How to Choose A Motherboard

We’ve covered everything you need to know in order to choose a motherboard for your build.

How to Choose A Motherboard
If you’ve decided to build your own computer, the next thing you need to do is to start putting together a list of parts for your system. In our last post, we covered what you should consider when you choose a CPU cooler and today we’ll go over how to choose a motherboard for your system.

While there are many components and factors to consider when it comes to motherboards, if you’re a beginner, we believe that there are three main things that you need to know when choosing the best motherboard for your needs.

You’ll need to make sure your motherboard is compatible with your CPU, that it is compatible with your case, and that it has the appropriate ports and slots for your needs.

In this post, we’ll cover those three topics so that you can feel confident choosing the right motherboard for your needs.

Watch: What to Look for in A Motherboard

If you prefer the video format of this guide, you can watch it below, or on our YouTube channel.

1. Your CPU and Motherboard Must Be Compatible

The first and most important thing that you’ll need to do is to narrow down your list of motherboards to options that are compatible with the processor you have chosen. Not all processors are compatible with all motherboards.

Fortunately, there are really only three things you need to understand in order to determine whether or not a processor and motherboard are compatible.

  1. Intel or AMD
  2. CPU Socket
  3. Motherboard Chipset

I will cover each of these three compatibility factors below.

Intel or AMD

There are only two desktop processor manufacturers: Intel and AMD. And, while this may seem obvious, Intel and AMD’s processors are designed to work in motherboards that are specific to each manufacturer.

So, in other words, Intel CPUs will only work in Intel-based motherboads. And, the same is true for AMD processors.

You cannot use an Intel processor on an AMD motherboard and vice-versa.

So, the first thing to note when choosing a motherboard is to ensure that if you have picked an Intel CPU, that you only look at compatible Intel-based motherboards, and the same is true for AMD CPUs.

CPU Socket

Get the Right CPU Socket

Now that you have narrowed down your options to either AMD or Intel motherboards, the next thing you’ll need to consider is the fact that not all Intel CPUs are compatible with all Intel-based motherboards. And, the same is true for AMD’s processors.

Sometimes, when Intel or AMD release a new generation of CPUs, they also have to release a new generation of motherboards to accommodate the new CPUs.

And, the CPU socket (the socket that the processor gets installed into on the motherboard) can get upgraded from one processor/motherboard generation to the next.

For instance, AMD’s new Ryzen processors utilize the AM5 socket. However, AMD’s previous generation of processors utilized the AM4 socket.

The important thing to note here is that processors are not backward or forward compatible with older or newer sockets. So, you can’t put a new Ryzen 7000-series CPU on an older AM4 socket motherboard and you cannot put an older AMD processor on a newer AM5 motherboard.

The same goes for Intel.

It’s also important to note that newer generations of processors can sometimes utilize the same socket motherboards. For instance, AMD’s Ryzen 5000 series processors work with the same AM4 socket that AMD’s original Ryzen (1000 series) processors used.

However, if you are considering getting a newer generation processor, before you pair it with an older generation motherboard (even if it does have the same socket your processor uses), make sure to note that sometimes older generation motherboards need a BIOS update in order to work with newer generation processors. So, you’ll want to ensure that, if you do buy an older generation motherboard, that you check and see if it has a BIOS update that will allow it to work with your new processor out of the box.

There are also disadvantages to using an older generation motherboard with a newer generation CPU. With each new CPU generation, we typically get new motherboard chipsets. And, motherboard chipsets are incredibly important when considering what motherboard you should pair with your CPU. We will discuss chipsets below.

Ultimately, though, now you can narrow your search for a motherboard down even further, as you can eliminate all motherboards with sockets that are not compatible with your processor.

Chipset

Get the Right Chipset

Finally, in terms of whether or not the motherboard you are considering is compatible with the processor you have chosen, the final thing you need to consider is what chipset the motherboard has.

A chipset is essentially the ‘feature-set’ that the motherboard comes with. For each motherboard socket, there are usually multiple chipsets available.

One chipset might use better components that are more suitable for overclocking your processor. That same chipset may also come with a wider option of ports. And, still, other chipsets may be more stripped down so that they come with a cheaper price for budget-oriented buyers.

