Last Updated on September 14, 2020 by Scott Krager
Your PC is a complex machine. It has different internal components that receive input data from different devices, perform different functions, and then produce results based on their calculations.
In order to help these components coordinate with each other efficiently, we have the motherboard. It’s a circuit board through which different hardware components interact or communicate with each other.
Needless to say, no matter how good your pc components are, a bad motherboard will not allow them to perform efficiently. This is why you shouldn’t compromise a single bit when it comes to choosing a motherboard for your PC.
But in case you’ve read any online review related to motherboards, like the one we recently wrote about the z390 motherboards, you’ll know that a lot of technical jargons are used which many people simply don’t have any idea of.
I am talking about things about DIMM slots, U.2 ports, RGB headers, and other geeky things like that.
But don’t you worry now, because after reading this post, all of these things will be on your fingertips.
So, let’s start. Shall we.
10 Most Important Motherboard Terms To Know About
1. ATX, MicroATX, and Mini-ITX
Alright, we’ll start off with the easiest one. Motherboards come in different sizes, and the size is the factor that defines how many (and what type of) components can be attached to a particular motherboard.
Although we’ve already discussed the differences between ATX, mATX, and Mini-ITX mobos here, we’ll repeat for the sake of this article.
ATX boards, also known as standard-ATX boards, are the biggest among the most widely used form factors. With the dimensions of 12 × 9.6 inches, they can fit into mid as well as full tower PC cases, and usually feature more expansion slots than the Mini-ITX and MicroATX boards.
MicroATX, or mATX boards, are the next one. Since these boards have the dimensions of 9.6 × 9.6 inches, you can place them into a full or mid tower case as well, but a microATX case would be much more suitable here.
Mini-ITX, or simply ITX boards are the smallest of the lot in terms of size as well as expansion slots. Having 6.7 × 6.7 inches size, these boards are made for SFF builds. As it’s the case with mATX boards, you can put them into bigger cases and it’ll get the job done too, but there would be a lot of empty space in that bigger case.
Specific Mini ITX cases would serve you better in this regard.
In most cases, a PC chassis comes with a specs sheet which contains the list of motherboard form factors that chassis can support. That’s why you can check that sheet out in case of any confusion.
In the computer world, the chipset is a pretty broad term and can have different meanings depending on the context. In motherboards, however, a chipset is the component which determines which processor(s) you can fit into your motherboard.
Apart from this, a chipset also determines which components and hardware peripherals can be connected to your motherboard. Most of the time, a new processor line-up (no matter if it’s from Intel or AMD) comes with a new motherboard line-up containing a new chipset.
More often than not, these new CPUs are only compatible with the motherboards having that latest chipset, but some exceptions exist (like you can put new i5-9600K on your Z370 motherboard and make it work through a BIOS update).
Right now, Z390 is the top-level chipset form the Intel. It’s the successor of the Z370 chipset and offer different enhancements in the form of native USB 3.1 Gen 2 support and Integrated WiFi capability. Apart from this, other chipsets like Q370, H370, B360, and H310 are sued in less-expensive motherboards.
As far as AMD is concerned, X570 is their latest chipset, accompanied by X470, X370 and B450.
3. CPU Socket
The socket is an area of the motherboard where your CPU fits in. Besides the chipset, it’s the CPU socket that determines what CPUs you can put into your motherboard.
As of now, LGA 1151 is Intel’s latest mainstream socket and both z390 and Z370 motherboards have this socket. For AMD, AM4 is their mainstream socket while the TR4 is made for Threadripper CPUs.
4. DIMM Slots
DIMM stands for Dual In-line Memory Module. These slots are the ones where we put our RAM sticks. Nowadays, RAM memory sticks come in DDR4 standard but DDR3 RAMs are still common in older PCs.
Most motherboards nowadays come with 4 DIMM slots which means you can put as much as 4 RAM sticks. One thing worth mentioning here is that if you have two DDR (dual-data rate) sticks of the same size (4GB each, for example), they’ll perform better than a single RAM of the total capacity (a single 8 GB RAM).
This is the reason why most manufacturers sell the RAM sticks in the form of two / four modules. What’s more interesting is that if your motherboard support qual-channel operations, having four identical RAM modules will work even better than 2 sticks of that combined memory.
5. PCI Express x16, x8, x4, and x1 Slots
PCIe (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) slots come in different sizes, from x1 to X16, and are also called expansion slots because you can use them in order to install different expansion cards, like PCIe-based wifi adapter, internal sound cards, and graphics cards, on your motherboard.
Long ago, PCI, PCI-X, and AGP were the common standards for the data transmission between these cards and the motherboards, but PCIe standard is way faster than them and is now the most popular standard for this purpose.
