All about computer motherboards [Updated 2022]


What is a computer motherboard?

A motherboard is a piece of common hardware found in nearly every computer. It is sometimes called a mainboard, system board or just board and contains all the components that makes your computer function properly. Without it, the other components would be useless.

The heart of any computer is its motherboard. Also known as mainboard or system board, this component houses the central processing unit (CPU) along with everything else needed to make everything work properly including memory, input/output controller hub (ICH), graphics adapter chipset(s), voltage regulator modules (VRM) if present, hard disk controllers if present on an IDE based system, the southbridge chip if present on many modern computers and expansion slots for external peripherals such as video cards or storage control devices such as RAID controllers.

What does it do?

Once everything is plugged in and the computer case closed, it all comes to life. The CPU starts up first by executing its BIOS program (basic input/output system). Once running, the BIOS checks if all systems are “go” and then searches for a drive with an operating system installed on it. On older computers this was usually a floppy disk or compact disc if present but nowadays, that drive is more likely to be a hard disk or solid state drive (SSD). Operating systems that may be found include MS-DOS, Windows NT, 2000 Professional, XP Home Edition, XP Professional etc., unix derivatives such as Redhat Fedora Core 5 and OpenSUSE 11.1 or free operating systems such as Ubuntu 10.10.

Once the operating system is found, the BIOS (via the chipset) hands over control of your computer to it and thus begins its role as slave to the motherboard. The CPU is still running at this point but no further instructions are executed until something else manages to take control away from the motherboard by accessing one of many input/output devices connected to it such as a USB input.

At this point in time, you have not even bothered with your mouse or keyboard so you probably haven’t accessed a device outside of local memory yet. Perhaps you tried starting up a program before realising you didn’t have a disk drive installed… after all, who needs an optical drive these days? While that may be true for you, it’s not the case for everyone.

You may have just booted up your computer and nothing is wrong except you’re staring at a black screen and wondering if your display is broken. Turns out that no signal can get to the monitor without a video card, and since that isn’t what Motherboard is responsible for then it’s completely useless in this situation.

Without its motherboard, a computer cannot function at all; even the CPU requires an input from the motherboard to be able to do any work.


The different types of motherboards

Motherboards come in a variety of different types, each required to perform a unique function.

Starting from the basics, there are three main categories: Desktop Motherboards, Servers and Workstations , Gaming motherboards , and Server – Workstation hybrids . What type of motherboard you need depends on what exactly you want your computer for. To make it easier to understand, we’ll begin with the basics and work our way upwards.

Desktop Motherboards

By far the most common kind of motherboard. It’s likely that this is all you have ever used in your personal computers, including laptops. They’re designed for general-purpose computing and therefore lack some features that might be necessary for more specific tasks such as running servers or playing games at high levels of detail.

Typical Socket: LGA 1151 , for example.

Workstation Motherboards

Workstation motherboards are designed with a few things in mind: High performance, stability, and ease of use. As such, some features that workstations require are not found on typical desktop motherboards. In order to provide these features, manufacturers have created a new line of motherboards called ‘workstation motherboards’. They come in the EATX form factor (30x24cm), which is larger than ATX or Micro-ATX (~25×22 cm). Some examples include the ASRock WS-E/10G , Supermicro X11DPi-NT , ASUS WS C621E SAGE, and Supermicro X11DPL-i .

Workstation motherboards are often used in the video animation and visual effects industry, as well as high performance computing or supercomputing. Such users include Pixar Animation Studios , Electronic Arts (EA) Dice , Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Microsoft Xbox One X game console, Valve Corporation ‘s Steam Machine initiative, the oil and gas industry, alongside other sectors that require workstation quality hardware for their production needs.

