This blog post is article five in an educational series designed to give our readers an opportunity to learn more about how computers function without getting burdened with highly technical details. Last month, we discussed storage drives. Today, we will be exploring the motherboard.
Over the past several months, we have discussed a wide variety of components inside a computer, and it would be natural for our regular readers to have asked themselves, “how does it all fit together?” The motherboard serves this exact purpose. It connects all wired elements of a computer together and gives them a platform over which they can communicate. They enable critical functions like letting a CPU access the RAM, saving data to storage drives, receiving packets over the internet, and sending orders for GPU frame rendering. A common misconception that we will address today is that motherboards are simply the sum of their respective connectors. In reality, the boards themselves enable many of the basic features we enjoy today.
Motherboards support a wide variety of connectors depending on where they are deployed. In the consumer space, motherboards typically handle the most of following connections directly: CPU socket, RAM socket, I/O ports, PCI lanes, internal headers, SATA data, NVME storage (M.2 or U.2), and system power distribution (24 pin ATX and sometimes additional CPU power). We have discussed most of these connections already, so check out our other articles if any are unfamiliar. Now would be a good time to mention I/O support, though. These include ports for USB, audio, Ethernet, and, in systems without discrete GPUs, video out, to name a few. In desktop systems, there are typically three standard motherboard sizes/layouts: ATX, micro ATX (mATX), and mini ITX. ATX is the largest of the three and is the most common choice for consumers making custom builds. They typically implement most of the features supported by the chipset (a component we will discuss shortly). mATX motherboards are most common in prebuilt desktop computers because of their smaller size. Mini ITX systems are becoming more and more common in the consumer space because of their incredible feature density at such a small size, allowing for enthusiasts to build high end systems that are similar in profile to a console like the PS4. Extended ATX exists to support very high end systems, and servers have a few specific motherboard layouts as well. Laptops, because of how unique their layouts are, do not have as well defined standards for their motherboards. There are many motherboard manufacturers, including ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, EVGA, and ASRock. In prebuilt systems, it is not uncommon for the manufacturer, such as HP or Dell, to also manufacture the motherboard for the computer themselves.
The chipset is a component that is permanently housed on the motherboard and supports many of the AMD and Intel specific features not included on the CPU die itself. They have dedicated access to the CPU with specially assigned PCI lanes to support the bandwidth requirements of the different devices they support. USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, and SATA are a few of the connections they support. They come in a wide variety of classes set by AMD and Intel, with some of the latest chipsets being Z270 for intel and X370 for AMD. CPU support and overclocking functionality are also determined by the chipset.
Using price as the metric to measure these motherboards, it is typical to find more expensive motherboards supporting the latest chipset and the most features, which is unsurprising. What a lot of consumers do not know, though, is that build quality of the boards, especially in highly specialized parts like the VRMs (Voltage Regulator Modules, which deliver power to the CPU and are critical for good overclocking), increases with price. While a less expensive Z270 board, for example, will still support most of the connections you would need for a powerful custom system, but if you wanted to push the limits of performance by achieving a high overclock, or you want a high quality BIOS layout or other specialized function (RGB lighting support is a common one), you will need to pay a premium.
To summarize, motherboards bring the entire computer together by allowing devices to communicate with each other. They come in a variety of form factures and support many different features on their chipsets. Failures in motherboards lead to system crashes or complete lack of startup because of how integral they are to the basic functionality of a computer system.
If you are interested in upgrading your motherboard, or if you suspect that it may be failing to function properly, feel free to bring your computer to one of Geek ABC’s drop off locations, give us a call, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org! Our technicians are more than happy to address whatever issues your computer might be facing. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out our other blog posts! We hope to see you back for next month’s installment in “How Does My Computer Work?”.