A motherboard is the central or primary printed circuit board (PCB) making up a complex electronic system, such as a modern computer or laptop. It is also known as a mainboard, baseboard, system board, planar board, or, on Apple computers, a logic board, and is sometimes abbreviated casually as mobo.
Most motherboards produced today are designed for so-called IBM-compatible computers, which held over 96% of the global personal computer market in 2005. Motherboards for IBM-compatible computers are specifically covered in the PC motherboard article.
A motherboard, like a backplane, provides the electrical connections by which the other components of the system communicate, but unlike a backplane also contains the central processing unit and other subsystems such as real time clock, and some peripheral interfaces.
A typical desktop computer is built with the microprocessor, main memory, and other essential components on the motherboard. Other components such as external storage, controllers for video display and sound, and peripheral devices are typically attached to the motherboard via edge connectors and cables, although in modern computers it is increasingly common to integrate these "peripherals" into the motherboard.
All of the basic circuitry and components required for a computer to function are onboard the motherboard or are connected with a cable. The most important component on a motherboard is the chipset. It often consists of two components or chips known as the Northbridge and Southbridge, though they may also be integrated into a single component. These chips determine, to an extent, the features and capabilities of the motherboard.
The motherboard of a typical desktop consists of a large printed circuit board. It holds electronic components and interconnects, as well as physical connectors (sockets, slots, and headers) into which other computer components may be inserted or attached.
Most motherboards include, at a minimum:
Additionally, nearly all motherboards include logic and connectors to support commonly-used input devices, such as PS/2 connectors for a mouse and keyboard. Early personal computers such as the Apple II or IBM PC included only this minimal peripheral support on the motherboard. Occasionally video interface hardware was also integrated into the motherboard; for example on the Apple II, and rarely on IBM-compatible computers such as the IBM PC Jr. Additional peripherals such as disk controllers and serial ports were provided as expansion cards.
With the steadily declining costs and size of integrated circuits, it is now possible to include support for many peripherals on the motherboard. By combining many functions on one PCB, the physical size and total cost of the system may be reduced; highly-integrated motherboards are thus especially popular in small form factor and budget computers.
For example, the ECS RS485M-M, a typical modern budget motherboard for computers based on AMD processors, has on-board support for a very large range of peripherals:
Expansion cards to support all of these functions would have cost hundreds of dollars even a decade ago, however as of April 2007 such highly-integrated motherboards are available for as little as $30 in the USA.
A standard Super ATX motherboard will have 1x PCI-E 16x connection for a graphics card. It will also have a varying number of PCI and PCI-E 1x slots. It can sometimes also have a PCI-E 4x slot. This varies between brands and models.
Some motherboards have 2x PCI-E 16x slots to allow more than 2 monitors without special hardware or to allow use of a special graphics technology called SLI (for Nvidia) and Crossfire (for ATI). These allow 2 graphics cards to be linked together to allow better performance in intensive graphical computing tasks such as gaming and video editing.
As of 2007, virtually all motherboards come with at least 4x USB ports on the rear with at least 2 connections on the board internally for wiring additional front ports that are built into the computers case. Ethernet is also included now. This is a standard networking cable for connecting the computer to a network or a modem. A sound chip is always included on the motherboard to allow sound to be output without the need for any extra components. This allows computers to be far more multimedia based than before. Cheaper machines now often have their graphics chip built into the motherboard rather than a separate card.
Motherboards are generally air cooled with heat sinks often mounted on larger chips, such as the northbridge, in modern motherboards. If the motherboard is not cooled properly, then this can cause the motherboard to crash. Passive cooling, or a single fan mounted on the power supply, was sufficient for many desktop computer CPUs until the late 1990s; since then, most have required CPU fans mounted on their heatsinks, due to rising clock speeds and power consumption. Most motherboards have connectors for additional case fans as well. Newer motherboards have integrated temperature sensors to detect motherboard and CPU temperatures, and controllable fan connectors which the BIOS or operating system can use to regulate fan speed.