Chipsets are important because depending on what processor you chose, there is likely a chipset that is better-suited for it. For instance, if you chose a processor that can be overclocked, you’ll also want to choose a motherboard that allows for and accommodates overclocking.

On the flip side, if you’re looking to build an affordable gaming PC and you chose a budget-friendly processor, you won’t want to pair that processor with a more expensive chipset motherboard.

Here’s a list of the newest chipsets available for the most popular processors and what they are geared towards:

Overclocking Chipset Motherboards

  • Intel: Z790, Z690
  • AMD: X670, 570

Non-Overclocking Chipset Motherboards

  • Intel: H770, B760, H610
  • AMD: A620, A520(You can still achieve mild overclocks with the B550 chipset, though)

It’s also important to note that, technically speaking, you can use a processor that is overclocking-friendly with a motherboard that is not overclocking-friendly. And, you can also typically put a processor that cannot be overclocked into a motherboard that is built for overclocking.

And, as I mentioned above in the section on CPU sockets, most of the time older generations of processors are compatible with newer generations of motherboards (and vice-versa).

However, sometimes newer processors aren’t compatible with same-socket motherboards with older chipset versions.

And, really, the best way to approach buying a new processor and motherboard is to just stick to the same generation processor and motherboard chipset. In some instances where there are no compatibility issues, it is okay to mix generations of CPUs and motherboards on the same socket (especially if you’re in a position to upgrade), but in the majority of cases, it’s best to just pair CPUs and motherboards of the same generation.

2. Your Motherboard Must Fit Inside the Case You Are Choosing

Motherboard Mounting Diagram

One common compatibility issue that I see arise when a first-time builder chooses their part list, is that they don’t realize that not every motherboard will fit inside of every case.

There are multiple case sizes and motherboard sizes and before you finalize your part list, you need to ensure that your motherboard will fit inside the case you have chosen.

Also Read: Which PC Case Size is Best for Your Next Build?

There are four common motherboard sizes (or, form-factors). They are:

  • Standard ATX
  • Micro-ATX
  • Mini-ITX
  • Extended-ATX

Check our guide on the Differences Between ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX for more information.

Here is a size comparison chart:

E-ATX vs ATX vs Micro-ATX vs Mini-ITX Dimensions

There are other motherboard form-factors, but the four listed above are the most common.

Fortunately, checking whether or not your motherboard is compatible with the case you want to choose is an easy process.

Most cases will list what kind of form-factor they accommodate. And, there are four main case “sizes” to make note of:

  • Full Tower (Large)
  • Mid Tower (Medium)
  • Micro-ATX (Small)
  • Mini-ITX (Smallest)

It’s important that you understand that case sizes aren’t like motherboard sizes. One particular mini-ITX case may have completely different dimensions than another mini-ITX case. One full tower or super tower case may be bigger than another full tower or super tower case.

Some full tower cases can’t hold an extended-ATX motherboard. Some mid tower cases can hold an extended-ATX motherboard.

However, since motherboard sizes are standardized, all cases will be able to accommodate one or more motherboard form-factors.

Note: The one exception to this is extended ATX motherboards, which can come in different widths, with a maximum of up to 13-inches wide.

For instance, a mini-ITX case will be able to accommodate any mini-ITX motherboard, regardless of the dimensions of the mini-ITX case.

And, larger cases, like full tower cases can accommodate multiple sizes of motherboards. So, for some full tower cases, you may be able to install any type of motherboard.

Of course, if aesthetics is important to you, you may not want to install a mini-ITX motherboard in a full tower case, as it may look funny.

Ultimately, determining whether or not your motherboard will fit inside of the case you have chosen is a fairly easy process. You just need to check the case you are considering buying (whether on its product listing on Amazon or Newegg, or on the manufacturers’ site) and look at its specifications. On the cases specifications sheet, it should tell you all of the motherboard form-factors it is compatible with.

Further Reading on PC Cases:

3. Make Sure Your Motherboard Has Enough Ports/Slots for Your Needs

That last thing that I think you need to consider when choosing a motherboard for your new PC build, is the types and number of ports it has.

