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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.

Background
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.

5+amples
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
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.

2ans
&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.