Motherboard is perhaps the most important component of a PC that connects all components together.
All the pc parts like CPU, RAM, Graphics Card, SSDs, Optical drives, usb drives, monitor, keyboard, mouse connect and communicate via the motherboard. The motherboard is the foundation of your PC and it determines what other components you can install in your PC.
Like with any component the motherboard also has a lot of technical specifications that the end user needs to understand in order to select the right one for his needs.
There is no single metric that indicates the performance of a motherboard. A motherboard actually implements numerous technologies and standards like SATA, PCIE, USB, Ethernet etc, each of which have their own technical specifications.
The motherboard determines what CPU you can use and how fast and efficiently all the components shall work.
In this post we shall take a quick look at some of the most important features and specifications of motherboards. Here is a quick list:
- Form Factor - ATX, MicroATX, Mini-ITX
- CPU Socket - Intel and AMD
- Chipset - Intel and AMD
- USB Ports (2.0, 3.0, 3.2 Gen1, Type C)
- RAM / DIMM Slots - DDR3, DDR4
- Video Connectors - HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, Divi
- PCIE Slots - x1, x16 (Gen 3, Gen 4)
- Inbuilt Wifi
- Sata 3 connectors
- M.2 NVME Support
- RGB Headers
1. Form Factor - Motherboard Size
Motherboards come in 3 popular sizes - ATX, micro-ATX (mATX), and mini-ITX (ITX). The main difference between the three form factors is their sizes and the number of interfaces (like RAM slots, PCIE slots, USB slots) available on them to connect various other hardware components.
There is an even larger form factor known as E-ATX or Extended ATX but it is not that popular in the consumer PC market segment.
ATX Form Factor
ATX is the biggest among the three and generally only fit in full tower cases. The physical dimensions of ATX are 12 in. x 9.6 in.
Being the biggest, ATX motherboards have more space for slots. It comes with 4 or more RAM slots, 4 or more PCI-E and PCI slots, and 6 or more SATA ports.
If you are building a high productivity machine which needs to access lots of peripherals like storage devices, graphics cards, usb drives etc, then ATX motherboards are the high end choice.
These motherboards are larger in size, and most expensive ones. Also bear in mind that larger motherboards will need a compatible cases that can accommodate them.
mATX - Micro-ATX
mATX is the middle ground. It's smaller than ATX but is still larger than ITX boards. It’s also usually cheaper than both ATX motherboards, so it's a good place to start for new PC builders or budget builders.
It usually has 2 or 4 RAM slots, around 3 PCI-E and 1 PCI slots, and 4-6 SATA ports.
Micro-ATX is the most popular choice for standard pc builds as they support an adequate number of devices. Whether you are building a gaming pc or a video editing pc, or a simple home pc, micro-atx works just fine in all cases.
Micro-atx comes in various sizes. Some are compact with only 2 RAM slots while others are bigger with 4 RAM slots.
mini - ITX
ITX motherboards are usually boards for enthusiasts who are trying to build the smallest possible PC they can. The obvious advantage of ITX boards is that they can fit in very small PC cases, making them great for mobile workstations. ITX motherboards only have minimal slots and ports.
Due to its small size, it can only fit 1 PCI-E slot, 2 RAM slots, and 2-4 SATA ports.
2. CPU Socket
The CPU socket and chipset are the most important thing that you should consider when choosing your motherboard. The socket determines what CPU you can install onto the motherboard.
Different processors from different vendors require different sockets. So you need an intel compatible socket for intel processors and AMD socket for AMD processors.
The main sockets for AMD Ryzen series processors include AM3 and AM4. With AMD there are only few socket types to use and they are often backward compatible with previous generation processors. This makes it easy to upgrade your CPU without having to upgrade your motherboard everytime.
The main sockets for Intel processors include LGA775, LGA1151, LGA1200. It should be noted that Intel has far more socket types for its processors. Due to this intel socket based motherboards often run into compatibility with future versions of intel processors. Users have to buy a new motherboard for a new cpu if they wish to upgrade.