A motherboard is essentially a large hub where all of your computer’s components plug into so that they can work together to deliver your on-screen experience.

The more ports your motherboard has, the more components you can plug into it. And, while plugging more components into your motherboard doesn’t necessarily result in a linear improvement in performance, more ports does give you some more options.

The main motherboard ports you’ll want to take note of are:

  • DIMM Slots (for memory)
  • M.2/SATA Ports
  • PCIe Lanes
  • USB Headers & Ports
  • Display Interface Ports

Those aren’t all of the ports that come on motherboards, but they are the main ones that are important to the average consumer. Let’s go over each one of them and why you’ll want to make note of how many of each your motherboard has.

DIMM Slots (RAM)

DIMM Slots

Your computer’s memory will get installed in the motherboard’s DIMM slots. All standard ATX and extended ATX motherboards come with four DIMM slots.

However, mini-ITX motherboards only come with two DIMM slots and micro-ATX motherboards can come with either two or four DIMM slots. Obviously, fewer DIMM slots mean a lower maximum capacity for memory.

The good news, though, is that since there are single RAM sticks available with 48GB capacities, newer generation motherboards that only have two DIMM slots can hold up to 96GB of RAM.

Most older generation chipsets will allow up to 64GB of RAM on motherboards that only have two DIMM slots.

And, for just about any kind of use-case scenario, 64GB should be way more than enough.

*It’s important to note that, even if a motherboard has two DIMM slots, it still may be limited to a specific amount of RAM. So, before you go out and buy two sticks of 48GB of RAM for a dual DIMM motherboard, make sure it can actually support 96GB of memory.

So, while a motherboard with four DIMM slots will offer room to add more memory in the future, if you’re building a smaller form-factor system, a motherboard with dual DIMMs won’t limit you too much.

Further Reading:

M.2/SATA Ports

M2 Port

Your motherboard’s M.2 ports allow you to install NVME SSDs into your system, which will allow you to use your motherboard’s PCIe interface to get faster transfer speeds. Almost all modern motherboards come with at least one M.2 port, but higher-end models offer more. With NVME SSD capacities as large at 8TB, though, one port is all most builders will need.

However, if you start out with a lower capacity NVME drive and were to run out of storage space, having additional ports available to you to install new NVME SSDs would be beneficial.

It’s also important to note that the PCIe generation supported by your motherboard will play a role in which generation of NVME SSD you can choose. Newer motherboards can support PCIe 5.0, which, in turn, means that they can support Gen5 NVME SSDs. And, that means that you’ll have access to higher transfer speeds on your SSD.

Older motherboards will support either PCIe 4.0 or PCIe 3.0.

Of course, the newer PCIe generations often can’t be fully utilized in all scenarios. For certain tasks—like gaming—you won’t notice a big difference between using a Gen4 SSD and a Gen5 SSD. However, if you have a big budget and you’re looking to optimize your system’s performance as much as possible, pairing a Gen5 SSD with a motherboard that has PCIe 5.0 technology would be the way to go.

Although, if you’re building a budget-based system and you choose a motherboard that has either PCIe 3.0 or PCIe 4.0, there’s no point in choosing a newer generation SSD, as your motherboard won’t be able to take advantage of its faster transfer rate. And, since older generation SSDs are typically cheaper than newer generation SSDs, it would also be a waste of money.

Motherboards also come with a different number of SATA ports. SATA ports connect devices like hard drives, SATA SSDs, and optical drives. The SATA interface is a much slower interface than NVME and is becoming obsolete. However, if you still have traditional hard drives, or SATA SSD drives, or if you want to connect an opticle drive, you will need to make sure that the motherboard you choose has enough SATA ports.

Even budget-friendly motherboards come with at least four SATA ports, though, so unless you’re planning on running a bunch of hard drives or SATA SSDs in a RAID configuration, you probably won’t have to worry too much about whether or not your motherboard will have enough SATA connections.

PCIe Lanes

PCIe Lanes

PCI Express (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) lanes can accommodate a variety of different components.

However, PCIe lanes are important—especially to gamers—because they are where you plug-in your graphics card.

