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best motherboards

The Best Motherboards in 2021

Author: Robert Wilson

Electronics & Peripherals Expert

The home for all important components of a modern computer is the mainboard. This is often also referred to as the motherboard or motherboard. On a mainboard you will find permanently soldered electronic components as well as slots for expansions.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Motherboards

What is a motherboard?

A motherboard basically consists of a large circuit board with printed traces that integrates all the important components needed for a computer to function.

The motherboard has a socket for the CPU, several slots for the memory chips, other slots for possible expansion cards and a large number of capacitors, transistors, operational amplifiers and chips that connect all the components together.

Until 2010, a main board was still divided into a so-called north and south bridge. This allowed the components with high performance, such as the graphics card and memory modules, to be separated from the components with lower performance, such as the hard disk or a CD or DVD drive. Today, all functions are centrally combined in one chip on the motherboard, making the old two-chip design obsolete.

Thanks to miniaturization, many individual components could be integrated into just a few chips. On many motherboards, for example, complete graphics chips, sound controllers and even network cards are already soldered onto the mainboard. This makes it possible to develop low-cost computers that meet most requirements in the home office sector.

However, there are still enough slots for expansion cards on most mainboards. You can still install a high-performance graphics card here. Onboard graphics cards have become quite powerful in the meantime. Only ambitious gamers need more graphics power here.

Motherboards for notebooks are an exception. Here, almost all components are hard-wired and thus can’t be expanded much afterwards. The reason for this is the limited space in the narrow notebook cases.

There is no room for a large plug-in card. Depending on the manufacturer, motherboards are also developed that have the main processor even with the graphics processor in one chip case.

Without a power supply, a motherboard and its components won’t work. For this reason, you will find plug-in contacts for the power supply in various places. The motherboard ultimately gets the power it needs from the power supply unit mounted in the computer case.

Likewise, you will find numerous interfaces on a motherboard that are important for external communication. Over the years, however, these interfaces have constantly evolved. In the past, motherboards had ports like the parallel LPT port for a printer or a serial RS-232 port where you could connect a modem. In many cases, separate plug-in cards with connectors had to be installed. Today, many ports are already integrated on the motherboard.

One of the most important connection options is the USB port, which is available several times. You can connect your keyboard and mouse to it today. Likewise, printers, scanners or other hardware items are conveniently connected here. Many motherboards still have the traditional PS/2 interfaces, which you can also use to connect your keyboard and mouse.

Furthermore, you’ll find the sound chip inputs and outputs. A headset, loudspeaker boxes and a microphone can be connected to these, for example. If you have an onboard graphics card, you’ll find the corresponding connection options for a monitor on your motherboard. There are various video outputs to choose from, whereby DVI and HDMI belong to the current standards.

Depending on the manufacturer, you will also find an eSATA port for connecting an external hard drive. External drives are usually connected via the USB port. Furthermore, a LAN port should not be missing today. This is needed to connect a computer to a network or to an internet router.

You can also connect optional hardware to your computer via expansion cards. In this regard, there is a slot bracket on one side of such a card, which not only secures the card in the computer case, but also provides the necessary connections to the outside.

There are also some SATA connectors on a modern motherboard. You can connect the internal hard disks or CD/DVD drives to these. Older boards still had special ATA or PATA connections. Here, two hard disks could be connected as master and slave at the highest.

  • XT bus,
  • ISA bus,
  • EISA bus,
  • PCI bus and
  • PCIe bus.

The current PCI Express bus offers the highest transfer speed. It is interesting that older motherboards still had the MCA bus and later the AGP bus especially for the graphics card. In the meantime, however, these have also been replaced by the PCIe bus.

The format of a motherboard is not unimportant. We’ll go into this in the following guide. The size of the motherboard ultimately determines the size of the case.

Compact mini PCs are very popular nowadays. The corresponding motherboards are therefore kept very small. The type of mounting in the case is also decisive in this case. Motherboards have holes at fixed positions, which are used to attach the flat board to plastic connectors in the case.

How does a motherboard work?

The mainboard is the center of every computer. Here the most important tasks of input, processing and output are handled according to the EVA principle. All information converges on the motherboard. The commands entered by the user via keyboard and mouse are managed there. The chipsets installed on the motherboard ultimately correspond to the performance of the system.

Each CPU on the motherboard needs data in order to process it. This data is fetched from a data memory. In order for this communication to take place, transport paths are needed, which are also called a bus system.

The bus system consists of a certain number of lines and passes on the required data to the processor or other computer chips.

The wider the bus system is designed, the faster the information can be transported. This can be recognized by the bus width, which was 8 or 16 bits in older computers and has grown to 64 bits today.

The data bus transports its data to the main processor and receives the processed data back from it. It is interesting to note that all components on the motherboard are connected in parallel to the data bus.

