processor you intend using. If you wish to purchase additional RAM then take note of how many slots you will need on the mainboard. It is always recommended that you have at least one spare slot to add additional memory at a later stage. Currently the standard RAM is Double-Data Rate 2 (DDR2), while a lot of older PCs still use DDR. A newer technology is DDR3 which has a higher bandwidth performance and lower power consumption than DDR2.
Check the type of casing to be used, else the screw holes may not be aligned and the mainboard may not fit into the case. There are several standard formats on the market: ATX and micro-ATX being the most common.
- Peripheral Support
Make sure that you have sufficient SATA connectors for all your hard drives and optical drives. Most mainboards will come standard with USB 2.0 ports but check that the mainboard you select has the correct number of USB 2.0 ports to suit your requirements.
If the type of graphics card is important to you, ensure that it is compatible with your selection. Go for a motherboard with a PCI-Express socket, AGP is the old standard and is not sold anymore.
Depending on your requirements you may want to ensure that there is sufficient peripheral support for Firewire – to connect camcorders to the PC and LAN drivers – if you intend linking your PC to a local area network. Also check to see if the motherboard has an integrated sound card or if required, a slot which will enable you to install a superior quality sound card.
The best approach to selecting a mainboard would be to first decide on the processor; the memory and peripherals you require, as well as the casing to use; then review compatible mainboards.
Entry level budget
For buyers on a budget looking to upgrade their existing mainboard, perhaps to increase memory capacity or to use new peripherals not supported by their existing mainboard, there are many options.
There are OK motherboards from around $40 to $70. These are often built around older types of sockets and chipsets but then again it might just be what you need if you are doing an upgrade. Look for features like integrated sound card, USB2 ports, FireWire, amount of RAM supported. A good tip is to go to the manufacturer’s product page to see what hardware is compatible with the board.
In this segment you can find more interesting motherboards with more features. You can even find motherboards built around the latest chipsets but with stripped amount of features. Expect to pay somewhere around $70-$130 in this segment.
If you are looking to build a quiet media PC, you will find many good alternatives with integrated sound, graphics and an abundance of connectors.
If you are building a high end PC you will sooner or later end up in this segment. These motherboards include all possible features and connectors and are built around the best chipsets. Examples of good features to look for are; DDR3 support, WiFi, FireWire, 7.1 sound, overclocking tools etc.
You can expect to pay up to $300 for a high end motherboard with all the features you can dream of.
Start by deciding on what CPU, memory and graphics card you are going to buy and then start looking for a motherboard which is compatible with your choices. Also think about what noise level you are prepared to accept, there are many motherboard with passive cooling nowadays. Of course the type of motherboard will be totally different if you are building a media PC, a gaming PC or a simple business desktop.
There is a lot of money to save if you go with the next to last generation of chipsets, it often doesn’t mean to much performance drop. Just always remember to start by doing a BIOS update of the motherboard when you start using it.
Disclaimer: This guide was written in late 2008 and the specific product recommendations may be outdated. However the basic discussions in this buyer's guide may still be of great value.
Written by; TestSeek staff