Home Guides & How To A Guide to Picking Custom PC Parts - Part Four: The Nervous System

A Guide to Picking Custom PC Parts - Part Four: The Nervous System

Welcome back to our guide to picking custom PC parts, where today we'll be covering the third most important part of your system. If you're joining us right from part three, then give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for being one hell of a tech-learning trooper! That CPU breakdown is a lot to digest in a single sitting!

If you've not yet read part one, two, or three, we'd highly recommend taking a good look to get up to speed on the most important parts of your build - between the three posts we've covered the most important questions to ask before part picking, what to look for in a GPU, and all the need-to-know when it comes to CPUs.

But what would any of these components be without a motherboard to mount them in? Well, they'd be pretty useless actually...

Motherboards (aka Mobo) - the central and peripheral nervous system of your PC

Motherboards are an integral part of any system - not only do they give life to your hardware by providing a platform from which they can be powered up, but they are also the entire means of having that hardware communicate with each other, as well as allowing your PC to connect to other internal and external devices too. If the CPU is the brains and the GPU is the brawn, then your motherboard is the entirety of the nervous system.

Motherboard

Especially so for the uninitiated, motherboards can often put forward quite the overwhelming lists of specifications, detailing a whole host of information that can quickly start to look like unfiltered gibberish. Much like with the other topics in this series though, we've got you covered, and as per usual, we'll give you some guidance on the key features to look out for.

Primarily, when choosing your motherboard, the first and most important spec to check is the socket type it uses, as this will be the determining factor in whether or not the processor you have picked is actually compatible. Secondly, you should pay close attention to which features the board has that you'd like, or need to have. This will largely depend on which CPU you opt for, whether or not you'll be using dedicated graphics, and what you intend to use your PC for once it's built.

For example, if you decide to purchase an overclockable CPU then you'll also need to ensure your motherboard supports overclocking, and may even want to consider one with some more robust VRMs. Or perhaps you'd like to go wireless with a build, in which case you'll need to make sure the motherboard offers Wi-Fi functionality, or provides additional expansion slots to accommodate an add-in Wi-Fi card. Ultimately, much of this links back to the infamous question one which we discussed in our very first post in the series.

For the moment, here's a quick list of everything you'll need to keep an eye out for:

Socket Type
Form Factor
DIMM Slots, Storage Interfaces & Expansion Slots
Internal Headers/Connectors & Rear Panel I/O Ports
VRMs

We'll also be covering motherboard chipsets too, which for all intents and purposes is very closely connected to motherboard naming schemes, but we'll cover this in more detail later.

But what does it all mean?!

Socket Type - As mentioned above, the type of socket a motherboard has will be your primary concern. We briefly covered this in our previous CPU post too, but in essence, the CPU you choose will be compatible with a particular Socket Type. For example, AMD's 3000 and 5000 series processors use what's known as an AM4 socket. Meanwhile, the 10th Gen processors from Intel utilise the LGA1200 socket. When you choose your processor, check its socket type and simply compare to available motherboards.

Motherboard Socket

It's also worth noting that newer processors sharing the same socket type as a previous generation may still need compatibility checks. This is due to motherboards using what's known as a BIOS (Basic Input-Output System). This firmware controls the basic behaviours and initialisation of the various components connected to the motherboard. As such, older motherboards (generally those that are already owned and are being re-used, or those that have been sitting on retailer shelves for an unusually long time) may require a BIOS update in order to be compatible with a newer processor. Something to bear in mind, especially when looking at the latest Ryzen chips from AMD. 

The easiest way to find out whether a motherboard is compatible with your chosen processor is to simply visit the manufacturer website and navigate to the corresponding CPU Support page. This should then list all compatible processors, as well as which BIOS version supports them.

Form Factor - Another term we've mentioned in passing in part one, this refers to the size of the motherboard itself. Motherboards come in a selection of standardised sizes which are as follows: ATX, Micro-ATX (sometimes m-ATX), and Mini-ITX. ATX and Micro-ATX are the most common and more popular choice for consumers, generally offering more than enough features for gamers, professionals and even enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Mini-ITX, the smallest form factor, is aimed primarily at those who are planning to build compact mini-PCs and can be slightly more limited on account of their smaller build. But with a higher budget, they can often still match the feature sets of their larger counterparts.

