How to choose a motherboard

By April 20, 2018Buying Guides

Gigabyte motherboards

If you’re looking to build your own PC, or to buy a pre-built PC that you might want to expand or upgrade later, then there’s one component that will serve as its foundation. That component is the motherboard, and it’s an incredibly important piece of the PC puzzle. It determines many of the other components that you’ll be able to choose, and at the same time some other choices — such as the processor that you’ll use in your new PC — determine which motherboard you can use.

After picking a CPU, a complimentary motherboard will typically be the next component you select for your build. Let’s break down your motherboard selection into a few (relatively) easy steps.

Before we get started, though, here’s a big tip. One way to make your decision easier is to use Newegg’s comparison feature. If you go to the Newegg motherboard page, you can select up to five motherboards and receive a detailed look at how they compare in terms of many of the topics discussed in this how-to.

What is a motherboard?

A motherboard is a printed circuit board (PCB) that creates a kind of backbone allowing a variety of components to communicate, and that provides different connectors for components such as the central processing unit (CPU), graphics processing unit (GPU), memory, and storage. Most computers made today, including smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and desktop computers, use motherboards to pull everything together, but the only kind you’ll typically purchase yourself are those made for desktop PCs.

ASUS Prime motherboard

Looking at motherboard from the top down, you’ll see a collection of circuits, transistors, capacitors, slots, connectors, heat sinks, and more that all combine to route signals and power throughout the PC and allow you to plug in all of the required components. It’s a complicated product, and many of the technical details are beyond the scope of this how-to. Some of these details are important for your buying decision, though, and we’ll outline them for you below.

As you’re deciding on the right motherboard, you’ll want to make sure that it meets your needs both today and tomorrow. If you know that you’ll never want to upgrade your PC beyond its original configuration, then you can choose a motherboard that provides exactly what you need to get up and running. But if you think you might want to expand your PC later, then you’ll want to make sure your motherboard will support your needs as they grow.

Platform

AMD CPU in a motherboardPerhaps the first decision to make is which CPU you want to serve as the brains of your PC, which means choosing between two companies: Intel and AMD. Both offer CPUs ranging from entry-level options good enough for web browsing, productivity, and low-end gaming all the way up to ultra-powerful beasts that can rip through video editing projects and run today’s most demanding games at high frames per second (FPS).

Both companies are constantly upgrading their products, and so this information can become stale very quickly. As of when this how-to was written, though, Intel is on its eighth-generation of CPUs and AMD has recently introduced its Zen architecture and Ryzen CPUs. Which one is right for you will depend on your needs, such as whether you’re most worried about apps that can use multiple processor cores (which might favor AMD’s Ryzen processors) or you’re most worried about games that benefit from the fastest single-core performance (which might favor Intel’s Core processors).

An Intel motherboard

Once you’ve decided which CPU is best for you, then you’ll need to pick a motherboard that uses the right socket and the right chipset. Basically, a processor socket is the mechanism through which a CPU is firmly attached to a motherboard. A chipset is the motherboard software and hardware that combines to allow all the various components to communicate.

Sockets and Chipsets to know

Here are the most important sockets and chipsets today:

Socket Supported CPUs Chipsets
LGA 1151 6th– and 7th-generation Intel Core Skylake (6th-gen): H110, B150, Q150, H170, Q170, Z170
Kaby Lake (7th-gen): B250, Q250, H270, Q270, Z270
LGA 1150 (300 series) 8th-generation Intel Core Coffee Lake (8th-gen): H310, B360, H370, Q370, Z370
LGA 2066 Skylake-X/Kaby-Lake X X299
sTR4 AMD Ryzen Threadripper X399
AM4 AMD Ryzen and 7th-generation A-Series and Athlon A300, A320, B350, X370, X470
AM3+ AMD FX A970, A980G, A990X, A990FX
FM2+ AMD A-Series and Athlon A58, A68H, A78, A88X

It’s not so important to understand everything that goes into making a chipset, but it’s vital to understand that you need to select a motherboard with the right chipset – and the right socket – for the CPU that you plan to purchase. It’s also important to know that different chipsets provide support different combinations of components such as RAM, GPUs, and others.

