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Confused by how to buy a motherboard? We make it clear

The motherboard is arguably a PC’s most important component. Nothing else works without it, and it decides the upgrades you can make in the future. Here’s what you need to know before you buy.

You’ll first need to pick a form factor. ATX motherboards like this one are common, as is Micro-ATX, which cuts a few inches off and loses some expansion card slots. If you’re not sure what size of motherboard fits in your case you can always find out by measuring what’s already inside, and we recommend buying an ATX board if it will fit. The added expansion slots can be useful.

Once you’ve picked a size, you need to select a processor socket. This isn’t too difficult, since it depends entirely on the processor you want to buy. Each processor fits in a certain socket, so you of course need to buy a compatible motherboard.

Related: What do Intel’s new Z97 motherboards mean for the PC?

Next, take a look at RAM. We recommend buying a motherboard that can accommodate at least sixteen gigabytes, even if you don’t plan to buy that much initially. Also, look for a board that offers four or more memory slots. That means you can install two RAM modules initially, and will have room left over for a memory upgrade in the future.

Intel 5690 motherboard angle

Now it’s time to turn your attention to PCI Express. If you plan to game you’ll need at least one full-speed x16 slot. Gamers who want a multiple card arrangement will need to make sure additional slots are available. Motherboards also offer standard PCI slots and smaller PCI Express slots for extra like sound cards, connectivity expansions and internal Wi-Fi adapters.

The need for expansion is less if you buy a motherboard with features already built in. Most include some form of on-board audio that’s adequate for mid-range speakers or headphones. Premium models often bundle Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as well. You’ll have to spend more for these features, but they’ll reduce the need for expansion cards.

Related: Having trouble with a new motherboard? Here’s 5 common problems — and solutions

Last, but not least, is SATA. You’ll need one free SATA port for each optical or storage drive, so make sure your motherboard has enough for all your drives, plus a couple extra for future upgrades. Also, if you do plan to use solid state drives, make sure the motherboard offers the latest SATA 6-gigabit standard, also known as SATA 3.0.

You also should give some consideration to peripheral connections like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. Most motherboards come with a perfectly adequate selection, but this detail can matter if you use a lot of external hard drives. Also keep in mind that any video outputs, if available, will not work in conjunction with video card outputs (on Intel motherboards – they may work with AMD APUs and AMD video cards when used together). You can use integrated graphics output from the motherboard or a video card, but not both at once.

There’s a buffet of extra features like expanded over-clocking support, improved temperature monitoring, ultra-durable construction and so on. Most of these aren’t worth the money. One feature we recommend enthusiasts consider, though, is active fan management. A motherboard that provides UEFI or software control of fan speed can make your system quieter by reducing fan speed when your system is at idle.

While prices can reach into the stratosphere, you can snag one from a reputable brand like Asus or Gigabyte with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for around $150 bucks, and that’s where we think the best values can be found. Attractive high-end motherboards can be tempting, but you’re probably better served spending your money on a quicker processor or better video card.