Motherboard Form Factors

As a side note, it is also possible that you may come across, or are even considering, the so-called "E-ATX" (sometimes also "EE-ATX" or even "XL-ATX") motherboards. E-ATX+ are often considerably larger than ATX motherboards, and tend to offer a more extensive range of features as a result, meaning they're usually only considered by high-end enthusiasts and prosumers who need multiple expansion slots, several M.2 storage slots, and an obscene amount of RAM. However, unlike the previous three form factors, and with the exception of "true E-ATX," these motherboards are not standardised and so it is important to pay close attention to any E-ATX board dimensions. The lack of standardisation means that cases claiming E-ATX compatibility will not necessarily be able to fit every E-ATX motherboard, so you'll need to know the exact measurements to be sure your chosen board will in fact fit the case you eventually choose. Those considering E-ATX are generally edge-cases though, so for the majority of people reading this, it won't likely be something you need to worry about - we figured we'd just let you know, in case you do stumble across one.

DIMM Slots, M.2 storage, & Expansion Slots - Dual In-line Memory Module Slots (or DIMM slots) are where your chosen RAM (aka Memory) will be installed. This is probably the easiest part of your build to check, since these slots are always situated right beside the CPU socket. Due to the nature of how RAM works (being most efficient in pairs), there will be either two or four slots. When you choose your RAM, you'll likely be buying a kit, which will have either two or four sticks of whichever capacity you decide on. So this is literally a case of 2 + 2, or 4 + 4. Simple.

Again, as mentioned earlier, some motherboard form factors can also offer even more DIMM slots (usually eight) for those that enjoy hoarding RAM, but the principle of course remains the same. In the event that your motherboard has four slots, but you're only buying a kit with two sticks of RAM, then this is also fine. Technically, you only need a single stick of RAM to have the system work, so having additional empty slots isn't an issue. This is actually quite handy for those on tighter budgets, as it means you can always start with smaller capacity dual kits, and add another dual kit at a later date (though these kits should be identical preferrably). If you do decide to opt for a dual RAM kit and a four slot motherboard though, you will need to check the motherboard manual to confirm which slots those RAM sticks should be installed in, as many boards utilise a pairing system with DIMM slots (e.g. ABAB).

DIMM Slots

As for M.2 Storage (which we'll expand on in our next post), it requires an M.2 compatible interface. Fear not though, as it isn't as scary as it sounds. The vast majority of motherboards feature at least one M.2 storage interface, and modern consumer-focused boards will use the same socket type, as well as accommodating most (if not all) of the standardised sizes that are available. This is another easy check that just requires a quick skim of a spec sheet; simply look out for the four-digit numbers which follow the "M.2" designation. These will indicate which sizes of M.2 options are compatible, and the most common size you'll see will be the "2280" (22mmx80mm) M.2 options.

M.2 Interface

Expansion slots (aka bus slots) allow you to plug in additional hardware to your system. Specifically, high-speed components which need to process or transfer data extremely quickly. These expansion slots, most often referred to as PCIe slots (peripheral component interconnect express), are mostly used by enthusiast builders for the likes of a graphics card, which actually makes them far more straightforward than they may sound. GPUs use a single PCIe x16 expansion slot, which comes as standard on just about every motherboard ever these days. In fact, I can't say I've ever seen a motherboard without one! For the vast majority of people, this is as far as expansion slots will need to be considered.

