What is a motherboard?

It's the air traffic controller of the computer. The motherboard: Explained!

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Most people have heard about the motherboard before, but may not be sure exactly what it does or why it seems so important. Let’s satisfy that curiosity with a closer look at a motherboard’s functions and why it matters so much.

The motherboard is a printed circuit that acts like the air traffic controller of the computer. It coordinates all the processes, makes sure power is routed properly, and connects all the other components of a computer together. Common brands like Intel, MSI, Gigabyte, and Asus manufacture motherboards for computers.

Note that this is not the same as the CPU, which is where all the computations are actually performed. The motherboard simply organizes these computations and their results. While it doesn’t hold a lot of power itself, nothing else could work without the motherboard, which is why it is considered so vital.

Motherboard components

There are a number of different motherboard designs and form factors, which have been updated over the years for different devices and evolving technology. However, all motherboards have a few things in common. All of them have circuits, for example, used to coordinate computer processes. All of them have a heat sink or some type of device for absorbing and redirecting heat so that the motherboard stays cool during operation. Most have a secondary source of power, too.

The primary thing you’ll notice when you look at any motherboard is that it has a lot of slots and connections. Since everything is routed through the motherboard, it needs physical contact with nearly all computer components. That includes main power, the CPU, video and sound cards, all types of memory that the computer may use, and expansion slots. If you use a mouse or keyboard, they have their own connections, too — along with any other important accessory you might want. This is why a motherboard appears to be a ring of connectors. That’s its primary function.

Over time the ports on a motherboard tend to change based on what current technology demands. This is why an old motherboard may have many obsolete ports for connections that are no longer used. But we will note two important connections specifically: The connection to the CPU, and the connection to power (I/O) functions. These are commonly regarded as the two most important motherboard connections, the backbone of the circuit, and together they are called the chipset, the core management of power and processing for all tasks.

A brief history of the motherboard

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The modern motherboard was actually invented long after the first computers. Very old computers ended to be simpler machines, without the same need to coordinate so many different processes at the same time. Also, before the consumer market took off, there wasn’t much demand for mass-produced motherboards.

This started to change in 1981, when IBM released its Personal Computer. These computers did in fact need a way to regulate activity for consumers, and IBM developed the first motherboard to do it, a computer chip that took care of all the details while users completed their digital tasks.

At first, this component was called a “planar” and it went through a lot of additional names in time. The term motherboard became the most popular, since the circuit board essentially acted as the mother to all the other computer components. This is also that reason that motherboard expansions are sometimes known as daughterboards.

Upgrading motherboards

Typically, motherboards are mounted in the very back (farthest away from the opening panel) of the computer, content to sit back and do their work. However, motherboards also play an important role in computer upgrades. Anything you upgrade with a new model has to be properly connected to the motherboard.

However, you must make sure that the motherboard has the right connections for the upgrade you’re planning — and this can sometimes be a problem. Many motherboard upgrades are made to enable other upgrades like new video cards or CPUs that couldn’t be supported before. This can, of course, snowball the price of upgrading your computer, which is why it’s important to consider whether it’s less expensive to buy a new motherboard and components — or just purchase a new computer.