Some small form factor computers and home theater PCs designed for quiet and energy-efficient operation boast fan-less designs. This typically requires the use of a low-power CPU, as well as careful layout of the motherboard and other components to allow for heat sink placement.
A 2003 study found that some spurious computer crashes and general reliability issues, ranging from screen image distortions to I/O read/write errors, can be attributed not to software or peripheral hardware but to aging capacitors on PC motherboards. Ultimately this was shown to be the result of a faulty electrolyte formulation.
Motherboards use electrolytic capacitors to filter the DC power distributed around the board. These capacitors age at a temperature-dependent rate, as their water based electrolytes slowly evaporate. This can lead to loss of capacitance and subsequent motherboard malfunctions due to voltage instabilities. While most capacitors are rated for 2000 hours of operation at 105 °C, their expected design life roughly doubles for every 10 °C below this. At 45 °C a lifetime of 15 years can be expected. This appears reasonable for a computer motherboard, however many manufacturers have delivered substandard capacitors, which significantly reduce life expectancy. Inadequate case cooling and elevated temperatures easily exacerbate this problem. It is possible, but tedious and time-consuming, to find and replace failed capacitors on PC motherboards; it is less expensive to buy a new motherboard than to pay for such a repair.
Motherboards are produced in a variety of sizes and shapes ("form factors"), some of which are specific to individual computer manufacturers. However, the motherboards used in IBM-compatible commodity computers have been standardized to fit various case sizes. As of 2007, most desktop computer motherboards use one of these standard form factors—even those found in Macintosh and Sun computers which have not traditionally been built from commodity components.
Laptop computers generally use highly integrated, miniaturized, and customized motherboards. This is one of the reasons that laptop computers are difficult to upgrade and expensive to repair. Often the failure of one laptop component requires the replacement of the entire motherboard, which is usually more expensive than a desktop motherboard due to the large number of integrated components.
They both require compatible motherboards. There is an obvious need for 2x PCI-E 16x slots to allow 2 cards to be inserted into the computer. The same function can be acheived in 650i motherboards by NVIDIA, with a pair of x8 slots. Originally, tri-Crossfire was achieved at 8x speeds with 2 16x slots and 1 8x slot albeit at a slower speed. ATI opened the technology up to Intel in 2006 and such all new Intel chipsets support Crossfire.
SLI is a little more proprietary in its needs. It requires a motherboard with Nvidia's own NForce chipset series to allow it to run.
It is important to note that SLI and Crossfire will not usually scale to 2x the performance of a single card when using a dual setup. They also do not double the effective amount of VRAM or memory bandwidth.
Prior to the advent of the microprocessor, a computer was usually built in a card-cage case or mainframe with components connected by a backplane consisting of a set of slots themselves connected with wires; in very old designs the wires were discrete connections between card connector pins, but printed-circuit boards soon became the standard practice. The central processing unit, memory and peripherals were housed on individual printed circuit boards which plugged into the backplane.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, it became economical to move an increasing number of peripheral functions onto the motherboard (see above). In the late 1980s, motherboards began to include single ICs (called Super I/O chips) capable of supporting a set of low-speed peripherals: keyboard, mouse, floppy disk drive, serial ports, and parallel ports. As of the late 1990s, many personal computer motherboards support a full range of audio, video, storage, and networking functions without the need for any expansion cards at all; higher-end systems for 3D gaming and computer graphics typically retain only the graphics card as a separate component.
The early pioneers of motherboard manufacturing were Micronics, Mylex, AMI, DTK, Hauppauge, Orchid Technology, Elitegroup, DFI, and a number of Taiwan-based manufacturers.
Popular personal computers such as the Apple II and IBM PC had published schematic diagrams and other documentation which permitted rapid reverse-engineering and third-party replacement motherboards. Usually intended for building new computers compatible with the exemplars, many motherboards offered additional performance or other features and were used to upgrade the manufacturer's original equipment.
Most modern motherboard designs use a BIOS, stored in a EEPROM chip soldered to the motherboard, to bootstrap the motherboard. (Socketed BIOS chips are widely used, also.) By booting the motherboard, the memory, circuitry, and peripherals are tested and configured. This process is known ascomputer: