Have you ever thought to yourself, how are motherboards made? Or pondered how they actually work and what makes a motherboard tick?
Well, if you have, you are in the right place. Everything you need to know about motherboards, from the components that make up the printed circuit board (PCB), to the integration of the input/output ports, card slots, and sockets, all the way up to the packaging and distribution of motherboards, will be covered in this article.
We are also going to give you a few pointers to help you spot a good motherboard, too, so let's get into it.
What Is A Motherboard?
This article isn't really about what motherboards do, so we’ll keep it simple. A motherboard connects and transmits signals to and from peripherals, like your keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The same can be said for your components, such as your CPU, GPU, RAM, and others.
The motherboard is essentially a large PCB (printed circuit board), and the various lines you see are embedded copper tracks. These copper tracks are responsible for linking up your various parts and allow communication to take place between them.
Think of the motherboard as an orchestral conductor bringing the various parts together in perfect harmony. On a motherboard, you can expect to see standard components like capacitors, resistors, and VRMs, which manage the electrical current.
If you still aren't grasping this, don't worry, we are going to go into more detail for the terminology.
What Is A Motherboard Made Of?
A motherboard is mainly composed of two materials:
- Layers of fiberglass for insulation
- Copper to form conductive pathways
If you’re wondering why motherboards are made in layers, the answer is quite simple: to save space.
Stacking 4-8 layers of copper-embedded fiberglass PCB makes motherboards significantly smaller. This also increases the speed of processing data since electrons have less distance to travel.
Now, unless you know exactly what you are doing, you should never drill into your motherboard! A motherboard is composed of layers that have copper embedded in between fiberglass. If you were to drill through one of the copper lanes, it would be the end of your motherboard. It may seem strange that this is even being mentioned, but there have been instances where people have drilled to accommodate a new aftermarket cooler.
Of course, this doesn't mean the PCB is never drilled; the PCB is pre-drilled before it even arrives at the factory. The drilling is for mounting holes and through holes for attaching and soldering components. Vertical interconnect access (VIAS) will also be soldered onto the motherboard and is basically electrical connections between the copper layers.
Creating The Base Of A Motherboard
It all starts with the PCB or printed circuit board. Layers of very complicated slices of fiberglass are stacked/stuck together with a resin to form one solid layer.
This new, single fiberglass layer will then be coated with a layer of copper on both the top and bottom sides. A chemical called photoresist, a light-sensitive material that forms a copper-etched trace on the PCB when exposed to light, is then coated on top of the copper layer.
After coating the copper with photoresist, a pattern covering specific parts of the layer is then placed on top of it before exposing the entire slab to UV light. The board is then washed to remove the uncovered parts of the copper layer, exposing the almost-complete motherboard.
When everything is completed, the actual motherboard manufacturing process begins.
Motherboard Manufacturing Process
The motherboard manufacturing process is essentially broken down into four parts:
- Surface Mount Technology (SMT)
- DIP (Dual Inline Package)
1. Surface Mount Technology (SMT)
This is where smaller components are soldered onto the motherboard.
The process starts with the PCBs stacked and pushed by a machine one by one to an advanced printer, which then follows a pre-labeled layout before soldering components in place.
The motherboards aren’t sent straight to DIP because they need to be manually inspected first and then placed on an integrated chip tester to ensure that the print that was ordered is accurate. If it passes the test, then its journey continues.
2. DIP (Dual Inline Package)
This process starts with the motherboards being placed into a machine that installs the small capacitors. After that, larger components, such as 24-pin connectors, and input/output ports, are mounted by hand.
Before a motherboard is ready for testing, it has to pass the manual inspection to ensure that the components are correctly installed.
After the manual inspection, these are sent through a heat chamber that is said to go all the way up to 509° Fahrenheit (265° Celsius) to reinforce the recently inserted components. After this, it will then be ready for testing.
Testing is really easy to understand and, as always, important for quality control. All of the I/O ports, PCI Express Lanes, etc. will need to pass a series of tests before they are tagged as ready for packaging.
4. Packaging And Distribution
The packaging and distribution process is where the SATA cables, manual, I/O shield, driver installer, and just about everything you’d find inside a newly purchased motherboard is packed.
The motherboard will also be packaged in an antistatic bag here. At this point, the motherboard is finally ready for distribution.
Parts Of A Motherboard
Now that you have a general idea about the motherboard manufacturing process, we’ll cover the parts that comprise the motherboard as a whole.
1. BIOS And CMOS
BIOS or Basic Input Output System is where all the information and settings for the motherboard are stored. It can be accessed, updated, and modified via the BIOS mode.
The CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semi-Conductor) battery is what’s responsible for keeping all the information intact when the entire system is shut down.
The CMOS battery can be removed to reset the BIOS after a failed update or if you overclock your RAM beyond its capabilities.
2. Input/Output Ports
Also commonly referred to as I/O ports for short. These ports are located at the back of the computer and are often color-coded.
