Science and Tech
A Beginner's Guide to PC-Building Terminology

Devin Connors | 8 Sep 2014 10:00
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The motherboard is what everything else in your PC plugs into - your CPU, GPU, RAM, hard drive, etc. I'm not going to make some awkward human body analogy here... just know that the motherboard (or mobo for short) is really important.

Before buying a motherboard, it's important to check that it will work with whatever other hardware you're buying. With some hardware (graphics cards, hard drives/SSDs), there isn't a lot of research necessary - virtually any hard drive you buy new on Amazon right now is going to work with virtually any motherboard you buy new, too. The same can be said for graphics cards, by and large.

What takes more research is the CPU and RAM. CPUs fit into a motherboard's socket, and the latter's socket needs to support the CPU's pin structure. For example, one of Intel's latest chips, the Core i7-4790K, is a Socket LGA 1150 CPU. There are literally hundreds of motherboards that support this socket, so finding a match is quite easy.

Finding the right RAM (memory) is also necessary, but just as simple. I'll get more into RAM in a minute.

What else is in a motherboard? The chipset, which includes a host of small processors and co-processors that help your PC perform admirably. Wireless chips, audio processors, Ethernet controllers, and controllers for ports typically live on the motherboard.

There are other nuances that go into motherboard choice, but price is usually the best guiding factor. A good path to follow? Spending 10 to 13 percent of your total PC-building budget on the motherboard. A solid motherboard for a $1,000 or so PC would go for $100-$125... maybe $150 if you want to splurge.


As time goes on, ports on a PC become more and more simplified. USB ushered in that era of thinking around the turn of the millennium, and newer I/O like Thunderbolt is pushing that trend even further.

For now, let's talk about the few basic ports that every PC needs to function:

SATA: Or Serial ATA. SATA is what currently connects your hard drive or SSD to your motherboard, as well as your optical (CD, DVD, Blu-ray) drives. The latest version is called SATA III (SATA 3), or SATA 6 Gbps. SATA is backwards compatible, so a SATA III hard drive will function just fine when plugged into a SATA II port (it might not run at its fastest, however), and vice versa.

eSATA: An external version of SATA, allowing for external storage solutions to access the same kind of bandwidth as internal hard drives.

USB: Universal Serial Bus has been around as long as many of our readers at this point. The latest available version, USB 3.0, has been in use since early 2010. This is what virtually every peripheral or external device (monitors excluded) uses to connect to your PC. But you already knew that!

Video ports: There are several, and thankfully both your monitor and your motherboard/GPU will have the appropriate ports. VGA is a legacy port, but still occasionally used, while DVI and DisplayPort are the two primary, PC-specific connectors. DisplayPort is the newest connector with the most future bandwidth - planning on building a 4K-capable gaming PC? You'll be using DisplayPort. HDMI is also used, and is good for those who want to push audio out through the GPU (your home theater crowd).

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