Add-in Card PCIe Slot Sizes

However, there is one other thing worth mentioning on the topic of PCIe slots, and in particular, with regards to the x16 slots. Whenever a motherboard offers more than one x16 slot, alongside multiple other PCIe slots and M.2 storage options, it is possible and fairly likely that at least one of those x16 slots may not offer the full x16 bandwidth. This is usually for one of two reasons. Either the physical slot itself is the same size as an x16, but doesn't have the same amount of pins for an add-in card to make contact with (see GN video below), or alternatively, if multiple expansion cards or additional M.2 storage are installed alongside one another. The installation of those multiple cards and storage usually limits a secondary x16 slot to operating at half its usual bandwidth, which can sometimes be the case for motherboards offering M.2 NVMe storage. This won't prevent connected hardware from operating in the downgraded slot, but it'll certainly hurt the performance of something like a graphics card when it comes to gaming or other GPU-bound tasks. As such, just make sure to double check the user manual once you have your chosen motherboard, if a second PCIe x16 slot is something you'll need. There you'll find the relevant information advising which x16 slot your graphics card should be installed in, in order to avoid this, and usually, this just means installing the card in the top-most x16 slot.

Other than your graphics card, you may need to consider something like PCIe x1, which are those tiny little slots you usually see just below the larger x16 slots - these tend to be relevant once you start looking at other types of add-in cards, such as Wi-Fi adapters, video capture cards, or sound cards for anyone using surround sound set-ups and who need something a little richer than the standard onboard audio. Don't worry if a motherboard doesn't have any x1 slots though - if it has multiple x16 slots, or even an x8 or x4 slot, a card using an x1 will be able to use these instead, and still operate just fine.

Motherboard PCIe Slot Sizes

As a final note on expansion slots, and by extension, M.2 storage too, something being thrown around a lot in the current climate, and particularly so by AMD, is "PCIe 4.0" or "PCIe Gen 4." Put simply, this is just the latest version of the technology in question (which is just how fast data is able to be transferred between components on the motherboard, including your CPU), and as a result, it is much faster than the previous "PCIe 3.0" or "PCIe Gen 3." However, regardless of which processor, GPU or storage you use, they will still be compatible with the newer or older PCIe version. They will simply operate at the maximum speed they can, according to the lowest common denominator. So, for example, you might have a PCIe 4.0 compatible M.2 drive, but the motherboard only supports PCIe 3.0, and so the M.2 drive will just operate at that speed instead. And of course, it works vice versa - the M.2 can only go as fast as its own PCIe Generation i.e. you can plug a PCIe 3.0 M.2 drive into a motherboard that supports up to PCIe 4.0, but the M.2 drive still won't be able to go any faster. And if you're wondering how much of a difference the faster PCIe 4.0 makes to your own day-to-day experience, the answer is: probably not much. PCIe 4.0 allows for insanely fast data transfer because it allows for more data to be sent at any given moment - for the average user, you'll never be working with enough data to recognise a notable difference. Even a graphics card running an extremely demanding modern AAA title won't use the full capabilities of PCIe 3.0, let alone PCIe 4.0.

Internal Headers/Connectors & Rear Panel I/O Ports - The Internal Headers and Rear I/O Ports are often an overlooked feature of motherboards, but they are still an important consideration for those that have a lot of additional devices to hook up to their finished PC.

For the average user who only requires a couple of fans and a CPU cooler, internal headers and connectors are generally less important, but they are a significant and necessary commodity for those planning to use numerous fans and/or more than one AIO water cooling solution, since these will all require their own "pump headers" and "fan headers," plus any number of "RGB headers" for all the lights that come with them. With the exception of RGB (which is now so prolific most fan sets come with dedicated controllers or hubs), these are of course all very necessary, in order for the components to actually operate.

Crazy RGB
I dread to think just how many fan headers and RGB controllers this bad boy needs...

 

As for the Rear Panel I/O (Input/Output), this is something that most people should at least check before purchasing a motherboard, and especially when deciding on cheaper designs. This will determine how many devices you can actually connect to your PC at once, and it's easy to forget just how many different devices we do eventually plug into them.

Depending on your peripherals, you may need USB ports for both your keyboard and mouse, and even your headset or speakers. Add in any additional devices such as external hard drives or flash drives, your phone if you use your PC to keep it charged, webcams, VR headsets and any bases/sensors that they may require, and you're already looking at as many as 10 USB ports - if you intend to have them all plugged in at once that is. Even if your audio outputs don't require USB, they'll certainly require an audio jack, and if you regularly switch between speakers and a headset then, unless you're happy to keep unplugging and re-plugging, you'll likely need to check whether your chosen case will have additional audio and mic ports on the front panel, in order to do this conveniently.