As far as the differences between the different PCIe slots is concerned, here’s what you need to know.
- PCIe x1 slots have one data lane
- PCIe x4 slots have four data lanes
- PCIe x8 slots have eight data lanes
- PCIe x16 slots have sixteen data lanes
Apart from this, a higher number after the X means that the slot is longer than the one with a smaller number after x. It means x1 is the smallest while x16 is the longest slot. This also means that while you can put a PCIe x8 card into the PCIe x16 slot (it can feel loose at first, but with the help of screws, it’ll be fit and will work perfectly), vice versa is not possible.
6. USB Headers
A motherboard comes with the different grids of the pins, usually on a corner, which fits certain cables coming from your PC case. These grids are called headers.
PC Cases usually feature USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports at the front side. So, in order to make those slots work, you’ll need to plug the cables from your Chassis into these headers.
Since USB standard is in transition, as of now, there are different types of USB headers, like USB 2.o headers, USB 3.0 headers, and USB 3 Gen 2 headers. Motherboard manufacturers often label the header for user’s better understanding, but it’s still good to know the basic differences between these types.
A USB 2.0 header consists of 2 rows with 5 and 4 pins respectively, which means that you have to plug the cable carefully because applying too much pressure can potentially break it. USB 3.0 headers, on the other hand, are much easier to plug the cable into, because they consist of two rows of 10 pins. Some ultra-premium motherboards also feature a USB 3 Gen 2 header which looks more like a USB port rather than a header.
7. Front Audio Header
Many PC Cases also come with mic and headphones jack at the front and to make those jacks work, you’ll need to connect the corresponding cable into a 10-pin header that has 5 pins on the bottom row and 4 pins at the top one (one pin missing from the middle). In simple terms, this header enables the jacks for headphone and mic to work on an auto-detection mode and work accordingly as soon as a device connects. In order to locate it, try to find “AAFP” label on a header of your motherboard.
8. PWM Fan Header
If you’ve read our PC case fans guide, you may already know the difference between 3-pin and 4-pin fans. 4-pin fans come with a PWM pin which allows the motherboard to control the fan speed. All you need to do to is plug the PWM cable from coming from the case into the PWM header and you’re done. Most of the motherboards come with more than one of these headers located in different areas of the motherboard, and you can easily distinguish them due to their shape.
They consist of a single row of 4 pins.
Plugging a 3-pin fan (the one that doesn’t have a PWM pin) will also make it work, but you won’t be able to control its speed.
9. M.2 And U.2 Slots
M.2 slot is where you’ll fit your M.2 SSD or any other expansion card that utilizes this standard.
In recent times, M.2 has emerged as a new standard for SSDs and expansion cards. It provides higher data transmission speed than other standards such as SATA. M.2 SSDs are a lot smaller than the traditional ones and come in different types.
These different types, such as 2230 defines the width and length of that particular M.2 SSD.
M.2 2230 SSD, for example, means that this SSD is 22 millimeters wide and 30 mm long. The other popular M.2 SSD types are:
- M.2 2242: 22 mm wide and 42 mm long.
- M.2 2260: 22 mm wide and 60 mm long.
- M.2 2280: 22 mm wide and 80 mm long.
- M.2 2210: 22 mm wide and 110 mm long.
This is the reason why many high-end boards come with more than one M.2 slots, and most of the times, these slots have variable lengths. So, before you buy any of these SSDs, make sure that you have an M.2 slot of that particular length on your motherboard. In recent times, different manufacturers have come up with different solutions, like M.2 heatsink, in order to keep it cool.
U.2 ports, like the M.2 slots, is faster than the traditional SATA interface but isn’t as widely used standard except in some enterprise-level storage devices. This is why it’s OK if your motherboard doesn’t come up with this port.
10. I/O Shield
If you’ve ever assembled a PC, you’ll realize that it’s slightly tricky than what it seems on the surface. You have to fit all the components correctly while making sure that you don’t damage any of them. The backside of a motherboard consists of different ports and connectors and in order to prevent those ports from any harm during the installation process, we have the I/O shield.
Simply speaking, this is a metal plate attached to the backside of your motherboard and fits into the back side of your case. Apart from this, it gives dust and ESD protection to your motherboard components.
So this is it really.
Yes, there are some other terms, like SLI/CrossFire, that we didn’t list. The criteria behind this list were to mention only the most common concepts and terms related to the motherboards. Otherwise, we would have to make a 7000-words guide to include all those unmentioned terms.
Anyways, if you still feel that we’ve missed any important term, make sure to let us know below in comments.