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What to look for when purchasing a motherboard

If you're thinking about building a custom computer or upgrading an existing machine, check out these tips before you order the motherboard.


So, you want to purchase a new motherboard for your computer, but you don’t know what to look for? You’ve come to the right place! Here’s my list of “all the things you need to know when purchasing a new motherboard (but were afraid to ask).”

Go for a brand name
The first thing that you should consider when purchasing a motherboard is the manufacturer. It’s extremely important when you purchase a motherboard that you know you’ll be able to get reliable technical support from the company, just in case something bad happens. If you don’t purchase from a reliable manufacturer, the company you do choose may go under a few months down the road, and you’ll be stuck with any and all problems that you may have with that motherboard.

However, if you purchase a brand-name motherboard made by an established company, odds are you won’t have a lot of problems getting help if there is a problem with it. This road may be more expensive to take, but like they say, you get what you pay for! Here are some of my favorite Web sites for top brand-name motherboard companies:

Processor capability
After you’ve selected a brand-name manufacturer, you need to decide what kind of processor you would like to use with your new board. Often, different manufacturers will support a variety of CPUs, such as the Pentium III, Celeron PPGA, AMD K6-3, and AMD Athlon. Each of these processors requires a specific type of motherboard interface. A Pentium III chip will not fit into a motherboard made for an AMD K6-3, nor will an AMD Athlon processor work in a board made for a Pentium III. So, it’s crucial that you select a motherboard that will work with the type of processor that you want to purchase. To get you started, I have listed a few boards selected by INTEL and AMD for compatibility.

Memory, memory, memory!
Okay, once you’ve chosen a brand of board and processor, what kind of memory do you need to use? This part is tricky, especially if you are upgrading an older PC and you want to move all of your older chips, such as SIMMs, to your new motherboard.

Older computers, such as the 486, and earlier Pentium boards supported SIMMs, a 72-pin memory chip, as the main kind of memory. They were fast at the time, and got the job done. As time passed, however, new kinds of memory became available, and today’s standards generally call for DIMMs, a 168-pin memory chip.

Newer motherboards generally support only DIMMS, although some boards do still support both SIMMs and DIMMs. When purchasing your new board, you need to decide whether you want to keep the slower SIMMs, or upgrade to the faster, more efficient DIMMs, or use both. The choice is up to you!
SIMM stands for single in-line memory module. DIMM stands for dual in-line memory module. EIDE stands for enhanced integrated drive electronics.
EIDE or SCSI?
Generally, most people with a home computer today use an interface for their hard drives and CD-ROMs called EIDE. The majority of the most popular hard drives and CD-ROMs are sold as EIDE.

If you are a "power user," however, you can opt for a faster type of hard drive and CD-ROM, by using the SCSI (pronounced skuzzy) interface. SCSI is generally more expensive than EIDE, and it can be difficult to find hard drives and CD-ROMs for the SCSI interface at your local computer store, such as Best Buy, Circuit City, or CompUSA.

What you need to ask yourself, in this case, is what you really need from your computer. If you plan to use it to get e-mail and download things from the Internet, you do not need a SCSI interface. If you have heavy-duty plans for your computer, such as graphical design, programming, or anything that requires some heavy power usage, I definitely suggest getting a board with a SCSI interface.

AT… ATX… What the heck?
Okay, I admit I was very confused when I got into building computers and learned that there was something else out there besides the kind of motherboard that I had, which has an AT. Simply put; AT boards are the older model motherboards that really don’t have much to them.

Although AT boards have serial ports and USB interfaces, they are NOT built in. You have to actually go and buy the serial connector and plug it up to the board, which would take up a free opening for a PCI or ISA card. ATX, on the other hand, has some really nifty features on it. First and foremost, everything that you need is built right in.

Today’s ATX boards generally have two serial ports, a printer port, two PS-2 ports (for your mouse and keyboard), two USB ports, and sometimes built-in sound and video as well. Big time difference! Also, the power scheme is different than an AT board. The ATX can automatically power down, without having to flip a switch, whereas an AT board will actually have to be turned off. Simply put, getting an ATX board is much easier than trying to figure out an AT board. Note that if you are upgrading a computer, and are going from an AT board to an ATX, you will need to buy a new shell for your computer that is ATX compatible. Otherwise, your new board won’t fit into your old shell!

Is AGP for me?
AGP stands for Advance Graphics Port, and has been a major addition to motherboards for gamers and people who do graphic design. The AGP slot on a board is a dedicated area, specifically built in for video cards. The AGP allows faster communication between the computer and the video card, and greatly increases the frame rates on video games and other graphic-intense programs. So, should you get a board with an AGP slot?

If you are serious about your graphics, then I say YES! If you plan to use your computer to do bills and other low-tech things, it isn’t really necessary, as video card companies are still making cards for PCI slots. All video cards may go to AGP in the future, but for the time being, the choice is yours to make.

Jumper and jumper-less motherboards
Odds are if you have an older computer, you’ve had to fiddle around with a jumper here or there if you’ve gotten inside the PC. If not, you may need to know what a jumper is. Jumpers are little plastic covers used on motherboards to tell the board if a particular part of the board is ON or OFF, depending on whether the metal pin that the jumper is on is covered or uncovered. Jumpers are extremely important on a board, as they allow for setting up the processor, the sound, the video, and other nameless tasks that the PC must perform.

Newer boards have the option to be jumper-less, in other words, you can modify these boards without having to take off the shell and fool around with the little plastic pieces. The jumpers, instead, are able to be configured by going into the CMOS, and can be turned on or off by using a graphical interface. Jumper-less boards are very popular with people who like to overclock their processors to get the most out of their systems, as they do not have to keep getting into the PC in order to change the jumpers.

Be a smart shopper
It’s my hope that this information will help you get a jump on what to look for when purchasing a new motherboard. Make sure you know what you are looking for when you purchase the board, so that you will save time and heartache down the road. And be sure to ask the sales person any questions that you might have about the board; and if that person can’t answer your questions, find another sales person who can. Happy shopping!
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