Comparing motherboards on Newegg.com is easy

As you do your research and compare motherboards, you will want to make sure that everything you want to accomplish is supported. If you use Newegg’s comparison tool, you can get a good idea of which motherboard is best for your new PC.

Form factor

ASUS Strix motherboardMotherboards come in different sizes, meaning that you have some flexibility in building your PC to fit into your environment. If you have plenty of space then you might want to use a full-size tower case, while if you’re building a home theater PC (HTPC) that’s meant to sit beneath your family room TV then you’ll likely want a much smaller case.

That’s why motherboards come in various sizes, or form factors, and these standards define not only the size of the motherboard but also how many of various components they tend to support. There are variations in the latter, but generally speaking, the larger the motherboard’s physical size the more components it will support. Not all cases support all form factors, and so you’ll want to make sure your motherboard and case match up.

Motherboard form factors to know

The following are several of the more popular form factors and their most common specifications:

Mini-ITX MicroATX ATX
Size 9.0 x 7.5 inches 9.6 x 9.6 inches 12 x 9.6 inches
Expansion Slots 1 4 7
RAM DIMM DIMM DIMM
RAM Slots 2 Up to 4 Up to 8
GPUs Up to 1 Up to 3 Up to 4
SATA ports Up to 6 Up to 8 Up to 12

These are general guidelines for some of the most common motherboard form factors. There are more, and they vary in their capabilities. The most important thing is to decide what size PC you want to build or buy, how many components you will want to configure now and into the future, and then pick the motherboard form factor that best fits your needs.

Expansion

Shielded motherboard baysMotherboards can connect a variety of components in addition to the CPU, including graphics cards, sound cards, networking cards, storage devices and connections, and a host of others. There have been many kinds of expansion ports over the years, but fortunately things have gotten much simpler. Today, you’ll primarily be dealing with Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) ports, with some motherboards also including PCI slots for legacy devices.

PCIe is the most important port and the one you’ll use to connect most components today. There are four sizes of PCIe slots, and the latest standard in common use is PCIe 3.0. These four sizes dictate both the throughput of the connection and its size – you’ll want to make sure that you have enough expansion slots and that they’re of the right sizes to support all of your present and future needs.

The four slots sizes are x1, x4, x8, and x16, with x4 and x16 being the most common. Motherboards vary widely on how many slots they include, and also on their placement. You’ll want to be sure that you have enough slots, and that they have enough space around them to fit all your required components.

GPU support

A GPU in a motherboard, with liquid coolingAll PCs need a way to output information in a visual format that we humans can utilize. In its simplest terms, that means displaying images on a monitor. The component that performs this function in a typical  PC is the graphics card, or GPU, and you’ll need to make sure that your motherboard can support the kind of GPU that you need for your intended uses.

Some Intel Core CPUs come with integrated GPUs that provide the means to display output to a monitor, and AMD has its own version of the same thing called the accelerated processing unit (APU) that combines a CPU with a GPU on the same package. These are relatively low-powered GPUs that are great for the usual productivity tasks, but only support less graphically demanding games (like e-sports titles).

If you need a more powerful GPU, either for gaming or for more demanding applications like video editing that can make use of a GPU for faster processing, then you’ll likely want a standalone GPU. In that case, you’ll want to keep in mind which kinds of GPUs you can connect to your motherboard, and even how many GPUs your motherboard can support.

Connecting your GPUs

PCIe slots

Today, most GPUs connect via PCIe slots, and most use PCIe x16 slots. In addition, most contemporary GPUs require PCIe 3.0 or later. The final requirement is the width available to each PCIe slot, and many GPUs require a width of two slots. This can block some x1 PCIe slots and render them inaccessible, which is okay as long as it doesn’t surprise you. Note that some GPUs can use just the 75 watts of power provided by the PCIe slot, but that most GPUs require more power via six-pin or eight-pin connectors from a large enough power supply.

In choosing your motherboard, therefore, you’ll want to make sure that it provides the right kind of PCIe slots. That means checking the GPU specifications carefully and comparing them to the motherboard’s specifications. If you want to connect two or more GPUs, called “Scalable Link Interface” or SLI by NVIDIA and Crossfire by AMD, then you’ll need two available PCIe slots and a compatible motherboard.