Rear I/O Panel

Many motherboards do provide around 4-6 Rear Panel USB ports, as well as a few internal connectors to hook up USB and other front panel ports included on cases, so more often than not, even the most "plugged-in" user should be fine. It's just something to be mindful of and especially so when looking at those more inexpensive models.

It's also worth mentioning that USB ports (both internal headers and Rear Panel ports) will often be split between 2.0 slots and 3.0 slots. Most of the time this won't matter for the plethora of devices you plug in, but there are a few exceptions, such as in the case of VR headsets and sensors. If you use the older Oculus Rift model for example, that will require at least a USB 3.0 or above for the headset, as well as the two included sensors, then at least one USB 2.0 for an additional third sensor if you have one.

Finally, if you don't intend to use a dedicated graphics card, then you'll also want to double check the display output included on the motherboard. Generally speaking, even the more inexpensive models will include at least one HDMI port and even a DVI-D port, but it's worth checking all the same, especially if you already have a monitor that only uses a single port type. DVI-D is becoming increasingly less common, with HDMI being more popular, and Display Port becoming fairly unanimous with high resolution and high refresh monitors. You can always look for adapters of course, if you needed to work around this, but it's added hassle and cost that can be easily avoided with a simple check of the motherboard spec. If you are planning to use dedicated graphics though, then you won't need to worry about this, since your monitor will connect directly to the graphics card ports instead.

VRMs (Voltage Regulator Modules) - This is another one of those nice to mention points, where for the most part, almost anyone can ignore it and they'll probably never know any different. But we like to be thorough, and for anyone that might later take an interest in CPU overclocking in particular, it's a good one to be aware of.

Without going into excessive detail, motherboard VRMs are made up of a few parts, starting with MOSFETS (which are usually hidden under heatsinks on modern motherboards), chokes, which are those tightly packed blocks beside the MOSFETS/heatsinks, and capacitors, those little cylindrical nodules that often sit immediately between the chokes and the CPU socket. These work together to deliver the correct amount of power to your CPU, depending on what your processor is asking for. The transfer of said power between the MOSFETS, Chokes and Capacitors are what's known as "phases," since the power goes through multiple "power management stages" before it reaches the CPU. Whenever you overclock a CPU or even when using power hungry processors like many of those in Intel's 10th Gen line-up, it's important to have a motherboard with a robust set of VRMs to ensure that power delivery is as smooth and stable as possible.

Motherboard VRMs

The quickest way to identify just how capable a motherboard's VRMs are at handling the power delivery to your CPU, is to try and identify how many chokes you can see. The more chokes, the more likely the motherboard is to be capable at handling the management of lots of power, and thus in theory, the more stable the power delivery.

We won't be going into any more detail in this post, as VRMs can quickly become a complex topic to cover, and we don't want anyone getting too caught up in all the fine details. But if you are interested to find out more on the subject, you can check out the video below by Gamers Nexus. It's quite an old video, but it still checks out. It also covers a few details on PCIe slots too, which can help give a more visualised demonstration of some of the points we discussed earlier, as well as touching on Chipsets. Speaking of which...

Chipset and Naming Scheme

Earlier we commented briefly on motherboard BIOS; chipset is a similar sort of deal in that they use specific instruction sets to control much of the communication between your components. Depending on the "tier" of the motherboard, these chipsets will also be designed differently, as well as operating faster and more efficiently, and allowing for more or less features to be utilised by your hardware. It's here where the naming schemes come into play.

The name of a motherboard is used (very loosely) as a quick identifier of its "tier" and therefore chipset, meaning consumers can quickly pick out boards that will provide less or additional features, as per their requirements or budget. Similarly to CPUs, these naming schemes are relatively standardised (there are a handful of exceptions, but need no mention here) and are slightly different for Intel and AMD. But ultimately, both are pointing to the same "tiers" as their Red or Blue counterpart. Let's start with AMD.

For the average consumer, there are three chipsets that you'll be comparing when you choose your motherboard. These are A*20, B*50 and X*70, where the * is a number that represents the generation of motherboard.