High-End Server Motherboards

A server motherboard is a computer motherboard designed for use in servers. The term “server motherboard” can also be applied to ASRock Rack C2750D4I , ASUS P9D WS . Generally speaking though, most server motherboards will be bulkier in size and scope than standard desktop components. What differentiates them is the number of expansion slots, memory sockets, SATA ports, PCIe lanes—all which are crucial to running multiple devices simultaneously .

High-End Desktop Motherboards

A high-end desktop computer or HEDT system is a personal computer that provides the highest performance available. The term “high-end” refers to being powerful enough for demanding tasks sufficient to justify the price premium over lower-end systems . High-performance options include dual GPUs with Crossfire or SLI support , large memory capacity up to 256GB RAM , Xeon CPUs with ECC support for server applications, as well as overclocking capabilities. Such motherboard type examples include ASUS Z10PE-D8 WS.

The different types of motherboard form-factors

  • SFF (Small Form Factor) Motherboard: A small form factor computer is a type of personal computer that employs a smaller case, as well as power supply than is standard for desktop computers .  The most popular form factors are mini-ITX, MicroATX and some models of the boards based on Mini-STX. Such motherboard examples include ASUS H87I-PLUS .
  • Standard ATX Motherboard: A chassis which supports the larger Standard ATX motherboard is designed to offer compatibility with high-end video cards, water cooling , multiple hard drives; they also typically provide more expansion slots than their baby AT counterparts. Standard AT XP board types include ASUS Z97M PLUS .
  • MicroATX Motherboard: A smaller form factor, typically measuring 9.6 by 9.6 inches (24 cm × 24 cm ). It is commonly used in home theater PC’s , due to its lower cost, size and the availability of integrated graphics . Most MicroATX cases intended for home theater use provide three expansion slots. An example of a motherboard using this form factor would be ASUS M5A97 R2.0 .
  • Mini-ITX motherboard: The Mini-ITX motherboard has dimensions similar to those of a video game controller or hand held video game consoles : 4.4 by 4.4 inches (11 cm × 11 cm ) for model year 2015 .  However, not all motherboards are manufactured to this standard, as there are some Mini-ITX motherboards that are larger. Most cases for personal computers designed for home theater use will only support a Mini-ITX motherboard, as they offer few expansion options. An example of a motherboard using this form factor would be Gigabyte GA-H110N.

How to choose the right motherboard for your needs?

Choosing the right motherboard can be quite tricky. You will need to access what it will be used for? What features and upgrade options you would like to have? What is the budget? What form factor do you want your motherboard to use? All of these questions need to be answered, and will go a long way for helping you determine what motherboard will work best for you.

First thing’s first, what is the purpose of this new motherboard going to be used for? If it is going to be a gaming system, then something with lots of USB ports and surround sound might not matter as much as a motherboard with SLI support or one that has a larger number of RAM slots. Maybe it will be part of a home server or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. In those cases, more CPU cores and memory capacity may be more important than speed. Whatever you plan on using your computer for, the motherboard should be the right fit for your needs.

What about overclocking? Some motherboards are made with this in mind, and you’ll want to look into that depending how much control over settings you want over your CPU or RAM. You might need SLI or Crossfire support, depending on what kind of components you plan on using. Or maybe you don’t think either of those features is important to you, so it’s not necessary to check before selecting a board. It all depends on what your computer will be used for.

Although motherboards can become quite expensive if they feature lots of extras like built-in Wi-Fi modules or Bluetooth adapters, there are less expensive options available even with these capabilities included if needed. For example, ASUS’ “Republic of Gamers” range includes motherboards for just about any kind of gamer, without costing an arm or a leg. It’s easy to go overboard when selecting high-end components though, so if you are building your machine on a tight budget it might pay to have a look at what you need and create a list before checking out the various models available in the stores.

What are the most reliable motherboards?

  1. ASUS
  2. Gigabyte
  3. MSI
I am a computer engineer holding a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, complemented by a Master's in Business Administration from University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I currently work as a Senior IT Consultant in Melbourne, Australia. With over 15 years of...