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 processor and today we’ll go over how to choose a motherboard for your system.
While there are many components to motherboards, if you’re a beginner, I believe that there are three main things to consider when choosing a motherboard. In this post, we will cover each of them in detail.
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.
- Intel or AMD
- CPU Socket
- Motherboard Chipset
I will cover each of these three compatibility factors below.
Intel or AMD
There are only two 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 have motherboards that are designed specifically to work with Intel CPUs. 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.
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 be different from one processor/motherboard generation to the next.
So, for instance, AMD’s new Ryzen processors utilize the AM4 socket. However, AMD’s previous line of processors (or, at least, their previous flagship line of processors) utilized the AM3 and AM3+ sockets.
The important thing to note here is that, typically, processors are not backward or forward compatible with older or newer sockets. So, you can’t put a new Ryzen CPU on an older AM3+ socket motherboard and you cannot put an older AMD processor on a newer AM4 motherboard.
The same goes for Intel.
It’s also important to note that newer generations of processors (typically called ‘refreshes’) can utilize the same socket motherboards. For instance, AMD’s new Ryzen 2000 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.
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.
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 working with a tighter budget and you chose a budget-friendly processor, you won’t want to turn around and 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: Z370
- AMD: X370, X470
Non-Overclocking Chipset Motherboards
- Intel: H370, B360, H310
- AMD: B350 (You can achieve mild overclocks with the B350 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, Intel’s new Coffee Lake processors are the exception to that rule. While Intel’s Coffee Lake CPUs utilize the same LGA 1151 socket that Intel’s previous generation Skylake and Kaby Lake processors used, you cannot put a Coffee Lake processor in a Skylake or Kaby Lake chipset motherboard and you cannot put a Skylake or Kaby Lake processor in a Coffee Lake motherboard.
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, you’ll likely want to just stick to CPUs and motherboards of the same generation.
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.
There are three common motherboard sizes (or, form-factors). They are:
- Standard ATX
Check our guide on the Differences Between ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX for more information.
Here is a size comparison chart:
There are other motherboard form-factors, but the three listed above are the most common. The only other one that you might end up consider is Extended-ATX. E-ATX boards are larger than Standard-ATX boards.
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.
However, since motherboard sizes are standardized, all cases will be able to accommodate one or more motherboard form-factors.
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 mid tower and 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.
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)
- 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)
Your computer’s memory will get installed in the motherboard’s DIMM slots. Most mid-range-or-better motherboards come with four DIMM slots.
However, some motherboards (especially smaller form-factor boards: mini-ITX & micro-ATX) only come with two 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 16GB capacities, even motherboards that only have two DIMM slots can hold up to 32GB of RAM. And, for just about any kind of use-case scenario, 32GB should be enough.
But, if you want to run your memory in quad-channel configuration (which means all four slots are filled with RAM) either now, or in the future, two DIMM slots won’t cut it.
Also, if you’re working with a budget and you want to upgrade your system as time goes on, it will be more economical over the long run to start out with a motherboard that has four DIMM slots and then fill it with two lower capacity RAM sticks (like dual 4GB or 8GB sticks), than it would to start out with those same 4GB or 8GB sticks on a dual DIMM motherboard. This is because, in the first scenario, all you’d have to do is add two more sticks to complete the upgrade, whereas, in the second scenario, you’ll have to replace the original two sticks with higher capacity RAM.
Ultimately, a motherboard with four DIMM slots is ideal. But, if you’re building a smaller form-factor system, a dual DIMM motherboard might be your only option—and, if so, it’s really not that bad of a consolidation.
Your motherboard’s Serial ATA (or SATA) ports allow you to connect storage devices to your computer. So, hard drives, SATA SSDs, and optical drives all connect to SATA ports.
The more SATA ports your motherboard has, the more storage you can connect to your system. Most people will only have one or two storage devices connected to their system, but if you want to setup your storage drives in RAID configuration, the more SATA ports your motherboard has, the better.
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. 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. So, if you are interested in getting a new NVME SSD, definitely make sure that the motherboard you purchase can accommodate them.
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.
The difference between the two is that where you can plug USB devices/cables into a USB port, your USB ports that aren’t connected to the motherboard (like on the I/O) panel must be connected to a USB header. (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.)
So, for instance, when you buy a case for your system, that case will almost definitely come with USB ports on the front panel. Those USB ports have to be plugged into a USB header on your motherboard if you want to utilize them.
The more USB headers your motherboard comes with, the more USB ports you can add to your system.
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
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.
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. 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 B360M DS3H motherboard comes with an HDMI port, a DVI port, and a VGA port. If you already own two monitors and those two monitors only have a DisplayPort and HDMI port, you won’t be able to use the Gigabyte B360M DS3H to hook up both your monitors unless you get an adapter.
While you can still use an adapter to be able to hook up both 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 second monitor until after all your parts arrive.
So, ultimately, if you are building a system and are foregoing a dedicated graphics card, you should make sure that the motherboard you choose has the right display interface ports for your needs.
In Choosing A Motherboard, the Right Choice is the One That Suits Your Needs the Best
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.