A motherboard is the piece of hardware that brings together all of the other components in your PC. Think of it as the skeleton to which all of the organs, muscles and body parts are attached. The CPU, GPU, storage, RAM and add-on cards all interface directly with your motherboard, and so you’d think it is an absolutely vital piece of equipment. The reality is that motherboards, whilst important, do not add a whole lot by themselves in terms of system performance. As far as utility and efficiency goes, however, they are very important.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you should take into account before picking up a new motherboard. There are 3 main points to consider.
1.1. CPU compatibility
The first thing you’ll need to consider is the type of CPU you have or are planning on getting. Each motherboard has a specific type of CPU slot that can only house certain types of CPU. There are two levels of compatibility to think about:
AMD CPUs do not fit into Intel-based motherboards, and vice versa. AMD and Intel processors each have their own types of CPU slots that only accommodate their brand of processors. As such, you would be making a grave mistake if you did not take this into account first. Make sure that the motherboard you are looking for is an AMD-compatible motherboard if you have an AMD processor, and Intel-compatible if you have an Intel motherboard. Simple.
The AMD and Intel CPU ranges each have variants that only fit specific slots. Here is where things get a bit more complicated. Intel and AMD continuously revise their slots to take advantage of new technologies. As such, certain families of processors will work with certain slots, but once the slot is upgraded, a new family of processors is born that works only with the new slot technology. For example, Intel’s latest socket is the LGA 1200. This is the new socket design on 400-series motherboards that were released in 2020 specifically for Intel’s 10th-generation family of processors. The 9th generation CPUs make use of the LGA 1151 socket instead. These are not forwards or backwards compatible. Thankfully on the AMD side, the Ryzen 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation CPUs all fit into the same AM4 slots. What all this means is that the motherboard you purchase must have a socket that is compatible with the particular processor you wish to use it with.
So to recap the above, you need to make sure that the motherboard you end up choosing is compatible with your CPU of choice, both in terms of manufacturer (Intel / AMD) and with regards to the particular socket type (LGA 1151, LGA 1200, AM4 etc).
1.2. Case compatibility
Next, we have to look at the dimensions of the motherboard (also known as the form factor). Motherboards come in a variety of sizes (listed from smallest to largest):
Mini-ATX (17cm x 17cm)
Micro-ATX (24.4cm x 24.4cm)
ATX (30.5cm x 24.4cm)
Mini-ATX boards are for people looking to make as compact a setup as possible. Although these may require less components, they’re actually more expensive than larger boards. Mini-ATX boards also mean that there is less room for add-on slots for extra RAM, another GPU or sound / WiFi cards. The advantage of the compact size is that one can build a compact, portable build.
Micro-ATX boards are in the middle of the road, size-wise. These are somewhat bigger than Mini-ATX boards but smaller than standard ATX. These are also priced the lowest usually. These work great for single GPU builds and usually have all the required slots you would need. These are also excellent for budget builds as you will save on all the extra features of an ATX board and yet still have full functionality.
ATX boards are the largest cards, but also the most standard ones. These cards have the most real estate and thus allow the largest number of GPU and other slots, also easily catering for multi-GPU setups. These boards also end up looking the best generally, from an aesthetic perspective. They do tend to be more expensive though. These are the boards to be looking at if you are interested in overclocking.
Depending on your choice of motherboard size, you will need a PC case that can house the dimensions of the board. Be sure to read up on the case compatibilities and you should be fine on this front. Often a lot of the bigger cases can house all three sizes of motherboard, although it would not look particularly great installing a mini-ATX board in a large case!
1.3. RAM compatibility
RAM compatibility is another thing to look at. Motherboards support different types of RAM. Nowadays, the RAM of choice is DDR4, and most motherboards should support this. However, not all clock speeds will be supported (for a primer on RAM, check out this guide). Motherboards normally support up to a specific capacity (in gigabytes) and a maximum clock speed (in Mhz). Make sure to check whether your potential motherboard can support the amount of RAM you are looking to install, as well as the speed of that RAM.
It is also again worth noting that motherboards with more RAM slots allow for future upgrades, so if you can pick up a board with 4 slots or more, you will be good to go.
1.4. GPU compatibility
Lastly, your motherboard will need to be able to support your choice of graphics card. Nowadays, this is not much of an issue as most motherboards will have a PCI-Express 4.0 slot that will allow you to install any recent GPU, including any new ones being released on the market.
However, something worth looking at is how the slots on your motherboard are set up. Because GPUs are often massive, they usually take up a ton of space on the board, sometimes up to 3 slots. This can mean that some of the available expansion slots on the board are not actually going to be useable once the GPU is installed. Also, for the really heavy high-end GPUs, sometimes you need a stronger motherboard that is reinforced to prevent GPU sagging (yes, that is a thing!).
2. Added Features and expansions
Now that we have addressed any compatibility issues you must consider, everything else is really a bonus. Manufacturers of motherboards add a variety of different features and expansion slots depending on their preference and whether the motherboard is a budget or premium option. Most of these will not affect your performance in any meaningful way, but will certainly add a degree of convenience, as you will see.
Motherboards can have built-in sound and WiFi capabilities. This means that you do not need to purchase a separate sound or WiFi card for your machine, saving you money and space on the board. Most motherboards have fairly decent sound capabilities that will serve everyone but the most hardcore sound enthusiasts. Having built in WiFi means that your PC will be able to connect to WiFi sources without needing cables, a definite plus, although this feature is usually restricted to premium boards.
Motherboards also have slots for NVMe M.2 Solid State drives (SSD). These are lightning fast storage devices that work similar to USB flash drives. Most motherboards will have at least one slot for these, but two is ideal. Often on the more premium boards you can also get a shield that covers the SSD and is used as a heatsink.
Another thing to look at is RGB and build quality. As we now live in the age of RGB-everything, the motherboard is no exception, and often has a variety of different RGB setups with customizable lights on the board that can match other components in your setup for a beautiful light show of your choice. Is RGB a necessity? Of course not. Does it make you happy to see it? Of course yes!
Lastly, in order to run a dual GPU setup (two graphics cards in one machine), you need a specific type of motherboard that allows for this. Make sure to check whether your preferred choice caters for this if you are intending on making use of this functionality.
Last of all, we look at something that the ordinary user can mostly ignore – overclocking. Nowadays, we have such flexible and easy-to-use components that you can easily overclock your CPU, GPU or RAM without working up a sweat. Again, we have a difference between AMD and Intel when it comes to overclocking.
For Intel CPUs, first it is worth noting that only CPUs that end in the letter K are unlocked for overclocking. If you have purchased a CPU chip that doesn’t have this, you would not be able to overclock anyway and therefore it would make sense to pick up a motherboard that doesn’t support overclocking either. Here you would look at what is known as the board chipset. If however you are interested in overclocking, you would need a Z370 or better yet a Z390 or Z490 board.
For AMD CPUs, these are all unlocked for overclocking by default. As such, all you need to do is make sure that the motherboard allows you to do so too. The X570, B550 and B450 all support overclocking.
So with all of that said (a mouthful indeed!), hopefully you are better placed to make an informed decision around the motherboard you will include in your dream PC!
If you’re looking for some hand-picked options, or else want something specific, head on over to our store and browse our hand picked motherboards, or else give us a shout and we’ll be happy to help.