How Are Motherboards Made: Understanding the Process of Motherboard Manufacturing
Have you ever thought for a second and asked how are motherboards made? Or perhaps wondered how they actually work?
If that’s why you’re here, then you’re in for a treat. 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 in detail. We’ll even give you tips so that you know how to spot a good motherboard.
What does a Motherboard do and What is It?
This article isn’t so much about what motherboards do, so we’ll keep it simple: it connects and transmits signals to and from peripherals-- like your keyboard, mouse, and monitor-- and components-- like the CPU, GPU, RAM, etc.-- to the rest of the system.
If you think of the computer like a human, then all of the inside stuff would be the central nervous system. The processor would be the brain and the motherboard would be all of your nerve endings and would communicate everything throughout your body, like your spinal cord.
So, what is it? Well, much like our nervous system, that’s a loaded question. But let’s start broad since some of you may see it as a slab that’s engraved with alien-looking lines that.
This slab is actually called a printed circuit board (PCB) and those lines are embedded copper tracks. In our metaphor, these copper tracks would be the heavy lifters as they are primarily responsible for communication done between parts.
Most of the motherboard is actually dedicated to its role as the great connector, as it has slots, ports, sockets, and (of course) connectors for all sorts of things. There are also various electric parts that are common on most pieces of electronic equipment, like capacitors and the VRM, which manages the electric current so it doesn’t fry your equipment. There’s more on all of this stuff toward the bottom though.
Oh and there are also different types (form factors) of motherboards.
What is a Motherboard Made of, Exactly?
For starters, a motherboard is mainly composed of two materials:
- Layers of fiberglass for the purpose of 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-- instead of leaving them separate-- makes the size 4-8 lesser. This also increases the speed of processing data since electrons have less distance to travel.
This is a good time to talk about the idea of drilling holes through your motherboard to fit an aftermarket CPU cooler. It may sound crazy but there are people who have actually done this and obviously regretted it.
What happens when you drill through your motherboard could be disastrous. Remember that a motherboard is composed of layers of fiberglass with embedded coppers so chances are high that you will drill through the embedded coppers, which would be the end of your motherboard. Period.
So forget about drilling a hole through your motherboard in case you’ve considered this idea.
This does not mean though that the PCB is never drilled because it is. Some of these holes include mounting holes, through-holes for components that will be soldered to the motherboard, as well as vertical interconnect access or VIAS. VIAS basically connects electrical connections between the copper layers.
If you’re thinking it’d be cool to build a motherboard, you might want to take a step back. It may not be impossible, but it’s very complicated. First, you’ll need to understand the whole motherboard manufacturing process.
Making the Slab and Etching the Copper
It all starts with the PCB or printed circuit board. Layers of very complicated slices of fiberglass are stacked and 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 4 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 away to DIP because they need to be manually inspected first and then placed on an integrated chip tester to ensure that the print which was ordered is accurate. If it passes the test, then it goes to...
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, input/output ports, and capacitors, are mounted by hand.
Before a motherboard is ready for testing, it has to pass the manual inspection to ensure that the components are properly 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 cable, 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 now cover the parts that comprise the motherboard as a whole.
1. BIOS and CMOS
BIOS or Basic Input Output System. This is where all the information and settings of 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.
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 follow a standard PC color coding.
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 solid blue port (Yes, VGA ports are a similar color, but this only goes to show how outdated VGA is.)
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 do accomplish this.
IDE, or Integrated Drive Electronics, is used to hook up disk drives, floppy disks, and HDD. This is a 40-pin male connector that connects the HDD.
As technology advanced, IDE connectors are becoming obsolete. In turn, the SATA connector. SATA, or Serial Advanced Technology Attachment, is the latest 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, or switched-mode power supply, then utilizes this electricity to power the motherboard and keep it running.
5. Cabinet Connections
This is where you connect the Power Switch, the LED power indicator, the Reset Switch, the HDD LED. The front audio port and front USB are also connected here. These connections are also usually located at the bottom part of the motherboard.
6. CPU Socket
The CPU socket is where your CPU, or processor, sits. 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. should be compatible with the motherboard’s socket in order for it to work.
7. Expansion Card Slots
If you’re going to add a new component to the motherboard, or in case you wish to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card from an integrated graphics card, the expansion card slots let you do just that. Here are the types of expansion card slots you will usually find on a motherboard:
- Video card slot
- Network card slot
- Modem card slot
- Audio card slot
Video Card Slot
Aside from the integrated graphics from APUs and other Intel CPUs with integrated graphics, the video card slot lets you upgrade the graphical output and performance of your computer. 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
- 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 basically 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:
- Gaming Joystick
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 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 3th 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 slowly becoming the standard. Moreover, most motherboards don’t support both DDR3 and DDR4, so there are compatibility and future proofing concerns.
When it comes to gaming, there’s still an active debate whether you need 8GB or 16GB of DDR4.
Other Parts of a Motherboard and Their Functions
A motherboard doesn’t only hold parts that you can interact with. It also has chipsets that play a major role in making the entire motherboard work.
In layman’s terms, chipsets act as a communications hub or a traffic control centre 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 aspiring-- let’s take a look at these underrated parts and their functions:
Northbridge and Southbridge Chip
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 also acts as a communications hub. However, the south bridge communicates with less performance-sensitive components such as USB ports, storage devices, onboard networks, and audio chips.
Nowadays, modern CPUs have the northbridge in 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 north bridge.
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.
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 a 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 Makes a Good Motherboard Good?
At this point, you should have a fair amount of understanding about how motherboards are made and the parts that compose them. But what exactly makes a good motherboard good?
VRM (Voltage Regulator Module)
Before you can spot a motherboard with a good VRM, 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. (Yes, those are squares below, but squares are technically a type of rectangle.) It’s 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 in the event that there is a sudden voltage spike.
Spotting a motherboard with a good VRM sounds intimidating, but it’s actually easier than most of you think because all you need is to literally count the number of chokes. Each choke equates to one phase. And more phases means better stability.
An entry level motherboard that has at least 4 chokes is considered alright while mid to higher quality motherboards have at least 6 chokes, but it may have more than 8 chokes.
The need to opt for these high-quality VRMs on a motherboard is all the more essential, especially if you’re into overclocking. It’s worth noting that many of the motherboards that allow overclocking have better VRMs by default; likewise, motherboards that don’t allow overclocking often have worse VRMs because they know you won’t be pushing them.
A good motherboard should have intelligently placed components and slots because poor design can lead to a number of problems that put other components at risk.
You wouldn’t think this is something you’d have to be wary of since they are made by professional designers, but even one of our writers, Reilly, once had a problem fitting his RAM onto his motherboard because the RAM slots were too close to the CPU. This ultimately meant he couldn’t install a CPU cooler because it would have blocked the RAM.
Reilly also had a friend whose motherboard had the M.2 SSD slot placed directly under the GPU slot. The GTX 1080 Ti fried that poor SSD. This is a well-known flaw and is the reason why you would find these motherboards installed with heat shields for M.2 SSD slots today.
It's also worth noting that you should pay close attention to the motherboard's chipset because, as many will agree, paying for features and benefits that will never get utilizes is not a worthy method of spending your money.
Chipsets dictate compatibility with various components, most notably the processor. In fact, chipsets only work within a specific processor family.
|Processor Family||Supported Chipsets|
|Skylake (Intel)||Z170, H170, H110, B170, Q150, and Q170|
|Kabylake (Intel)||Z270, H270, Q270, Q250, and B250|
|Ryzen (AMD)||X370, B350, and A320|
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, it’s perfectly fine to go with a cheaper motherboard.
If you need a motherboard that supports SLI and overclocking capabilities, you need to specifically find a motherboard that does so. You can check our roundup of the best motherboards as a start.
Always go for solid-state capacitors.
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 through the years, such as: leaks, ruptures, or explosions (much cooler in the movies, trust me).
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.
At this point, you should have the bragging rights to talk about motherboards in detail over at Reddit.
But regardless, I hope you learned a lot from this article and wish you are smarter now than you were a few minutes ago. Motherboards are great tools that we all know are essential, but it’s also great to know how these slabs magically make every hardware component work together.