We’ll stress this again, because it’s so important: make sure to check your GPU requirements against what your motherboard can provide to ensure that everything will fit together correctly. We’re not discussing power supply specifics in this how-to, but you’ll want to make sure to select a power supply as well that can meet the needs of your GPU at full load along with the rest of your components.

RAM

RAM slotsYour CPU needs somewhere to store information while your PC is turned on and working. That’s called “random access memory,” or RAM, and today PCs are commonly equipped with at least 4GB of RAM. How much RAM you need for your own PC depends on how you plan to use it, and 8GB is typically a safe recommendation for most lighter users with 16 or more GB being a good bet for heavier users.

Today’s RAM plugs into a motherboard via a rectangular slot that’s named for the kind of RAM in use today: the dual in-line memory module (DIMM). The number of DIMM slots in a motherboard determines how much RAM you can add, and it most commonly varies from two to eight slots. You can add one RAM module at a time, but you will get the best performance when you install RAM in matched pairs.

RAM in a motherboard

Capacity ranges from 1GB DIMMs up to 128GB DIMMs, the latter of which are extremely expensive and are typically purchased for use in servers. Most consumer PCs will be equipped with a total of 4GB to 64GB, and RAM is usually purchased in kits of two or four DIMMs. For example, if you were looking to equip your PC with 16GB of RAM, then you would typically buy a kit with two 8GB DIMMS or four 4GB DIMMs.

When you’re selecting your motherboard, be sure it has enough slots, can support all the RAM that you ever plan to configure, and that it can support the fastest RAM that you’ll want to buy. At the same time, you’ll want to think about how to buy your RAM. For example, if you want to start with 8GB of RAM and then grow to 16GB, and your motherboard has four DIMM slots, then you’ll want to start with a kit of two 4GB DIMMs and not a kit of four 2GB DIMMs, since that will allow you to add another kit later and avoid being left with unused RAM.

Storage

Intel Optane SSDsTo use your PC, you’ll need somewhere to store the operating system, applications, and data when the power is off. Today, that means choosing between a hard disk drive (HDD) with spinning platters that store data and solid-state drives (SSD) that store data in much faster flash memory. HDDs are typically less expensive for more storage space, while SSDs are more expensive but offer extra speed, and are great for holding the operating system and applications.

There are a few main storage connectors that you’ll want to consider with buying your motherboard. That includes both the kinds of connections and how many connections you’ll have for adding storage to your PC. Some of these connections are internal, and some are external.

NZXT N7 Motherboard side profileThe most common storage connection today is serial ATA, or SATA. SATA is in its third revision, and SATA 3.0 is a connection that provides up to six gigabits per second (Gb/s) transfer rate. That translates to up to 600 megabytes per second (600MB/s) in read and write speeds for SATA SSDs and usually significantly less than 150MB/s read and write for HDDs.

You can buy both HDDs and SDDs that support SATA 3.0 connections, and motherboards can contain several SATA ports. There are variations of SATA 3.X that provide faster speeds and slightly different connections, including SATA revision 3.2 that uses an M.2 form factor.

An increasingly common storage connection type is NVM Express, or NVMe, that connects via the PCIe bus. This is a newer protocol that offers increased bandwidth, lower power, lower latency, and other advantages. Common NVMe SSDs today can provide theoretical speeds of over 3GB/s read and 1.5GB/s write. NVMe SSDs come in two form factors, cards that plug into PCIe slots and compact versions that plug into M.2 connections.

A small SSD and large HDD

An M.2 connection

Like with many of the components in this how-to, there are many factors involved in choosing the right storage. One common tactic is to buy a relatively small SSD for the operating system and applications, which makes for significantly better performance, and then larger HDDs for storing massive amounts of data like photos and video.

Whatever storage you choose, you’ll want to make sure your motherboard supports your needs for now and into the future. That requires carefully studying a motherboard’s specifications to ensure it can connect all the storage you might one day require. Remember that you can also attach external storage devices if necessary, and that’s a requirement for data that you need to carry around with you.

