With the decline in PC prices, replacing your motherboard has become harder and harder to justify. After all, why replace your motherboard—which may run you a couple hundred bucks—when you can replace your entire machine for just a couple of Ben Franklins more? Well, believe it or not, I can’t think of any reason except for the fun of it.

But of course, there are reasons to upgrade. Here are the ones that stand out in my mind—outside of just for fun:

  • Jumping from one processor type to another, like from Socket 7 to Slot One
  • Access to new features that you can only get via a new chip set, like a faster system bus and new peripheral controllers

In order to replace the motherboard, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. It’s probably the closest any of us will come to performing major surgery. In a way, it’s major surgery for your PC. So, before you begin, let’s consider what you need to know.

Baby steps
There are a few things that you will need to know before actually replacing your motherboard. They are:

  • Dimensions of your current case and motherboard
  • Number of plug-in boards
  • Type of plug-in boards
  • Amount of memory
  • Type of memory
  • Power supply wattage
  • Types of peripherals and ports to which they attach

You’ll need the above information, particularly the dimensions, when you go shopping for a new board. Also, if you want to use your existing memory, you’ll want to make sure that the new board supports the type you’re using now.

Size does matter
The dimensions matter a great deal when you’re considering a new board. Motherboards come in several different form factors. These include:

  • ATX
  • MicroATX
  • NLX
  • BabyAT

To keep this job simple, it’s always a good idea to get a motherboard with the same dimensions or form factor as the one you’re replacing. That doesn’t mean you can’t fit one of the new, smaller boards into a larger, old case. Just make sure that you have some way of securing the smaller board to the case. Not all motherboards fit into all cases. Which brings me to my next point.

The Tim Taylor Tool Time Tune-up Temptation
If the new motherboard doesn’t fit the old case, you can always buy a new case. Of course, when you do that, you’re basically building a new machine. And inside this new machine, you’ll probably want to add all sorts of new and improved gadgets that increase performance. After all, it’s all about performance, isn’t it? So, go ahead and add that new hard drive, extra add-in cards, DVD, and, above all else, a new power supply. More power is definitely a good thing. (Insert your own primate sounds here.)

Important note

This is a good time to remember what some wise, ancient sage once said: Anytime you attempt to make a change to your system—especially one as major as this—always, always perform a fresh backup.

Now, you’re almost ready to begin. But before you remove the old motherboard, you’ll need to disconnect all of your peripherals. Once that’s done, go ahead and remove the old case. Here’s a tip in case you’re not 100 percent comfortable with the replacement process. Grab some masking tape and a felt-tip pen. Tear off some short pieces and label the existing cables. You can indicate right on the cable where it should be attached once the surgery is over.

Performing the surgery
Now is a good time for a quick tip: Since all of the components inside the case are static-sensitive, it’s a good idea to discharge any stored electrical charges. Static electricity can hit you like a stealth bomber—by the time you discover it was anywhere near you, the damage has already been done. So, unless you have one of those fancy grounding straps handy—and I never do—touch your power supply. That’s right. Touching the power supply’s case will discharge any static. It’s a harmless way to prep yourself before getting your hands any further into your patient.

The next thing to do is to disconnect any cables that are attached to your motherboard. Make a mental note of where everything goes.

Now, remove the components, including plug-in cards and memory. You’ll want to lay them flat on a clean, dry towel for the duration of this part of the operation.

And now for the main event—almost. It’s quite possible that you’ll be required to remove the power supply and hard drives before proceeding. I say possible because not everyone will have to do this. It depends on your system. If you do, just repeat the above steps for labeling, and you’ll be fine.

Finally, you’re ready to remove the motherboard physically. Doing so may require the use of needle-nosed pliers, or it may not. The board could be attached to your case with small screws or with small, cone-shaped plastic connectors called standoffs. Just use the pliers to remove them, and the board should come free. Wipe your forehead, and we’ll proceed with the second part of the operation.

Installation: Making your patient better
Before placing the new board into the case, install the memory. It’s easier to do at this stage of the process. Now, place the board into the case. Here’s where it may get a little tricky. The new board’s connectors may be in a different place than the old ones, which means that you may need to put the screws or standoffs in new locations. But hey, you’ve just removed a motherboard. Putting new holes in your case to match the new board should be a snap.

If you removed the power supply and hard drive, then you’ll need to reconnect them at this point. Remember, seating cards is an exact science. Do it incorrectly, and they won’t work. So, take the extra few seconds to double-check your work.

Now, reconnect all of your cables. Since they are all labeled, it should be a snap. Again, make sure your connections are seated correctly.

Finally, it’s time to plug those peripherals back in. You’ll notice that I didn’t say to put the cover on the case. That’s because it’s always good to test the system first to make sure everything works. Once you’re sure your patient’s surgery went well, then you can close the case.

It’s alive!
Plug the machine in and turn it on. But don’t get too comfortable! You’ll want to watch the BIOS messages that appear on the screen. Make sure that the appropriate amount of memory appears. More often than not, you’ll need to enter the BIOS setup program and make some changes. Tell it to search for any attached IDE drives. Save the changes to the program and see if the machine boots. If it doesn’t and you’ve made the BIOS changes, then go back and check your connections one more time. Remember, this is major surgery. It’s not uncommon to run into complications the first time around.

You may discover that your system won’t boot from an existing hard drive because the drive contains drivers for your old motherboard and system. If you’re fortunate, the Windows Plug and Play and the Add New Hardware Wizard will lead you through the process of installing the new drivers for the new board. If you’re one of the less fortunate ones, you’ll need to partition and format the hard drive and copy your software back onto it.

It booted to Windows? Great! But you’re not finished yet. There are still a couple of things to check in order to make sure that Windows recognizes everything in your system.

Here’s what you’ll need to do now. Open Device Manager. Look for a yellow exclamation point or a red circle with a slash through the middle. If you see either one of those symbols, it means that something is not working correctly. There is a quick way to try to resolve these issues:

  1. Select the device.
  2. Click the Remove button.
  3. Restart your PC.

Following these steps will force Windows to recognize the piece of hardware as new and to install the appropriate drivers for it. Of course, the assumption here is that all physical connections are good and that the device is in working order. If it doesn’t work, then it’s going to involve some troubleshooting on your part. Troubleshooting individual devices is obviously beyond the scope of this Daily Drill Down.

Look over Device Manager thoroughly. What you’re looking for are devices that should be there and maybe some that should not—like if you’ve forgotten to remove old hardware drivers that you didn’t bring over to the new system.

Once your troubleshooting woes are behind you and the machine boots like it should, put the cover back on and sit back. You’ve just completed major surgery on your PC, and now it’s time for some personal downtime. Relax. You earned it.