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If the processor is the brain of your PC then the motherboard is unquestionably the heart. And a strong heart is the key to a smooth running system. Read on as Windows explains all…

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  May 10, 2007

|~|Boardrev.jpg|~|Motherboards are key in a PC because based on what you've got, you'll be able to build either a high-, medium- or low-end machine.|~|A motherboard, also known as a mainboard or system board, is a PC's central component. It provides the connectivity, both the physical and electrical aspects, that every other internal component and attached peripheral use to communicate with each other. System boards are based on a silicon PCB (Printed Circuit Board), which has various components and physical connectors or ports attached to it. The PCB itself is not just a single layer, it's comprised of as many as several thin layers tightly sandwiched together. It's within these layers that data is actually transferred via electrical paths from one component to another. Motherboards that use more layers are considered to be of better quality and therefore carry a price premium. Motherboard 101 The chips which are responsible for routing data from one component or peripheral to another. These are known as the Northbridge and Southbridge chips, which are collectively known as a chipset, and are usually the biggest chips visible on the motherboard’s PCB (they are best identified as raised black sections and usually these days have a large heatsink sat on top of them to manage their heat dissipation). The Northbridge chip is generally responsible for routing data between the processor, RAM and graphics card(s). The Southbridge on the other hand deals with components attached to your PC’s expansion slots (PCI slots, which are generally white in colour), IDE and Serial ATA ports, the onboard graphics system (if any) and even peripherals connected to the rear input/output (I/O) ports, such as keyboards, mice, printers and more. The North and Southbridge chips communicate with each other over a high-speed internal bus, which in turn means all the devices connected to each chip can talk to each other. Chips Ahoy Before manufacturers build an operational AMD- or Intel-based motherboard, they first choose which vendor’s chipset to use as these chipsets are designed to work with the respective vendor’s own CPUs. A number of firms produce chipsets aside from AMD and Intel, including SiS, VIA and nVidia. Each offers chipsets designed for a specific category of motherboard. For example, if you wish to build a high-end PC using an Intel chipset, you’d have to pick a motherboard based on the firm’s current 975X Express chipset. If you want to a build a mid-range, mid-budget PC, you could opt for a board using any variant of the Intel 965 family of chipsets or nVidia’s 650i. AMD and Intel’s chipsets are designed to work solely with their own CPU families. However the chipsets produced by vendors such as nVidia are often these days offered in versions that can work with either CPU manufacturers’ processors. Just note that in the case of nVidia’s AMD and Intel capable chipsets, such as its 680 line, the actual 680 chipset for AMD systems is different from those designed for Intel machines, but both use exactly the same model number (i.e. 680). If you’re not sure about which to buy, see the board’s CPU socket (the square space in which the processor sits). If it says LGA-something, then the CPU socket (and board) is Intel aimed, not AMD. The price of a chipset is directly related to the features it offers, which then affects the price at which motherboard vendors sell their boards at. So while Intel’s 975X Express may offer the best overall performance, you do end up paying for this. Today’s chipsets are far more advanced than their counterparts from years gone by and if you wish to build a rig that suits your exact needs, you should certainly research your chipsets before buying a motherboard. Presently, the most important and useful features and technologies offered by chipsets are dual-channel memory technology, PCI-Express support, multi-GPU capabilities and Serial ATA controllers. Dual-channel memory is a feature integrated into the Northbridge of a chipset and helps to boost performance by doubling the data transfer rate between the memory controller (on the Northbridge) and RAM (Random Access Memory). For this to work however, you will need to install two identical memory modules in the appropriate memory slots (vendors usually colour both slots the same colour). PCI-Express, also known as PCI-E, is a high-speed serial interface, which was designed to replace the older PCI, PCI-X and AGP interfaces. Presently all modern low-, mid- and high-end graphics cards are built to work with this interface. Depending on which mid- or high-end chipset your motherboard is equipped with, your motherboard may also support multi-GPU technology (in plain English, the capacity to team up more than one graphics card). This approach can really boost graphics performance. At present, two such multi-GPU formats are available: AMD’s CrossFire and nVidia’s SLI (Scalable Link Interface). (Check out our head-tohead test, called ‘Dual Dealing’, on Future chipsets, such as Intel’s Bearlake-X (officially known as the X38 Express) may even support both technologies if licensing issues get dealt with. For the time being, to build a rig with two AMD-based graphics cards (previously ATi), you’ll need to opt for a motherboard which is equipped with the AMD 580X CrossFire chipset. If you are using nVidia based cards however, you’ll have to pick a board equipped with the 680i SLI chipset. Serial ATA (SATA) is a connection standard used by most, if not all, new hard drives and optical drives. Compared to parallel ATA, its predecessor, SATA offers less obtrusive cable widths, which helps to reduce clutter inside your PC, and is capable of data bandwidths as high as 300Gbits/sec, which translates into an actual transfer rate of 300Mbytes/sec. A modern board should feature no less than two usable SATA ports. ---------------------------------------- Enhance your PC building and component buying know-how with these useful links. Build your own PC part 4 The physical steps involved in building a rig from scratch. AMD AM2 vs Core 2 Duo High-end CPUs go head-to-head. Talking chips Motherboards and processors sockets: we explain this potentially confusing topic in plan English. Tweak your PC Overclocking thoughts and advice. ----------------------------------------||**||

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