Connectivity

Motherboard I/O panelWe’ve covered several different ways to connect components to a motherboard, including PCIe, DIMM slots, and storage connections. There are a host of other connection types that motherboards can support today, and once again you’ll want to consider your needs very carefully when selecting a motherboard.

Also, some connections are located directly on the motherboard and internal to the case, and they’re sometimes meant to connect to ports on the front, top, sides, or rear of a case. You’ll also want to consider what ports your case supports and make sure your motherboard provides the required internal connections. Motherboards also have externally-accessible connections in a rear input/output (I/O) panel that fits into a generally standard location on the rear of a case.

Motherboard connections to know

Some connections are located directly on the motherboard and internal to the case, and they’re sometimes meant to connect to ports on the front, top, sides, or rear of a case as well as to other internal and external components. You’ll want to consider what ports your case supports and make sure your motherboard provides the required internal connections, and the same goes for other additions. These connections include a variety of on-board headers that are used to support things like fans, external USB ports, RGB lighting systems, and a variety of manufacturer-specific proprietary products.

This is something that you will want to check carefully as you are selecting components for your new PC. For example, your case might have multiple USB ports that require multiple internal USB headers. And, some water-cooling systems require specific headers for connecting to software that controls lighting and thermal sensors. You will need to make sure that a motherboard includes all of the necessary headers to support all of these kinds add-on components and case features.

Gigabyte motherboard

Basically, think of it this way. The more complex your new PC, the more you will need to dig into your motherboard choice. Nowhere is this more true than regarding the kinds of connections that are present on a motherboard as compared to the various components that you will need to add.

The following are some of the common connections on modern motherboards. Not all motherboards have all these connections, and you’ll find some others as well. The important thing is to make sure that your choice of motherboard has all the connections that you need.

Connector Location Purpose Typical number
Audio for rear panel Internal Allows connecting to a case’s rear external audio jack (if any). 1
Audio for front panel Internal Allows connecting to a case’s front external audio jack (if any). 1
Digital audio header Internal Allows connecting to a digital audio jack. 1
Front panel header Internal Provides pins for connecting to font panel LED lights and buttons, such as for power and reset. 1
8-pin CPU power connector Internal Allows for power delivery from the power supply through the motherboard to the CPU. On modern motherboards, this is usually an eight-pin connector. 1
24-pin main power connector Allows for power delivery from the power supply through the motherboard to a variety the connected components, such as PCIe components, RAM, and certain kinds of storage. On modern motherboards, this is usually an eight-pin connector. 1
Ancillary power connectors Internal In addition, there might be power connections for fans and other additional components. Varies
USB Internal or external Provides for USB connections, including USB-A 2.0, USB-A 3.X, and USB-C 3.1 ports. There will be internal connectors available for external case ports as well as USB ports for direct connections on the motherboard’s rear I/O panel. Varies
Firewire Internal or external An older connection, it allows hooking up a Firewire device. Varies
SATA Internal These are the connections for SATA HDDs and SSDs. Varies
Display ports External If you have chosen a CPU with integrated graphics, then you will want to use one of the display ports that are in the rear I/O panel. These can include VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI ports. Varies
Audio jacks External If your motherboard has built-in audio, and most od today, then it will have audio jacks to connect speakers and microphones. How many jacks and what kind of speaker setups they support (from stereo up to 7.1 channel surround sound) will vary based on the motherboard’s audio system. Varies
Ethernet External Today’s motherboards typically come equipped with gigabit Ethernet ports for connecting to wired networks. 1
Wi-Fi antenna jack External If your motherboard includes built-in Wi-Fi networking, then there will typically be a screw-on jack for connecting an external antenna. 1

Manufacturers

ASUS ROG motherboardNow that you’ve identified what kind of motherboard you’ll need to build out your specific PC, or that should serve as the foundation of that pre-built PC you’ll be picking up, you’ll want to give some thought to its manufacturer. Some companies focus on providing motherboards aimed at gamers, with tons of space for adding GPUs and with LED light systems, while others focus on more mainstream systems.

Some of the best-known motherboard manufacturers are ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, and ASRock. You can view the different options from those companies, as well as others, on Newegg’s Motherboard page.

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