Desktop PCs

The motherboardAn HDMI mobo

The motherboard tends to be overlooked when purchasing new individual components or a PC package as a whole. Most people first check the processor and its clock speed, then the size of the hard drive, and perhaps how much RAM is lurking inside. Considering the motherboard is essentially the backbone of your PC, attention should be paid to this component as it will determine the upgrades that can be made to your system, which will affect its longevity.

If you're unsure what a motherboard looks like, a quick peek inside your PC will set you straight. It will invariably be the biggest single item in there. It not only plays home to your processor and memory, but all your expansion cards: your graphics card, hard drive and DVD drive connectors, plus external ports. The motherboard also houses the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) that controls the simplest configuration of your machine.

The BIOS also performs the POST (Power on Self Test) health check when you switch on your machine. This is a diagnostic testing sequence that begins as the PCs power is turned on. If the components are configured correctly, the PC will continue booting into the operating system.

Motherboards for AMD and Intel

A motherboard, in almost all circumstances, will only support one type of processor, such as Intel's Core 2 Duo, or AMD's Athlon 64 X2. Different chips have connectors that vary physically from one another. It ensures that you can't plug the wrong chip into the wrong board by accident.

The motherboard chipset

The second way in which motherboards differ is in the chipset they use. If you think of the motherboard as the physical hardware, the chipset is the logic that underlies it. It is the part that dictates how different components actually talk to one another and controls the features and abilities of the motherboard.

Processor development and chipset design go hand in hand -- so much so that the chipset is built to support the facilities offered by a certain processor. There are a number of chipset vendors on the market, with the five main companies being Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, VIA and SiS. Intel and AMD only produce chipsets for their own processors, while VIA, NVIDIA and SiS make chipsets for both companies. SiS and VIA don't make as many chipsets as they used to, but NVIDIA is still a strong player in the chipset market and has many models for budget, mid-range and high-end PCs.

Chipset manufacturers have produced a large range of chipsets, based on a variety of north bridge and south bridge types. The north bridge is the chipset that controls the flow of data between the CPU, memory and graphics card, while the south bridge chipset controls the flow of data from USB peripherals, network connections and drives. The two chipsets are connected by a high-speed link. The most recent, and most advanced, chipset releases for Intel processors are the Intel X33 and X38 chipsets (which support the latest dual- and quad-core processors), as well as the NVIDIA nForce 650i and 680i. VIA has the PT890 and SiS has the SiS672FX, but these aren't very popular.

For AMD motherboards, look for recent chipsets including the AMD 790FX and the NVIDIA nForce 680i.

Below, we've included a list of many chipsets you might see appear in motherboards right now.


Motherboard chipsets
For Intel processors For AMD processors
AMD None AMD 790FX, AMD 790X, AMD 770
Intel Intel X38, X33, P35, P31, G35, G33, G31 None
NVIDIA nForce 680i SLI, 680i LT SLI, 650i SLI, 650i Ultra, 630i nForce 680a SLI
SiS SiS672FX, SiS672, SiS671FX, SiS671, SiS671DX, SiS662 SiS771
VIA VIA PT89, PT880 Ultra, PT880 Pro, P4M900, P4M890 None

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