AMD's AM4 Socket Motherboards

A-class boards, such as an A320, are considered the budget, entry-level boards for use in low-spec and everyday home or office PCs - the type of systems that only need quad-core CPUs with integrated graphics and 4GB of RAM. They do still offer expansion slots for the odd systems that may want to use a lightweight graphics card, or perhaps for anyone looking to use a multi-monitor set-up, so still work well for builders with less budget to allocate to their motherboard.

B-class boards, such as the B450s, are the mid-rangers. Usually offering solid VRMs for more capable 6-10 core CPUs, and overclocking, they also tend to support multiple expansion cards too. They also generally have plenty of I/O connectors for peripherals and additional headers for more extensive system cooling like AIOs. They're a very popular choice among gamers and semi-professionals, who need something a little more versatile than the A-class boards, and which offer a more robust platform for their other hardware.

Lastly, there's X-class boards, like the X570s, which can range anywhere from around £150 to as much as £1500. These are the "high-end" motherboards and as such, offer the most features of the three. They tend to have the best VRMs making them the go-to choice of serious overclockers, or else offer ultra-smooth power delivery for expensive, power-hungry processors such as AMD's newest R9 CPUs, which can have as many as 16 cores and boost clocks as high as 4.9GHz at stock. They also tend to have the most internal and external connectors of the three classes, allowing for wide compatibility with peripherals, and set-ups using elaborate cooling systems, both with more RGB than a Corsair catalogue.

As for Intel, it's a fairly similar story. For most people, the board classes up for consideration are the H*10, B*60, and Z*90, where once again the * stands for a number, representing the generation of the motherboard. These boards include the likes of the H310, B460, and Z490, with their newer 5th Gen variants arriving sometime this year. Although the first two board classes are fairly parallel with the AMD counterparts, there are some minor differences, with Z-class boards being the main differentiator between Intel and AMD.

Intel's LGA1200 Socket Motherboards

H-class boards represent "home" system motherboards, similarly to AMD's A-class, whilst Intel's B-class boards are the choice for "business" systems rather than simply being an AMD-equivalent mid-ranger. This makes them closer to their H-class boards, but whilst offering additional features that are more likely to be needed by businesses, such as vPro and Raid functionality. Finally, whereas both B and X-class AMD motherboards support overclocking, and all of their CPUs are unlocked for overclocking too, Intel has specific processors that can be overclocked (which we covered in part three), with only the Z-class boards allowing you to take advantage of those processors, and as such, they tend to offer the most robust VRM designs too. This means that for Intel, the Z-class boards are generally the most popular choice for overclockers, serious gamers and enthusiasts.

And that's pretty much where the differences end.

Some reassurances

All in all, even after an in-depth breakdown like this, motherboard specs can feel quite overwhelming. I understand, and believe me, it doesn't feel all that long ago that I was there too. But allow me to reassure you a little - just remember that you won't always need to check every single one of these specs, and even if you do, it's all there in the spec sheet of a motherboard. If you're building a standard gaming PC or even a semi-professional workstation, the main points to check will simply be Socket Type for your CPU, DIMM slots for your RAM, whether you'll need to connect M.2 storage, and lastly the form factor. 99% of the time, the rest is only relevant once you start doing fancier builds, or playing around with overclocking. The easiest way to choose your motherboard if you aren't completely sure is to simply take the cost of your CPU and half it. That should give you a rough idea of the sort of budget to ideally allocate to your motherboard. And of course, you can always have a chat with one of our friendly technicians to get advice and guidance on which motherboard would be best for your build.

That's everything!

Congratulations! You've made it through the motherboard specs! Hopefully we've managed to give you some insight into how they work and what their specs mean. 

Join us in the next post, we'll be wrapping up the rest of your system, covering the key things to consider with RAM, system cooling, PSUs and cases, so hopefully something a little lighter to finish up the series!

As always, if you have any comments or questions, please do let us know down in the comments, and we'll see you in the next one!
 

Posted in Guides & How To

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Published on 13 Jan 2021

Last updated on 14 Jan 2021

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