Gaming Build: Guide to Motherboards

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Gaming Build: Guide to Motherboards

Building a PC is now more accessible than ever. There are many ways to find compatible parts, and a quality rig can typically last you longer than any console. As someone who, primarily, has been a console-based gamer for most of my run, I understand the perception that building a PC is intimidating or complex—so much so that I've gamed on consoles because I think they're as close to "plug-and-play" as is possible today. Luckily, however, building a PC is not as difficult as you might think; the hard part is doing the research and figuring out what you want from your machine. With a little bit of know-how, you'll come to see the connections between different parts are straightforward. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at motherboards, specifically.

If you don't know what a motherboard is, it’s a printed circuit board that serves as the main hub to which the rest of your components connect. While your PC case houses all your components, its your motherboard that links the disparate parts of your build together. Not only does it act as the "skeleton" of your rig, but it also determines the compatibility of other components like your CPU, RAM, storage, and expansion cards, and even determines what kind and how many ports you have on the back of your PC. Your choice of motherboard has a huge effect on the overall performance and functionality of the PC. There's a ton of other things to consider when buying a motherboard, but we'll break it down so you get a better sense of what's important.

Chipset

One of the first and most important things you should consider when looking at motherboards is the CPU socket it supports. Ideally, you should choose your motherboard in tandem with the CPU you want, but if you're not sure yet, take a look at this guide to get caught up to speed. These components will have an impact on your PC's performance and make it easier to determine the rest of your parts.

Gigabyte X670E AORUS PRO X Motherboard
Gigabyte X670E AORUS PRO X Motherboard

A “mobo” is usually built to be compatible with a certain series of processors. So, for example, if you look at the specs of this Gigabyte X670E AORUS PRO X Motherboard, you'll see that it lists "AM5" under socket. AM5 refers to the current generation socket type from AMD. If we look at the specs of this Ryzen 7 7800X3D processor, we'll notice that it is a compatible model because it also sports the same socket type. The most common boards that support AM5 sockets are usually labeled either "X670" or B650," but there are a couple other variations, like X670E, B650E or A620, with slightly different or expanded feature sets.

AMD Ryzen 7 7800X3D 4.2 GHz Eight-Core AM5 Processor
AMD Ryzen 7 7800X3D 4.2 GHz Eight-Core AM5 Processor

The other socket type you'll see listed most often is LGA1700, which indicates compatibility with Intel®'s latest processors. Most higher-end boards aimed at gamers that support Intel®'s latest processors are labeled "Z690" or "Z790," but others, like the H-series H660 and H770 or B-series B660 and B760 mobos, have different feature sets, like less or no support for overclocking. However, mobos are sometimes compatible with different generations of processors. Boards that support AMD's AM5 sockets, for example, are backward compatible with AM4, so whether you're building for the first time or looking to reuse a processor from an existing build, there's always the possibility that they'll work together. By that logic you could say it’s possible to measure how "future-proof" a mobo is, but I wouldn't put too much stock in that because you can’t predict whether a socket type will change or if a manufacturer will force you to upgrade.

Overclocking

Overclocking is one of those key features that can point you toward a certain board. For those unsure about overclocking, it’s a way to get even more performance out of your CPU. Some games receive a pretty significant performance boost from overclocking. Overclocking a CPU allows it to perform faster by intentionally increasing the clock speed it operates at beyond what its rated for. When it comes to motherboards, some come with built-in overclocking features while others don't support it at all. Decide if that's something you see yourself experimenting with because you can't add overclocking support later if you change your mind!

Form Factor

There are a ton of different motherboards that address a variety of needs, depending on what you're building. They usually come in form factors that pair with existing case sizes so, for example, ATX-sized motherboards are pretty common for most builds and E-ATX boards also exist for larger cases. For smaller builds, micro-ATX or mini-ITX motherboards take up considerably less space than a full-size ATX board, but they're a bit harder to build in, so this guide will mostly be sticking to ATX-sized ones. While you can always use a smaller board in a larger case, larger motherboards tend to have more useful features like more slots or ports, for example.

ATX (Left), MicroATX (Middle), Mini-ITX (Right)
ATX (left), MicroATX (Middle), Mini-ITX (right)

Slots and Ports

A motherboard's selection of slots and ports are extremely important when it comes to functionality. The first kind we'll examine are RAM slots. RAM plays a huge role in how fast your PC feels, and most motherboards usually have anywhere from two to four RAM slots. Just like with other components, certain motherboards are only compatible with specific types of RAM. Having more RAM is always great, but there's no need to max out here since 16GB of RAM is more than sufficient if you're just building this system for games. When choosing your RAM, you'll want to keep track of RAM type and speed, which is measured in MHz. The latest RAM runs on DDR5 but make sure that the motherboard you purchase supports the type of RAM that you end up buying.

Some of the other kind of slots you'll typically find on a motherboard are Peripheral Component Interconnect Express, or PCIe, slots and M.2 slots. PCIe slots contain a specified number of data lanes, which are indicated as x1, x4, x8, or x16. There are also different generations of PCIe with 5.0 already out there on the latest boards. Most mobos today have one PCIe x16 slot that's typically reserved for your GPU. The other slots can be used to expand functionality with capture cards, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi adapters, as quick examples. Many mobos have that kind of functionality built in, so you probably won't need to buy a separate wi-fi adapter unless you're going with a very barebones mobo.

M.2 slots are a relatively newer compact innovation that adds functionality to your PC. In most desktop builds you'll see them used for M.2 SSDs that look like this. These SSDs are small and an easy way to add storage to your rig, since they plug directly into your motherboard and eliminate the need for cables you would typically see in drives that use a SATA connection.

Crucial T700 2TB PCIe 5.0 x4 M.2 Internal SSD
Crucial T700 2TB PCIe 5.0 x4 M.2 Internal SSD

When it comes to ports, if you didn't know anything about PC building, you might reasonably assume that the ports on the back of your rig come from your case. In reality, most cases have a cutout on the back that sits flush with your motherboard once it’s installed, because the motherboard determines the port selection on the back of your PC. The number you need depends on your use case, but determine if the board you're looking at has enough ports, whether that's USB-A, USB-C, ethernet, etc. These are the ports you'll use to for peripheral connectors and will provide power for external devices such as keyboards, mice, printers, and more.

Hopefully, with a better understanding of some of the above factors, you should have no problem eventually finding the right motherboard for your build. Motherboards are one of those things that are really easy to overspend on for bells and whistles you might not really need. Look for a board that has the key things you need and save that budget for other things like your processor or GPU. If you're not planning on overclocking, you can save a substantial amount of money opting for those midrange boards.

Even more so, I hope I've been able to, at least, impart the wisdom that no component in a build exists within its own bubble. Choosing one part will affect the others and, while that can seem confusing at first, for those willing to put in a bit of time, piecing together your PC part by part can be really worthwhile in the end! Not only will you save money in the long run, but you’ll also have a more granular understanding of how it all works together.

Let us know how your building journey is going in the Comments section, below!

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