Below are the I/O ports along with the colors they represent.
- Microphone- Pink 3.5mm jack port
- Speakers and Headphones / Headsets / Earbuds- Bold green 3.5mm jack port
- Monitor- Older motherboards are equipped with a solid blue VGA port at the back, but newer motherboards use the HDMI and black or white DVI port as standard
- Ethernet network cable- Colorless port
- Keyboard and Mouse- PS/2 port (Keyboard- purple; Mouse- green)
- USB devices- USB 2.0 colorless port; USB 3.0/3.1 solid blue port (Yes, VGA ports are a similar color, but this only goes to show how outdated VGA is)
- Some modern motherboards feature USB C type connections
3. IDE And SATA Connector (Storage Device Connectors)
The internal storage device connectors are where you will connect your storage devices, such as mechanical hard drives and solid-state drives. These storage devices need to be connected to the motherboard for data to be submitted and retrieved.
Don’t forget: while HDDs and SSDs do the same thing (store data), there is a big difference between how HDDs and SSDs accomplish this.
IDE, or Integrated Drive Electronics, is used to hook up disk drives, floppy disks, and HDDs. This is a 40-pin male connector that connects the HDD.
As technology advanced, IDE connectors became obsolete. Now the SATA connector (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) is the standard connector with a 7-pin interface. Despite having 33 fewer pins, this is faster than the IDE connectors.
4. Power Connectors
The ATX (Advanced Technology eXtended) connector (found in more recent motherboards) has 20 or 24-pin female connectors. This is the largest connector on the motherboard, as this draws out the needed power directly from the power supply.
The SMPS (switched-mode power supply) then utilizes this power to keep the motherboard running.
5. Front I/O Connectors
This is where you connect the Power Switch, LED power indicator, Reset Switch, and the HDD LED cables. The front audio port and front USB are also connected here. These connections are usually located at the bottom part of the motherboard.
6. CPU Socket
The CPU socket is where your CPU (processor) is installed. This is where the processing and transfer of data happens. Your CPU is one of the most important parts of your computer, so you often choose your motherboard based on compatibility with the CPU you intend to use. The CPU needs to be 100% compatible with the motherboard socket for it to work.
7. Expansion Card Slots
The expansion card slots are where you add extra components such as a video card, network card, audio card, or PCIe SSD. The slots are located in the bottom half of the motherboard below the CPU socket.
Video Card Slot
The video card slot lets you install a dedicated GPU and boost the graphical performance of your computer further than an AMD APU or Intel CPU would. This goes to the high data slots, like the PCIe slot or AGP slot. Ports include, but are not limited to, (depends on the card):
Network Card Slot
The network card slot is where you put the Network Interface Card (NIC). This allows you to connect to other computer networks via LAN or the internet. It has an RJ-45 port at the back.
Modem Card Slot
This is where you connect your network card so you can connect to the internet through the telephone line. Obviously, this is an older technology than the above NIC. This typically has 2 RJ-11 connectors to connect to the telephone.
Audio Card Slot
This is where audio cards fit. They convert electrical signals to the audio signals or sound that we can hear. Depending on the type of audio, there will be different types of ports found at the back. But it usually has several 3.5mm ports used for the following:
8. RAM (Memory) Slots
RAM, or Random Access Memory, slots are one of the most important parts on a motherboard.
The RAM slots are, unsurprisingly, where you place the RAM modules. There is the SIMM slot (Single in-line memory module) that only supports a 32-bit bus, and there is the DIMM slot (Dual inline memory module) that can simultaneously run with a 64-bit bus.
DDR3 (Double Data Rate 3rd Generation) was once the standard with RAM, but this has slowly been replaced with DDR4 (Double Data Rate 4th Generation). While DDR3 is still surprisingly effective, DDR4 is the new standard.
When it comes to gaming, there’s still an active debate whether you need 8GB or 16GB of DDR4.
This is where you connect your M.2 SSD. The M.2 slot is regarded as the replacement for mSATA standard and was formerly known as Next Generation Form Factor (NGFF).
When M.2 devices use the PCI bus instead of the SATA bus, they can transfer data six times faster than a standard SSD.
M.2 SSDs were designed to enable high-performance storage in compact devices, such as laptops and tablets. M.2 devices are widely accepted as being the best types of storage, as we see them becoming a standard feature in desktop PCs too.
We have covered the different sections of a motherboard you are likely to interact with during your PC build. Of course, there is much more at work on a motherboard that plays a major role in the operation of your various components.
Other parts, such as chipsets, act as a communications hub or a traffic control center, and they manage the flow of data between the processor, memory, and peripherals. It’s essentially the backbone of a PC.
Since this is an article to help educate PC builders/gamers, new or experienced, let’s take a look at these parts and their functions:
Northbridge and Southbridge Chip
9. M.2 Slot
The northbridge chip is connected directly to the CPU and handles fast communication between the CPU and performance-sensitive components such as the graphics card and system memory.
