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How to Buy Motherboards

by Paul Sanders

CPU chip installed on a motherboard

Putting together a custom PC nearly always begins with looking at motherboards and making sure that they meet the requirements for your new desktop computer. While shopping for motherboards, you'll want to keep in mind the other computer hardware you plan to use and whether or not your chosen motherboard is compatible.

Motherboard Shopping Tips:

  1. CPU and chipset: Motherboards are usually manufactured with a specific chipset, which coordinates all the different hardware plugged into the computer motherboard. Differences between motherboard chipsets will be a concern for more advanced users, but you'll want to make sure that the computer processor you choose works with the chipset on your motherboard.

  2. Expansion slots: Nearly all motherboards feature at least one expansion slot for an expansion card. If you're planning on adding a video card, sound card or other expansion device, look for motherboards with the appropriate expansion slot interface-type. PCI-Express is standard for most video cards, and regular PCI slots will accept many other types of expansion cards. Also, check the speed of each slot on the motherboards you're considering. A PCI-E x16 slot performs significantly faster than PCI-E x1, for example.

  3. System memory slots: Most motherboards feature space for two or more RAM modules. DDR2 has been common until now, but DDR3 SDRAM is faster and uses less energy, so motherboards that support DDR3 type memory will be easier to upgrade later.

  4. Graphics: Motherboards will sometimes include integrated graphics chips embedded in the computer motherboard itself. That will work fine for simple games and Web pages, but a gaming motherboard should have one or more high-speed expansion slots for one -- or even dual -- video cards.

  5. Sound: All motherboards include some sort of sound support, but the best motherboards will include support and connections for multi-speaker sound systems. These motherboards are ideal for home theater PCs or high-end gaming sound. You can upgrade sound capabilities on most cheap motherboards by installing a sound card.

  6. RAID: RAID support allows motherboards to accommodate multiple hard drives on the same computer. RAID 0 and 1 are most commonly used for desktop computers supporting two hard disks. More advanced RAID configurations will support additional drives on a single motherboard, but those don't have many applications for regular computer users.

  7. SATA ports: Serial ATA cables from hard drives and optical drives plug into your motherboard through SATA ports. The older Parallel ATA connections are available for some drives and motherboards, too. You'll only need to make sure your motherboard and other drives use the same technology.

  8. Connection ports: USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports will allow you to connect many computer accessories and peripheral devices. FireWire can be desirable, too, if you plan on video and photo editing with other equipment that uses FireWire. Look for motherboards with plenty of ports to accept your devices.

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