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How Motherboards Work

by Gary Brown

The motherboard has been an integral part o# most personal computers #or more than "$ years. Think o# a motherboard as a scale model o# a #uturistic city with many modular plug/in buildings, each using power #rom a common electrical system. Multiple/lane highways o# ,arious widths transport data between the buildings. The motherboard is the data and power in#rastructure #or the entire computer. Motherboards 8also called mainboards: are actually a carryo,er #rom architecture used #or years in main#rame computers. >arious circuit cards per#orming ,arious #unctions all plug into many similar sockets on a common circuit board. 5ach circuit card per#orms a uni4ue #unction in the computer and gets its power #rom the socket. 0ue to impro,ements in circuitry and packaging, motherboards ha,e essentially stayed the same si1e or shrunk while their #unctionality has skyrocketed. In this edition o# HowStuffWorks, you will learn how the motherboard operates and what its many sockets and connectors do.

The original IBM PC contained the original PC motherboard. In this design, which premiered in 1 !", the motherboard itsel# was a large printed circuit card that contained the !$!! microprocessor, the BI%&, sockets #or the CP'(s )*M and a collection o# slots that au+iliary cards could plug into. I# you wanted to add a #loppy disk dri,e or a parallel port or a -oystick, you bought a separate card and plugged it into one o# the slots. This approach was pioneered in the mass market by the *pple II machine. By making it easy to add cards, *pple and IBM accomplished two huge things. They made it easy to add new #eatures to the machine o,er time. They opened the computer to creati,e opportunities #or third/party ,endors. 0i##erent motherboards o# di##erent ,intages typically ha,e di##erent form factors. The #orm #actor is essentially the si1e, shape and design o# the actual motherboard. There are more than a hal#/do1en #orm #actors #or motherboards // check out PC Guide(s Motherboard 2orm 2actors to #ind out about the ,arious designations. The motherboard, by enabling pluggable components, allows users to personali1e a computer system depending on their applications and needs.

%n the Motherboard
* motherboard is a multi/layered printed circuit board. Copper circuit paths called traces that resemble a complicated roadmap carry signals and ,oltages across the motherboard. 3ayered #abrication techni4ues are used so that some layers o# a board can carry data #or the BI%&, processor and memory buses while other layers carry ,oltage and ground returns without the paths short/circuiting at intersections. The insulated layers are manu#actured into one complete, comple+ sandwich. Chips and sockets are soldered onto the motherboard.

The M&I 6 70 Pro *) supports dual Pentium microprocessors, has #i,e PCI slots and a communications network riser 8C9): slot. The board supports 1;; M<1 bus speeds and ultra/direct memory access/1$$ 8'0M*:. There are #our '&B ports and onboard audio in the *T= #orm #actor board.

MSI 694D Pro A

Dual !lip "hip Socket #$% motherboard

The *bit ?T/@* supports *d,anced Micro 0e,ices 8*M0: processors and has the ?T/1;;* chipset. The card slots on the *bit ?T/@*, #rom bottom to top in the image below, shows that I&* has one slot, PCI has si+ slots and *GP has one slot. * special #an cools the chipset.

Abit &'($A AMD Processor Motherboard

* partial ,iew o# the Tech)am &;ProM motherboard shows slots. 2rom bottom to top, I&* has one slot, PCI has two slots, audio modem riser 8*M): has one slot, and *GP has one slot.

'ech am S#ProM Motherboard

The BI%& chip is common to many motherboards

)I*S "hip

0ata Bus Aidth

Modern Pentium class motherboards ha,e a data bus with 67 bits. That is the width o# the data highway that goes in and out o# the processor. The Pentium processors, howe,er, do use ;"/bit registers to handle ;"/bit instructions. Bus speeds and widths ha,e increased due to #aster processors and the needs o# multimedia applications. Typical bus names and widths are.

Industry &tandard *rchitecture 8I&*: / ! or 16 bits 5+tended Industry &tandard *rchitecture 85I&*: / ! or16 bits Microchannel *rchitecture 8MC*: / 16 or ;" bits >5&* 3ocal Bus 8>3B: / ;" bits Peripheral Component Interconnect 8PCI: / ;" or 67 bits *ccelerated Graphics Port 8*GP : / ;" bits

Chipsets pro,ide the support #or the processor chip on the motherboard. The Intel 77$B= is the dominant chipset in the non/*pple personal computers. The chipset is the heart o# the computer since it controls and determines how #ast and which type o# processor, memory, and slots are used. *nother chip on the motherboard is called the Super I+* controller. Its main #unction is to control the #loppy disk dri,e, keyboard, mouse, serial and printer ports. Check out PCGuide(s &uper IB% Controller 2unctions to learn more. )ecent motherboard designs include additional chips to support '&B, sound card, ,ideo adapter, computer host and network adapter. These chips sa,e the cost o# an adapter slot.

&peeds, temperatures, density, #aster chipset designs and component count ha,e dri,en the need #or circuit cooling ,ia miniature electric #ans. These #ans mount inside the actual computer case. Heat sinks act like a car radiator, pro,iding additional sur#ace area to help cool a component. )eplaceable #anBheat/sink assemblies are o#ten used to help dissipate the considerable amount o# heat on modern processor chips. The assembly conducts heat away #rom the chip by con,ection, using a layer o# thermal grease between the two mating metal sur#aces. 2ans o#ten ha,e a third wire used #or monitoring the speed o# the #an.