Motherboards

The motherboard is, in many ways, the most important component in your computer (not the processor, although the processor gets much more attention). If the processor is the brain of the computer, the motherboard and its major components (the chipset, BIOS, cache, and so on) are the major systems that this brain uses to control the rest of the computer. Having a good understanding of how the motherboard works is probably the most critical part of understanding the PC. The motherboard plays an important role in the following vital aspects of your computer system (and notice how many are here):

♦ Organization. Everything is eventually connected to the motherboard. The way that the motherboard is designed and laid out dictates how the entire computer is going to be organized.

♦ Control. The motherboard contains the BIOS program and chipset, which, between the two, control most of the data flow.

♦ Communication. Almost all communication between the PC and its peripherals, other PCs, and you, the user, goes through the motherboard.

♦ Processor support. The motherboard dictates directly your choice of processor for use in the system.

♦ Peripheral support. The motherboard determines, in large part, what types of peripherals you can use in your PC. The type of video card your system can use (AGP, PCI), for example, depends on what system buses your motherboard uses.

♦ Performance. The motherboard is a major determining factor in your system's performance, for two main reasons. First, the motherboard determines the processors, memory, system buses, and hard-disk interface speed your system can have, and these components dictate your system's performance. Second, the quality of the motherboard circuitry and chipset themselves have an effect on performance.

♦ Upgradability. The capabilities of your motherboard dictate to what extent you can upgrade your machine. Some motherboards, for example, accept regular Pentiums of up to 133 MHz speed only, while others go to 200 MHz. Obviously, the second one gives you more room to upgrade if you are starting with a P133. We would not recommend anything less than a P4.

Motherboards come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The essential components of a motherboard are as follows:

♦ Motherboard form factor. Motherboards come in several sizes, as follows:

• Full-AT. This form factor is no longer produced because it cannot be placed into the popular Baby-AT chassis.

• Baby-AT. This size is almost the same as that of the original IBM XT motherboard, with modifications in the screw-hole position to fit into an AT-style case and with connections built onto the motherboard to fit the holes in the case.

• LPX. This size was developed by Western Digital when it was making motherboards and was duplicated by many other manufacturers. It is no longer made by Western Digital.

• Full-ATX/Mini-ATX. The ATX form factor is an advancement over previous AT-style motherboards. This style of motherboard rotates the orientation of the board 90 degrees, allowing for a more efficient design. Disk drive cable connectors are closer to the drive bays and the CPU is closer to the power supply and cooling fan.

• NLX. This size was implemented in 1998 by Intel and is similar to the LPX form factor except for the improvements of support for the PII, AGP slots, USB, and DIMM slots.

We would stay with the ATX form factor. It seems to be the most preferred case style to date.

♦ Slots. Slots come in four standards: ISA (the older and slower slots), PCI (which caters to faster data transfer rates), AGP (Advanced Graphics Port), and PCI-X, the most recent of the bunch, which is more suited to graphics components (and not becoming of a server). Most motherboards include at least two of the three slot types. Because AGP is for a graphics interface card, usually only one AGP slot is present. Choose a motherboard that gives you at least one AGP slot and at least four PCI slots.

♦ RAM slots. The RAM slots include SIMMs and DIMMs. SIMM slots are the older 72-pin slots, and the modules must be mounted in pairs. DIMM memory is much faster. DIMM modules come in 168-pin slots, and the memory can be mounted as single modules. You can put more DIMM RAM in a server than SIMM, which is important for future expansion.

♦ CPU sockets. The CPU sockets include Socket 7, Slot 1, and 370/PPGA. Socket 7 is the older Pentium Pro-type socket, which is inserted like a pancake into the motherboard sockets. Slot 1 CPUs are for the Pentium II and III CPUs, which go into a single slot and protrude away from the motherboard. Slot 370 CPUs are cheaper than Slot 1 CPUs and are for the Intel Celeron PPGA CPUs.

One of the top motherboards in the United States is SuperMicro, which supplies many leading brands. You can buy SuperMicro boards at www.Motherboards.com, which sells several other leading brands, including SOYO, ABIT, and INTEL. Another motherboard maker that has become popular is ASUS.

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