Most motherboards will come with at least a couple of PCIe lanes. However, more expensive motherboards come with multiple PCIe lanes. And, if you are building an extreme gaming computer, you can use those multiple PCIe lanes to plugin multiple graphics cards.

In reality, the majority of users will never have the need to run a multi-GPU setup. And, really, in modern gaming, running multiple GPU setups doesn’t offer a significant performance advantage.

But, you can also plug-in soundcards and a variety of adapters/hubs (like a USB expansion hub, or a PCIe Wi-Fi adapter) into your PCIe ports as well.

The PCIe bus also consists of some newer ports/slots as well. For instance, the NVME interface is attached to the PCIe bus and, through an M.2 port, will allow you to install the newer and faster NVME SSDs (see above).

And, again, newer motherboards will support newer PCIe generations. However, most benchmarks show that there still isn’t a significant (if any) advantage to running your graphics card on a PCIe 5.0 versus running it on PCIe 3.0.

In the end, though, the more PCIe lanes your motherboard has, the more options you have to add more components to your system now or later down the road.

USB Headers & USB Ports

USB headers allow you to add USB ports to your computer. Motherboards come with both USB headers on the board itself and USB ports on the I/O panel on the top right of your motherboard.

While the USB ports on your motherboard’s I/O panel work out-of-the-box, the USB ports on your case will not work unless they are connected to a USB header on your motherboard.

The more USB headers your motherboard comes with, the more USB ports you can add to your system.

(Although, as mentioned above, you can also add more USB ports to your system by using a USB hub adapter that plugs into a PCIe lane.)

USB headers are also required with certain RGB lighting and CPU coolers. As an example, some AIO CPU coolers need to be connected to a USB header in order to give you the ability to control the cooler’s pump/fan speed.

So, when you go to choose your motherboard, you need to ensure that you’re going to have enough USB headers and ports for your needs and, if not, you either need to choose a motherboard that has more headers and ports, or figure out what adapters you’ll need in order to set everything up.

Display Interface Ports

IO Panel Video Ports

When I say display interface ports, I’m really just talking about HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort ports.

And, really, the display interface ports that your motherboard has are only important if you aren’t going to use a dedicated graphics card.

If you are going to use a dedicated graphics card, then you can forego noting what display interface ports your motherboard comes with.

Also Read: Dedicated Graphics Card vs. Integrated Graphics: Which is Better?

However, if you are going to rely on your processor for graphics processing (via the integrated graphics), then you’ll want to make sure that the motherboard you choose has the appropriate ports to connect your monitor to.

Most modern motherboards come with at least an HDMI port, and usually a DVI or DisplayPort as well—if not all three. So, really, the only time the motherboards ports (or lack thereof) will become an issue is if you want to setup multiple monitors.

As an example, the GIGABYTE H610M S2H V2 motherboard comes with an HDMI port, a DVI port, a DisplayPort, and a VGA port. If you already own three monitors and those three monitors only have one HDMI port and one DVI port, you won’t be able to use the GIGABYTE H610M S2H V2 to hook up all three of your monitors unless you get an adapter.

While you can still use an adapter to be able to hook up your monitors to that motherboard, if you don’t make note of the ports beforehand, you won’t realize that you need an adapter to connect the third monitor until after all your parts arrive.

Check it Out: What to Look for in a Gaming Monitor

Ultimately, this will be a rare scenario. But, if you are building a system and are foregoing a dedicated graphics card and you want to run a multiple monitor setup, you should make sure that the motherboard you choose has the right display interface ports for your needs.

Pick the Best Motherboard for Your Needs

As I mentioned above, these three things to consider when picking a motherboard for your system aren’t the only three things that one might want to consider. However, for the majority of users, if you understand the three factors above, you’ll likely be able to choose the right motherboard for your needs.

Hey, I’m Brent. I’ve been building PCs and writing about building PCs for a long time. Through TechGuided.com, I've helped thousands of people learn how to build their own computers. I’m an avid gamer and tech enthusiast, too. On YouTube, I build PCs, review laptops, components, and peripherals, and hold giveaways.

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