Motherboard: what it’s for and what it is

Setting foot in the wide world of hardware can be complex. It requires extensive knowledge of the many components that are part of it. You'll never stop learning, and you'll need to constantly update. One of the most important elements is certainly the motherboard.

What is a motherboard

When we talk about a motherboard, we refer to a printed circuit board. A support that allows elements in an electronic circuit to communicate with each other. There is a reason why it is called "mother", which goes to indicate the cruciality of its role. It is responsible for the communication of every component that goes to make up the PC. In addition to this, there are elements that are present in it for the correct functioning of the PC itself.

The formats of motherboards vary, divided according to certain characteristics. The difference can be represented by the size. Generally, it is good to underline that the smaller the measures, the lesser the additional functionalities. The development of new models, however, leads to borderline cases, such as the Mini-ITX, which have quite interesting features. Needless to say, each version, beyond the size, has the minimum components and functions for the operation of a PC at a basic level.

Motherboard: the components

There are many elements that make up a motherboard, starting with software interfaces known as sockets. They usually come in two variants: LGA and PGA. The first version has contact pins on the board, with the CPU offering gold pads at the same. The second version instead sees the pins placed on the CPU directly. The LGA sockets protect the CPU, which is difficult to damage, to say the least. It is not possible to bend or break the pins. PGA sockets, on the other hand, are generally easier to install. Both also have their flaws. In the first case the pins on the motherboard are easier to bend than those on the processor and also more difficult to repair. In the second case instead, the pins, if they break, would lead to the total unserviceability of the processor.

Different are the power systems on a motherboard, whose task is to convert the current provided by the power supply into usable energy for the components. There are two main power systems that deserve mention: the CPU power supply and the RAM power supply.

When we talk about the CPU power supply, we are talking about the elements that provide the correct voltage to the processor. In most cases the greater the quantity of the phases, the better the quality of the work done. Of course, the value of the individual electronic components also plays a role in this.

Managing the power supply phases is a PWM controller, whose purpose is to determine the phases that the motherboard is able to generate. Other components include MOSFETs, which switch on and off to provide the right voltage. Added to the list of components are the inductors, which offer resistance to the 12V of the power supply, causing the voltage to drop to what the CPU requires. It is impossible to exclude capacitors from the list of really fundamental elements. These act as a current filter.

The DIMM socket is generally referred to as a simple "slot". This is an incorrect definition for the socket reserved for RAM. Typically, there are at least two RAM slots on any motherboard, up to a maximum of eight (on common commercial models). Given the physical differences from one model to another, it is good to emphasize that it is not possible to install any type of RAM on your motherboard. Every motherboard has PCI Express slots. One port is reserved specifically for each type of expansion. The size varies depending on the number of lines it can handle. There are still some PCI slots, now unused and destined to disappear in the future. The M.2 slot is also reserved for expansions, capable of handling up to 4 PCI Express lines. A space known especially for the possibility of installing NVMe SSDs, which take advantage of PCI Express connectivity. Guaranteed higher speed than the past SATA SSDs.

In the same area you can locate the chipset, covered by a heat sink, called heatsink. The task is to determine the compatibility of a processor with a specific motherboard. Ogni socket ha il suo chipset, che determina anche la possibilità di fare overclock, il numero di porte PCIe e molto altro.

Sono due i principali connettori di alimentazione. Si tratta del 20 e del 24 pin. Il primo è quello più datato dei due. Gli ultimi quattro pin sono ausiliari, il che spiega come qualsiasi scheda madre possa funzionare inserendo un alimentatore qualunque a 20 pin, seppur più obsoleto, per così dire. Le schede madre dispongono di una lunga serie di connettori ausiliari, ecco i principali:

  • connettori SATA (generalmente riservati a SSD e hard disk;
  • connettore a 10 pin e 19 pin (per USB 2.0 e 3.0);
  • connettore audio 10 pin;
  • connettori a 3 o 4 pin (per ventole e pompe dei dissipatori a liquido);
  • connettore RGB Header (per collegare i dispositivi RGB alla scheda madre);
  • connettori per led e pulsanti presenti sul case.

Facile da individuare il pannello I/O, che è visibile sul retro del case del proprio PC. There are a variety of inputs and outputs, from USB ports to video and audio outputs.

Additional Functions

Every user has their own needs, which prompts the customization of the motherboard. Among the most famous ones there is certainly the postcode, which is a small screen that communicates with the user, informing him about the elements not working properly in the PC. Today it is often replaced by a led, known as troubleshooting or, in some cases, by a classic speaker.

It is possible to have power on/off and reset buttons directly on the motherboard. One of the most important additional features is the dual BIOS. These are chips to access the BIOS, in case the main one is not usable.

How to choose a motherboard

Knowing the components of a motherboard is the first step towards an informed purchase. So here's how to choose the motherboard that best suits your needs. The first aspect that you must necessarily consider is compatibility. You must determine which processor you intend to mount. To make sure that everything is finally compatible, you will have to inform about the socket that each processor requires.

The question then arises spontaneously: how can you know which socket is compatible with the selected processor? Each series of processors has the same socket, in most cases. Each socket family follows the same line, in most cases. To avoid unnecessary purchases, however, it is best to check the official websites of Intel and AMD, so as to be sure, especially if you switch from one family of processors to another.

It is not so rare, however, that a motherboard and a processor that boasts the same socket are not then compatible with each other. In such cases you have to rely on the chipset. Each series of processors boasts a different type of chipset. In many cases, when the socket remains identical, the new generation chipsets are backward compatible. In some cases, however, this does not happen, both for market and electronic issues.

In case you buy a motherboard with compatible chipset but previous generation, it is possible that these are not updated, generating compatibility issues. It is good to know, however, that all this can be solved with a BIOS update. In some cases, however, it is necessary to have a compatible processor to do so. It is a good idea to find out early, even if only by making sure that your motherboard allows BIOS updates even without a processor installed. You should also make sure that the chipset is designed for the specific processor you intend to mount.

A similar amount of attention should be paid to RAM. Today's motherboards only support DDR4 memory. However, if you are buying older boards, check what kind of RAM they require. In most cases the purchase of a motherboard does not require a lot of money. However, saving as much money as possible is not worth it, considering that heatsinks are often missing on MOSFETs, offering only two RAM slots. This is a limiting choice, after a discount of about 10 euros.

Valueing a very expensive motherboard, for a mild use of your PC, is really useless. The situation is different if your PC is your main work tool. In this case you will be faced with the need to buy a very powerful processor. The motherboard will have to be adequate, which does not make you afraid of having to deal with large workloads for many hours. In this case you might spend as much as 100 euros (or more). You should pay attention to the additional features, paying attention to the power supply department, inquiring about the quality of the circuits of the chosen motherboard.