How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation

Step 4: Select A Motherboard

The motherboard is one of the most critical selections affecting the functionality of any build. So, why didn't we mention it first? Well, choosing your case, processor, and graphics solution first may narrow hundreds of possible models down to just a few best matches. Fortunately, our Beginner's Guide to Motherboard Selection contains most of the information needed to initiate first-time builders. In fact, the plethora of previously-published information available allows us to narrow motherboard selection down to a list of criteria:

  • What form factor best matches the case you want to use? As seen above, smaller boards can be fit into larger cases, but not vice-versa.
  • What interface does your CPU of choice use? Cross-compatibility is severely limited on AMD's sockets (such as AM3 processors in AM3+ motherboards), and Intel's LGA interfaces are exclusive (meaning no cross-compatibility).
  • Has the board been approved to work with the processor you picked? In some cases, even if a CPU fits into a particular socket, it may not be supported by a given motherboard's most up-to-date firmware. CPU compatibility lists on each motherboard's website usually refer to specific BIOS versions, and you wouldn't want to end up with a board manufactured three months ago if the BIOS your CPU needs is only two months old.
  • How many graphics cards will be installed? Most graphics cards use PCIe x16 slots, and many motherboards appear to have three of them, but the third slot is often impeded in some technical manner. It's important to read motherboard reviews to find out how this might affect your build.
  • "Riser cards" allow case manufacturers to produce thinner cases by turning expansion cards sideways. If the case uses a riser card, does it match the motherboard’s slot?
  • Non-graphics expansion cards usually fit into PCIe x8, x4, x1 or legacy PCI slots. How many do you plan to use, and what slot type is required for each? Shorter PCIe cards can be placed in longer PCIe slots, but the reverse isn't usually true. And some motherboards share resources between slots, making it necessary to read the board's specifications table or our motherboard reviews.
  • If on-board graphics are used, which display outputs are required? Some motherboards give you VGA, HDMI, DisplayPort, and DVI connectors. Others don't give you any. Most on-board graphics processors support a maximum number of two or three displays, as discussed on the manufacturer's specifications table and in our chipset coverage.

  • If on-board sound is used, what type of audio system connection is required? Audio over HDMI is nearly universal, but standalone digital audio systems typically use optical or coaxial cables. And live compression of 5.1-and-above sound streams to a digital output typically requires either DTS Connect or Dolby Digital Live (DDL), which is outlined both by the manufacturer and at the bottom of the features table in our motherboard reviews.
  • How many network connections will be used?
  • Will eSATA, Thunderbolt, or other specialized interfaces be useful?
  • What other external connections might be required?
  • How many Serial ATA, mSATA, M.2, or SATA Express drives will be installed?
  • Will RAID be required? If so, what modes are needed?
  • How many memory modules will be installed?
  • Will the board be overclocked?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you're ready to take a closer look at our motherboard reviews!