Besides the socket, the chipset is the next important thing that determines what processor can be installed on a motherboard. Any processor is only compatible with a limited set of chipsets.
The chipset is the main chip on the motherboard that enables the cpu and peripherals to communicate with each other. So the chipset determines how fast and efficiently various components can exchange data.
A chipset that supports PCIE4 will allow for faster communication between the pcie peripherals and cpu for instance.
It should be kept in mind that the choice of chipset also affects the motherboard form factor. For example the X570 chipset is seen mostly on ATX motherboards. Whereas the B550 series of chipset is available in micro-ATX size motherboards.
Newer generation AMD processors have been on the same AM4 socket for years now, and that’s great for upgrading in the years to come, especially since most of their motherboard chipsets still support newer processors.
For some chipsets, all you need to do is update your bios and pop in the new processor.
Some AMD chipsets also allow you to overclock unlocked processors and overclock the RAM frequencies as well. So, make sure to keep that in mind when choosing your motherboard.
A list of all AMD AM4 Socket chipsets:
At the time of writing this article, the X570 is the most powerful chipset with full support for PCIE 4.0 and the latest Ryzen 3 series of AMD processors.
Intel has more sockets and chipsets for their newer generation processors. 8th gen and 9th gen processors make use of the LGA 1151 socket, while the newest 10th gen processors use a completely new LGA 1200 socket.
Unlike AMD’s Ryzen processors, Intel usually changes sockets almost every generation, making it harder and more expensive to upgrade to the next generation since you need to buy a whole new motherboard to support new processors.
Some Intel chipsets allow users to overclock their unlocked processor and RAM as well. Only a few processor models are unlocked though, so make sure to pick up an unlocked processor and a chipset that supports overclocking if you plan to overclock your Intel processor.
A list of all Intel LGA 1151 socket chipsets:
A list of all Intel LGA 1200 socket chipsets:
4. USB Ports
Motherboards will often have multiple different versions of USB ports available on them. USB ports are present on the backside IO panel and also onboard as header pins. The header pins connect to the front usb ports on the pc case via cables.
The USB standard has gone several upgrades all the way from USB 2.0 to USB 3.2 Gen2 with increasing speeds.
USB 3.0 offers up to 10 times faster transfer speeds than USB 2.0, so be on the lookout for the number of USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports on your motherboard.
The latest version is USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 which offer speeds upto 20 Gigabits/s. Motherboards can have both USB 3.2 Gen 1 and Gen 2 ports depending on form factor and chipset.
To learn more about the USB standard and different versions check the wikipedia article here
Newer motherboards also include USB Type C, which implement 3.2 Gen 2 speed standard.
The number of USB ports and the maximum supported speed actually depends on the the CPU and Chipset both. Newer chipsets like X570 have full PCIE 4.0 support and multiple lanes for USB data transfer and can support far more USB ports than other older chipsets.
Another important thing that affects the number of USB ports is the motherboard form factor. Compact sized micro-atx motherboards will have fewer usb ports than ATX motherboards.
5. RAM Slots
RAM Slots (also known as DIMM slots) will determine the type and capacity of RAM your motherboard supports. Motherboards usually support only a specific version of DIMM like DDR3 or DDR4 and then is a maximum upper limit to the amount of RAM that can be installed.
RAM nowadays is mostly either DDR3 or DDR4, unless you have a very outdated system. Most newer generation processors only support DDR4, so make sure that the motherboard supports it as well.
The motherboard determines the maximum clock speed the RAM modules can run at. If the motherboard supports overclocking then it can run RAM at much higher clock speeds of upto 4400 Mhz, provided that the RAM module also supports overclocking.
Make sure to check up to what RAM speeds the motherboard supports before buying a high-frequency RAM kit. Take some time to think about the number of RAM slots as well as the maximum supported RAM which varies from motherboard to motherboard.
6. Video Connector Ports
There are several different video ports available on motherboards, such as HDMI, DP, DVI, and VGA. These ports are used to access the on-board graphics of your processor.