But it is not always possible to address all components at the same time. For this reason there is still the address bus, which functions quasi as a signpost. Only the modules that have the same address can receive the data. Finally there is the control bus. This is needed to tell the working memory whether the data can be written there or only read. The control bus is controlled by the CPU.

The plug-in cards of a computer are also included via the bus system. Nowadays, manufacturers try to integrate as many functions as possible into onboard components. This makes the transmission paths shorter and the data transfer faster.

However, this doesn’t always succeed with graphics cards. To avoid possible performance losses, high-performance graphics cards are equipped with their own processor to relieve the CPU on the mainboard.

Advantages of motherboards

A wide variety of motherboards are offered on the market. Usually, you buy a new PC or notebook that is already preconfigured and ready for use. However, there are also users who would like to assemble their own PC.

In this case, you can buy all the components separately and assemble your own PC as you wish. Besides the size and dimensions of the case, you should definitely start with the motherboard.

This is decisive for the further assembly of the required components. This approach is very popular with gamers who are interested in particularly powerful computers. These are rarely available pre-configured. Thus, many try to get the best hardware here in order to assemble the fastest computer possible.

Furthermore, individual motherboards play an important role as upgrade or replacement parts. It is quite possible that a motherboard gets damaged over the years. This happens, for example, when you press a plug-in card too hard into the slot and this force breaks nearby conductive paths on the board. In this case, you should choose a motherboard that works with your existing components. This makes the repair relatively inexpensive.

However, there are also users who want to upgrade their aging PC afterwards. Many of the existing components can usually be reused. When upgrading with a new motherboard, you only have to use a more powerful processor. This is often already included in the corresponding upgrade kits.

Advantages of a mainboard:

  • Individual composition of a powerful PC,
  • Replacement of a damaged motherboard,
  • upgrade of an older motherboard.

Types of motherboards

Before you decide on a certain motherboard, you can read about the different types here. Many test institutes primarily focus on the installed chipsets in a motherboard test. However, there are other distinguishing features.

Motherboards by CPU socket

The CPU socket is decisive for the right choice of a motherboard. The most well-known microprocessor manufacturers include the Intel and AMD brands. Consequently, the processor sockets are also aligned with this. You can’t put an AMD processor into a socket for Intel processors and vice versa. In this respect, the socket is an important distinguishing feature.

Advantages:

  • Best performance for the respective processor,
  • CPU can be changed easily,
  • partly also upgrade possibility to a more powerful processor possible.

Disadvantages:

  • Motherboard is only compatible for a certain type of CPU,
  • partly big differences in performance.

Motherboards by chipsets

Motherboards are also differentiated according to their chipsets, among other things. These are also based on the processors used, among other things. Basically, today’s chipsets with PCI bus and PCI Express bus have to be differentiated.

Intel chipsets

The Intel chipsets are, for example, differentiated into the older 400 and 800 models for the Pentium processors, the 900 chipsets for the Core 2 processors and the current chipsets for the Core i processors. Each chipset is also known by its own code name. These bear the names Saturn, Triton, Balboa or Ibex Peak, for example.

Both the manufacturers and the test institutes publish tables for a test, in which the respective properties are listed. This includes the exact chip name, the codename, the manufacturing date, the processors suitable for this, the clock frequency, the memory compatibility and the maximum size of the memory.

AMD chipsets

AMD primarily produces microprocessors and uses chipsets from other well-known suppliers, such as ATI Technologies, NVidia, VIA or SiS. Similar to Intel chipsets, they also differ based on code names, microprocessors supported, release date, frequency and features.

Advantages:

  • Performance differences,
  • Defines the range of functions.

Disadvantages:

  • Not all components are compatible with the chipsets.

Motherboards by form factor

One of the most important design factors is the form factor. This is about the mounting sizes, the screw connections and the locations of the most important chips on a motherboard. Most current motherboards conform to the ATX standard. There are also compressed versions, which are called mini or micro ATX. Further notes are presented in a bit more detail below.

Advantages:

  • important for the used case size,
  • uniform standard.

Disadvantages:

  • incompatibilities may occur.

How are motherboards tested?

Before a new motherboard is launched on the market, it is tested by various testing institutes. This is the only way to ensure that it really runs with the current hardware equipment. The following test criteria serve as a guide for selecting the right motherboard.

CPU Socket

The socket usually consists of a square connector with many small pins. The main processor of a computer is plugged into it.

Depending on the CPU used, there are different socket variants for mainboards. It is important that the CPU is plugged on evenly when putting it on. Otherwise, some of the small pins can bend and ultimately lead to short circuits. To simplify the mounting process, modern motherboards are equipped with a ZIF socket.

These sockets are equipped with a small lever. If this lever is upright, you can place the processor on it without pressure. When the lever is put down, the CPU lowers carefully and is held securely on the socket below.

The processor manufacturers have marked their CPUs so that it can only ever be inserted in one direction. Sometimes a corner of the chip is cut off, so that the marking can be seen even better. For a test it is important that a CPU can be inserted very carefully. This is possible with a ZIF socket.

