The motherboard is the most important component of your PC. If you crack your motherboard or one of its connections malfunctions, it’s curtains for your PC. Unfortunately, motherboards also seem like a mysterious and magical entity to those who aren’t tech aficionados.
With so many parts, pieces, and components, figuring out each individual part’s purpose can seem like brain surgery. That is, until now! Read on for a comprehensive, albeit basic, guide to your motherboard!
Motherboard: An Overview
Below is the picture we will use to illustrate the simple components of a motherboard, the MSI H81-P33.
While there are more complex motherboard configurations which allow users to install more components into the main board, the example above lays out a basic configuration. There are three general aspects of a motherboard which users would require to configure one correctly.
- Slots: Slots accommodate hardware components using raised ports. The major slots present in a motherboard are: AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port), PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect), and RAM (Randon Access Memory).
- Sockets: Sockets allow users to install component pieces directly into the motherboard. The CPU socket is the most notable example.
- Connections: Connections provide power via your power supply to your component parts. These connections are often pin connections, some of which are placed in raised sockets (via ATX connectors), while others are bare.
While the layout of specific motherboard models involve many more components than the above, those presented are the components designed for consumer-level involvement.
CPU sockets come in two types: LGA (Land Grid Array) and PGA (Pin Grid Array). LGA uses small contact plates, whereas PGA uses thin pins, to connect your CPU to your motherboard.
There are also various versions of sockets within the general LGA type. Different sockets affect the output performance of the CPU.
A high quality or more costly motherboard will carry higher quality sockets.
Installing a CPU into a slot is as simple as placing the CPU into the slot with the correct orientation (depicted on a CPU with a small arrow indicator) and pressing the CPU into contact with the socket using the contact lever.
DIMM (Dial Inline Memory Module) slots house the RAM modules (often called “RAM sticks”) installed on your motherboard.
They are typically oriented parallel to the back panel connectors of your motherboard.
There are two types of DIMMs: 168-pin SDRAM and 184-pin DDR SDRAM slots. The latter is the de facto RAM slot on most modern motherboards, with one notch in its DIMM module instead of two.
DIMM slots come in pairs, and are color coded to separate single from dual channel slots. Installing sticks in dual channel memory slots provides better performance when they are identical.
In order to install correctly, open the two small levers located on each side of the DIMM slot and press down the RAM stick until they snap back into place.
PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots house hardware devices such as graphics and sound cards. Modern motherboards predominantly use different PCIe (PCI Express) versions. The latest PCIe standard is PCIe 4.0
PCI Express is designed to replace previous, older bus versions such as PCI, PCI-X, and AGP.
PCI Express slots come in standardized sizes ranging from x1 (smallest) to x16 (largest). Modern motherboards will typically allocate space for at least one PCI Express x16 slot to install a dedicated graphics card.
Smaller PCI Express slots, such as the x1 or x4, are typically used for audio and network cards.
Like most other PC slots, the notch on your edge connector will determine the orientation of the component.
The reason your PC can boot into your BIOS even if your OS malfunctions is because the BIOS is located within your CMOS chip. This CMOS chip is then powered by your CMOS battery.
You may receive error messages concerning the charge of your BIOS or suffer some voltage-related PC issue, and need to remove or replace your CMOS battery.
Simply pull the small lever located on the side of the battery in order to remove the battery, which should spring up instantly. Keep in mind, this part is particularly susceptible to static shock, so be careful with the component.
Power connections are responsible for providing power to your motherboard via your power supply. The cables used for these connections, termed ATX connectors, provide a secure and consistent power connection to your motherboard.
Two ATX connectors are required to get your motherboard in working order: one for the CPU (4 pin ATX for low end and 8 pin ATX for high end) and the other main connector (typically the larger 24 ATX) for the rest of the board.
Front Panel and USB Connectors
Power connections for additional hardware like front panel audio and USB inputs are located in smaller, bare pin clusters. In our examples, they are named J Connectors because of the default MSI labelling (JFP, JUSB, JAUD, etc.), though this labeling scheme doesn’t apply to all motherboard makes and models.
More particularly, front panel connectors (labelled JFP1) require that users install individual pin connectors into the motherboard as opposed to pre-configured connections.
Front panel connectors can be a serious annoyance. For instance, misplacing your case power button connector will cause your PC to fail to turn on.
When installing front panel connectors, ensure that you take your time. You can also check for your user manual online to find the exact front panel connector configuration of your motherboard.
SATA connectors allow users to connect their hard drive to their motherboard via a SATA cable.
Different motherboard configurations place SATA ports differently, but you can always note the part given its unique plug and onboard labelling. The small dimple on the plug determines its configurations.
The back panel provides users with the main array of I/O connections such as LAN, USB, and audio port.
The below image provides a portrait layout of the H81-P33’s back panel.
From left to right, the ports are: PS/2 ports for older keyboards and mouses (purple for keyboard and green for mouse), 2 x USB 2.0 ports, 2 x USB 3.0 ports, DVI (white) and VGA (blue) ports for displays, LAN port with two additional USB ports below, and 3 x 3.5 mm audio ports (light blue for microphone, light green for audio input, and pink for audio output). Additional USB and audio ports are typically located on PC cases as well.
That’s (Not Exactly) All, Folks!
A motherboard is a complex piece of technology. While the clusters of bumps, plugs and pins may seem overwhelming at first, it doesn’t take an engineer to note the various connections you would need to build your own PC.
Now that you know the basics, open up your own PC and check to see if you can locate the above on your own motherboard. Who knows, it could come in handy if you ever needed to replace a component.
Have any other tech gadgetry you’d like explained? Let us know in the comments below!