Most Intel processors have integrated graphics while Ryzen processors with a “G” on their name are the only Ryzen processors that have integrated graphics. AMD processors with integrated graphics are called APUs.
Most modern motherboards have both HDMI and DisplayPort interfaces together. If you have a monitor that has VGA port then us a convertor adaptor.
The Video Graphics Array or VGA port is one of the oldest video ports, still used in the market today. It makes use of analog signals making it prone to signal degradation, but older devices are guaranteed to work with it.
It is slowly being phased out and is not available on newer motherboards.
Digital Visual Interference or DVI provides a better image than VGA and is more versatile due to its capability of both analog and digital signals. However, much like VGA, it is rarely used nowadays.
High Definition Multimedia Interference or HDMI provides better color and image than the older connectors. It can also support audio, making it one of the mainstream connectors today. Any new device will almost certainly have at least one HDMI port.
This is the most popular video connector and is available on all recent motherboards.
DisplayPort or DP is a graphics port that is usually found on high refresh rate monitors. The main advantage of DP over HDMI is that it can support up to 8K resolution, multiple video streams, and high refresh rate at high resolutions, that helps eliminate lag and screen tearing.
The higher end motherboards have DisplayPort interface whereas the budget motherboards may only have HDMI.
7. PCI-E Slots
Most motherboards come with PCI-E Gen 3 slots which offer 32GB/s bandwidth and 8 GT/s transfer speeds. However, the new X570 chipset together with Ryzen 3000 series processors support PCI-E Gen 4 which doubles both the bandwidth and transfer speeds of Gen 3.
The PCI-E slot is where peripherals like graphics cards are plugged into the motherboard. Most motherboards will have atleast 1 x16 PCI-E slot and additional x1 or x16 slots. They allow you plug numerous other peripherals like USB port adapters, Wifi adapters. Capture Cards etc.
If you plan to use specialised hardware for professional work that requires to be plugged into the PCI-e slot then you should consider ATX motherboards which have 2 or more x16 slots
To learn more about PCI-E standard check the wikipedia page here:
8. Onboard Wi-Fi Support
Built-in Wi-Fi is becoming a common feature on desktop motherboards. These motherboards are targeted towards the gaming users who need fast connectivity without having to depend on wires.
Onboard wifi on motherboards are not upgradable like pcie based wifi cards. Sometimes the pcie based wifi cards may offer superior bandwidth and connectivity with better antennas compared to the motherboard's inbuilt wifi.
9. SATA 3 Ports
Sata 3 Ports allow you to connect SATA devices like hard disks, SSDs, internal optical drives etc. Most motherboards have between 4-6 sata ports.
Sata 3 interface allows for speeds upto 6 Gbit/s or 600 MB/s.
For storage drive the M.2 NVME technology far superior to SATA. Though you may use SATA ports to add additional hard drives for more space.
To learn more about the SATA technology check the wikipedia article here:
10. M.2 Nvme Support
M.2 is a different type of SSD that makes use of PCI-E standard to provide support for faster transfer speeds over the traditional 2.5" SSD.
M.2 NVMe SSDs can have transfer speeds of up to 1000MB/s for PCI-E Gen 3 and 2000 MB/s for PCI-E Gen 4, way faster than the fastest SATA III which can only support speeds of up to 600 MB/s.
Generally speaking, using faster storage not only allows your PC to boot-up, copy items, and open applications faster, but it also makes your system respond quicker and snappier in general.
If you want the best and the fastest, make sure to grab a motherboard with M.2 NVMe support.
11. RGB Headers
RGB headers on the motherboard is a must for users who like bright and flashy lights in their PC.
There are 2 types of RGB headers - the common and typical 12V RGB header, which are the most common ones, and the 5V ARGB header, which can be used to control each RGB led individually.
That was a brief overview of various motherboard specifications and features. If you are planning to buy a new motherboard for a new PC or upgrading your existing one then make sure to carefully go through the specification list and choose a motherboard that has all the necessary features and also will support future hardware upgrades.