CPU Cooler

Processors generate high thermal radiation and can become very hot. For a test, it is important that the heat can be optimally dissipated. The first processors did not yet have a cooling device. Later, a finned heat sink was placed on the chip housing. This allowed the heat to be partially dissipated.

Today’s CPUs are equipped with a separate fan that receives its power from the power supply. This effectively dissipates the accumulated heat from the processor. If possible, a motherboard for the processor should have a fan. In a few cases, water cooling is even used for high-end applications.

Chipset

The installed chipsets of a motherboard are a criterion for the performance. The different chipsets for motherboards with AMD or Intel processors have already been discussed before. The chipsets are a simple way to determine which microprocessors the motherboards are suitable for. Performance differences can also be determined in a test by well-known test institutes.

CMOS Clock

Mainboards are equipped with a CMOS clock, which is often integrated in the BIOS on the motherboard. This clock not only stores the current time and date, but also important system settings of the BIOS. Thus, the identification numbers of the built-in hard disk are stored via this. This system clock requires a battery buffer. These clock components receive their energy via a replaceable lithium cell.

The replaceable batteries are often the proven button cell type CR2032 with 3 volts. However, other solutions are also possible. As a rule, such a buffer battery lasts for several years. You can recognize the decrease when your computer forgets the current date and time after switching on or even the hard disk recognition is faulty.

Power Supply Connection

A power source is required to operate a motherboard and its components, which is usually provided by a power supply unit. The power supply itself is not part of the motherboard and is installed in a free spot in the computer. While simple office computers get by with weaker power supplies of around 300 watts, powerful gamer PCs require a higher wattage.

This is due to the fact that many power-hungry components are used on the motherboard, such as a power-hungry graphics card. In this case, a power supply should have at least 500 watts or more. When buying a motherboard, pay attention to the connectors used for the power supply. At least there are differences between older motherboards with larger connectors and more modern boards that are designed for narrower connectors.

What should I look for when buying a motherboard?

Before you buy a new motherboard, you should check whether it is suitable for your purposes. With the following purchase criteria, you can check off the most important points and find the right board for your needs. The list is understandably not exhaustive.

Motherboard for the desired microprocessor

Although Intel and AMD processors work with all known operating systems, two camps have formed in the PC sector. Many users only want to run computers with Intel CPUs, others only with AMD CPUs. For this reason, the motherboard must also be designed for the right processor type. Therefore, when buying, pay attention to whether the motherboard can only accommodate Intel or only AMD CPUs.

Which motherboard and processor version you choose ultimately depends on your own taste and, of course, your wallet. Especially the very latest microprocessors are very expensive and can sometimes exceed the price of a complete PC. Therefore, you should consider whether you can’t get by with a cheaper processor, whereby the available motherboards are also usually offered at a lower price. You can also partly find cheaper motherboards test winners here in the comparison portal.

The number of memory space

Every motherboard has a certain number of slots for memory modules. The tried-and-tested memory bars are usually plugged into these. These are available in different sizes. Simple motherboards only have two or three slots, but more powerful motherboards can also have four slots for memory sticks.

It’s important to note that the maximum usable memory size can’t always be inferred from the number of memory bars. If there are only a few slots, memory modules with a high GB number can be installed. Only smaller MB-sized memory sticks can often be used in several slots.

The type of memory chips

A motherboard should be built in such a way that modern DDR SDRAM memory blocks can be used. These devices are available in four different versions.

  • DDR-SDRAM with 184 plug contacts,
  • DDR2 SDRAM with 240 plug-in contacts,
  • DDR3 SDRAM with 240 plug-in contacts,
  • DDR4-SDRAM with 288 plug contacts,

On a motherboard the number of plug contacts of the slot is also referred to as DIMM or SO-DIMM. This refers to the construction method of the memory bar. A DIMM is usually a small circuit board with a contact strip, whereby the chips are soldered on the front and back as memory components. These components are also called dual inline memory modules. Compact SO-DIMMS are used on boards for notebooks.

If you buy a new motherboard, there should at least be DDR3 or even better DDR4 slots on it.

The connectors of a mainboard

When a mainboard is installed in a PC case, the external connections lead out on one side. Depending on the design, the following outputs and inputs should be available:

  • USB 2.0 interfaces,
  • USB 3.0 interfaces,
  • HDMI output,
  • DVI output,
  • if necessary a VGA output,
  • two PS/2 inputs for keyboard and mouse, if applicable,
  • LAN port for network connection,
  • microphone input,
  • various loudspeaker outputs,
  • headphone output.

For example, consider what port your monitor has. If it has a DVI port, your motherboard should also have a DVI port. The older VGA standard is slowly being replaced by DVI and HDMI.

Last product update on 2021-06-23 | Source: Amazon Affiliate