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A Guide to Computer Hardware

Written on July 31, 2006 by Richard Millard

The Motherboard

Aka Mainboard, Systemboard, Mobo

The motherboard is the very fundamental core of your system. Every single piece of hardware in your computer connects to it.

If you're house shopping, the motherboard would be the property upon which the house is built - it's the foundation of your investment, and it will influence many of the house-building decisions that will follow.

The motherboard will dictate a lot of things such as which type of processors your computer will use or how many different expansion cards it will hold. It is responsible for moving information between your other pieces of hardware, and the speed at which it can do this will vary. Generally a more expensive model will move information around quicker, and have more built-in features.

The motherboard has a built in "chipset". This chipset acts like an Air Traffic Controller, directing information around your motherboard and making sure things get to where they're supposed to go. Like most PC components, motherboards have faster models and slower models available, with the higher-speed models generally being accompanied by a higher price tag.

Modern motherboards do another very important thing: They provide you with a lot of basic services that you'll need. Typically, modern motherboards include a network port (which is used to connect to a network, or internet), and a few USB ports (for all sorts of useful devices: mouse, keyboards, digital cameras, printers, and scanners to name a few). Some models even include built-in sound cards or very basic video cards. Finding out the features of your motherboard is a great way to make a shopping list for the rest of your computer.

Once you decide on a motherboard, you'll need to make sure that all your other components are compatible with it. For example, if your motherboard has a PCI-Express slot, you'll want a PCI-Express Video card. Most system builders don't give you motherboard selection options. Those who do, like Puget Custom Computers (shameless plug!), should have a smart configuration page which will tailor your available hardware choices to those which are compatible with your selected motherboard.

If you're into gaming or another 3D heavy application, selecting your motherboard is a very critical choice. You'll want a modern chipset, and maybe even a motherboard that can support running multiple video cards at a once. Less demanding uses (email, internet, music, movies and office applications) don't demand the latest motherboards and you can save a bit of money by considering one of the value lines rather than the premium.

Start by making a list of computer needs. How many USB ports would you like? Did you just need basic stereo sound, or did you want 8.1-channel surround sound? Write out all the things that you'd like to have in your system. Do you have a good idea which processor you want? Using this list, select a motherboard that seems to suit your needs. Now cross off all the features this motherboard offers that are on your list. You're left with a handy shopping list for the rest of the system.

When motherboard shopping, if you think that you might have a future need for the features of a high-end motherboard, I suggest that you buy that motherboard up front. Replacing a motherboard is the most laborious, and often dangerous endeavor in computer upgrades and it can even invalidate some of your other hardware choices. Trust me when I say that it's a pain in the neck!

So if you think you might need that faster chipset, or that onboard RAID controller, then I recommend you go for it! It could just save you a headache down the road.

As with most hardware, it's good to stick to a reputable name brand manufacturer. Asus, Abit, MSI, Intel and Tyan are all motherboards that I trust. If you're buying the system from a builder, check to see if they have a preferred brand of motherboard. Since they'll also be providing support for your system, it's a good idea to select a motherboard that they're very familiar with.

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