It is also connected to the southbridge chip that acts as a communications hub too. However, the southbridge communicates with less performance-sensitive components such as USB ports, storage devices, onboard networks, and audio chips.
Nowadays, modern CPUs have the northbridge inside of them, which is why you can’t find a northbridge on modern motherboards. This is a faster, more responsive system and has reduced latency when compared to the older, on-board northbridge.
The southbridge chip, however, is on the physical motherboard but is usually covered with a heatsink that’s engraved with the logo of the motherboard’s brand.
Other Parts Of A Motherboard And Their Functions
Since the introduction of the Intel 5 series, Intel calls the southbridge the Platform Controller Hub, or PCH, while AMD still calls it the southbridge.
ROM or Read Only Memory is where critical information needed to start a computer is stored. It’s very hard (if not impossible) to modify the contents of ROM.
Unlike RAM, where information is lost when power is turned off, ROM retains the contents even when the computer is turned off. This is why RAM is considered "volatile," while ROM is "non-volatile."
VRMs (Voltage Regulator Module)
VRM also called a processor power module (PPM), is a component that acts very similar to a computer power supply unit (PSU). It cuts down the voltage, a process that actually happens several times before the electricity even reaches your home, to provide the CPU with the exact amount of voltage it needs.
The VRM is made up of MOSFETs and chokes. We’ll cover these more below.
What Does It Take To Be A Good Motherboard?
At this point, you should have a fair amount of understanding about how motherboards are made and the parts that compose them. But what does it take to be considered a "good" motherboard?
VRM (Voltage Regulator Module)
Before you can spot a motherboard with good VRMs, you need to first familiarize yourself with a few components that make up the whole VRM, namely the MOSFET and Chokes:
- MOSFET, or Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor Field-Effect Transistors, are the flat rectangle components usually located around your CPU socket. These are responsible for feeding the CPU with the exact voltage it needs
- Chokes are usually located beside the MOSFET and are responsible for stabilizing the currents and capacitors if there is a sudden voltage spike
Spotting a motherboard with a good VRM sounds difficult, but it’s actually easier than you think because all you need to do is count the number of chokes. Each choke equates to one phase, and more phases mean better stability.
An entry-level motherboard that has at least four chokes is considered ok, while mid to higher quality motherboards have at least six chokes. At the higher end, it is not uncommon to see more than eight chokes.
If you are planning on overclocking your CPU, the need to opt for these high-quality VRMs is all the more essential. It’s worth noting that many of the motherboards that allow overclocking have better VRMs by default; likewise, motherboards that don’t cater to overclocking often have worse VRMs because they know you won’t be pushing them.
A good motherboard should have a well thought out design as poorly placed components could have a negative impact on the health of your system.
You wouldn’t think this is something you’d have to be wary of since they are made by professional designers, but clearance can be an issue. RAM clearance is something we all must consider when buying an aftermarket cooler. Sometimes your RAM and a bulky CPU cooler can block one another, giving you a headache.
Design these days isn't just about placement anymore. Now, motherboards are lit up with bold RGB illuminations, armor plating, LCD screens, and manual controls!
You should pay close attention to the motherboard's chipset because, as many will agree, you need to have compatible components!
Chipsets dictate compatibility with various components, most notably the processor. In fact, chipsets only work within a specific processor family. For example, the new Ryzen 3000 chips will only be compatible with x470 and x570 motherboards.
|Processor Family||Supported Chipsets|
|Skylake (Intel)||Z170, H170, H110, B170, Q150, and Q170|
|Kabylake (Intel)||Z270, H270, Q270, Q250, and B250|
|Ryzen (AMD)||X470, X570, B350, and B450|
These chipsets hold varying features, such as better overclocking ability and an extra power phase. So, if you’re not going to do any overclocking, you can probably get away with a cheaper motherboard.
If you need a motherboard that supports SLI and overclocking capabilities, you need to find a suitable motherboard for your needs. Focus on good VRMs and a reliable chipset, but remember - expensive doesn't always mean best.
Never get a motherboard with non-solid aluminum electrolytic capacitors, because these are often loaded with conducting liquid. Even if made correctly, motherboards that utilize cheap capacitors are highly susceptible to problems, such as leaks or ruptures.
This is why it’s always great to get a motherboard that utilizes solid-state capacitors, because, unlike capacitors that contain conduction liquid, these contain a solid organic polymer.
Solid capacitors can tolerate a higher ripple current, meaning they make the motherboard more stable. These types of capacitors can also cope with higher amounts of heat, making the board more reliable and giving it a longer life.
Now you not only know what a motherboard consists of, but you've learned about the manufacturing process and what exactly makes a good motherboard. How a motherboard is made is probably the most straightforward part to understand, but now you should have a better idea of what to look for in your next purchase too.
Motherboards are great tools that we all know are essential, but it’s also great to learn how these components bring all the hardware together.