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Motherboards

Motherboards Buying Guide
An often neglected or forgotten component in most people's ...
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Motherboards Buying Guide

An often neglected or forgotten component in most people's computers is the motherboard. Ask a lot of people what their computer specs are and they will likely list every component except the motherboard. You might have all the greatest components on the market but a poor motherboard can severely degrade your computer's performance and even lead to many headaches and frustrations. Not only does the motherboard take care of linking all your other computer components together but it also houses a significant amount of components itself. In that regard, a good motherboard will not only reduce the number of hardware incompatibilities but it will also have good quality components and features itself. These could be things such as the integrated peripherals like video, audio, LAN or other things like the technical features of the controller chipset the motherboard uses. To give you a comfortable push into the circle of knowledge about motherboards I will try my best to outline all the major features you should look for when buying one.

Form Factor
All that the term "form factor" implies is the physical size and component layout on the motherboard. There will be a few choices to choose from but since they all must comply to the standards you don't need to worry about not being able to find a case for your chosen motherboard style. The two most common form factors are ATX and Micro-ATX. The only difference being that Micro-ATX motherboards will have far less add-on slots such as PCI slots, usually fewer memory slots and also less SATA channels than a full size ATX board has. There are some minor differences between the two as well but those will often vary with each manufacturer's models. As the Micro-ATX name implies, these boards are a smaller physical size than ATX boards so you can find much smaller computer cases for them as well. This makes them a great choice for a small home system or a home theatre computer - systems where physical size and expandability are not as important. For those wanting to go really small there is also a Mini-ITX form factor - one of the smallest. The overall small size of this form factor requires that the motherboards use almost entirely integrated components, often including an integrated low-power and low-heat CPU as well. These systems are commonly used in car computers as well as many store terminals/displays, tills and even some ultra-tiny desktop PC computers. Server motherboards are quite often a different form factor again from desktop style motherboards because of their larger size. However, I will not touch on server motherboards here because if you're building a server then you probably don't need my help anyways!

Chipset
The chipset is essentially the brain of the motherboard - a highly efficient traffic cop that can direct millions of cars every single second. Each and every component, feature and peripheral on your motherboard needs to be able to work together to accomplish the task at hand - operating your computer without crashing. The motherboard's chipset is what determines just how well this all happens. Motherboards designed for either Intel or AMD CPU's will not come in the same chipset flavors - each CPU platform has it's own chipset series'. Some chipsets will have large differences between the old and new and others will simply do smaller things like allow a new generation of CPUs to work or allow faster memory speeds. When you know what CPU platform you're putting into the motherboard then poke around in Google to find out what features the latest chipsets on the market are offering.

Supported Hardware
Next you'll need to think about what kinds of hardware you plan to run off your motherboard. You'll likely want SATA hard drives and SATA optical drives to ensure you are using the fastest transfer speeds possible. Memory is available in a lot of types and speeds (DDR2 and DDR3 being the two most common ones right now). Consult your system builder or local computer store to see what type of memory they recommend for your system and also what speed of memory the motherboard will accept. Power users may wish to setup their hard drives in a RAID array - this is something that not all motherboards have the capabilities of doing, so if RAID is a feature you required then make sure it is available. Most better quality motherboards will give you at least one PCI-E x16 graphics slot even if the motherboard has integrated video capabilities. It's not uncommon to see two or three PCI-E graphics slots on the more expensive motherboards; these will often be used for SLI or Crossfire setups although some are just a plain old secondary graphics slot. Also, pay close attention to the other expansion slots if you're one who uses add-on cards because you'll quickly find PCI-E x1 and x4 slots starting to over-run the traditional old PCI slots.

Integrated Peripherals

The integrated peripherals category takes care of built-in components on the motherboard. To make this quick to understand I'll break this down into quick sub-categories.
USB - USB is standard on all new motherboards and depending on the form factor of the board you should expect to get anywhere between two ports to ten ports or more. The more components you want to connect without using a hub, the more USB ports you'll want on the motherboard.
Firewire - Firewire isn't as common as USB on a motherboard, but a good majority of quality boards are now starting to incorporate this feature. Home users will likely only use firewire for digital video cameras and external storage drives where as professional uses include hardware in the audio/video editing industry as well as many other industries. The advantage to firewire over USB is that it offers a faster sustained data transfer rate despite the specs of it being slower than those of USB which is a less efficient interface.
Networking - Networking will typically come in the 10/100 or 10/100/1000 speed range. No, this won't make your internet faster but fast networking speeds will greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to transfer large files across a home network (including steaming media to network media players). Some enthusiast motherboards may include two network jacks giving you the ability to use two simultaneous links to your router for increased bandwidth.
WLAN - WLAN or Wireless LAN is like having a wireless networking card built right into your system. Having a built-in WLAN card still isn't overly common on new motherboards and there are quite a variety of speeds available with prices usually being noticeably higher than boards without this feature.
E-SATA - E-SATA is like having an internal SATA port on the outside of your computer. It gives you the ability to connect external hard drives at virtually no speed loss, unlike USB or Firewire connectivity which significantly decreases the hard drives performance.
Audio - Not taking into account small form factor motherboards, almost every new motherboard you can buy will have a surround sound compatible audio chip built in. In addition to the standard 1/8" audio jacks used for input and output connectivity, a lot of the new audio connections will also give a digital coaxial and/or digital Toslink output as well. Hooked up with a set of digital speakers, these digital outputs can give you an amazing sound experience by supporting Dolby Digital and THX sound.
Video - If you're not planning on PC gaming or using applications which specifically require a lot of 3D acceleration then you can save yourself a fair amount of money by going for a motherboard with an on-board graphics chip. The only slight disadvantage to doing this is that most won't have dedicated video memory so they'll have to share a bit of your system memory (not bad though considering RAM is so cheap these days) and the speed of the on-board video will be slower than a dedicated video card would be. Still, for general system use, occasional gaming and powering any other applications requiring 3D acceleration, an on-board graphics solution will get the job done and help save you money.

Power User Features
A couple familiar terms among PC gamers and power users are the words SLI and Crossfire. These both refer to technology designed to link up two or more dedicated graphics cards in your system to split the processing load allowing for even better and faster graphics. In addition to the video cards themselves, if you want to run SLI or Crossfire then you need to make sure your motherboard will support it.
Some users may also pay attention to the specific cooling system the motherboard uses either for noise reasons or over-clocking reasons. Some motherboards will use passive (heatsink only) cooling while others will use active (fans) and others will use a combination and may even employ the use of heatpipes to move the heat around more efficiently.

Additional features starting to make their way onto system motherboards are quite literally endless as designers and manufacturers push the boundaries of their imagination. It sometimes seems impossible to find a motherboard with the perfect combination of features that you really want so it's probably not a bad idea to buy one with slightly more than you want rather than slightly less because if you ever decide to upgrade motherboards you'll be in for a full reload of your computers operating system. Beyond outlining to you all the parts of the motherboard as I've done, the next best step in buying is to research what the current chipsets on the market are and what they are offering. Backed with all the right information, you should have a fairly easy time finding what you're after.

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