Upgrading your motherboard can be fiddly, and there are a terrifying number of options to pick from. We explain how to find your feet
Processors continue to absorb features traditionally the reserve of supporting chipsets, and a vision where the motherboard is merely a collection of sockets and ports isn't as outlandish as it once was.
Even so, for now motherboards still hold a vital role for our machines' capabilities, and as long as new technologies such as USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s are developed, the motherboard still represents the most expedient way of getting those technologies out there. Is it worth upgrading your motherboard to get such features?
Unless you move a lot of data around and you can put a price on the time spent upgrading, we'd say no. Both SATA 6Gb/s and USB 3.0 are great features, and if you're going to upgrade your motherboard anyway then it makes sense to get access to these technologies, but it's not really viable as the main reason. You can buy add-in cards that will upgrade your machine without having to install a new board.
Bags of boards
So when is a good time to upgrade your motherboard? Generally, the time to do it is when you've decided on a platform change that revolves around a new processor. The Intel Core i5, for instance, will require that you buy a supporting H55/H57/P55 motherboard and a pair of DDR3 memory sticks to go with it.
Note that as Intel doesn't have a chipset that supports USB 3.0 or SATA 6Gb/s natively, such features are integrated using third-party ICs such as the NEC 720200 USB 3.0 controller and Marvell's 88SE9128 SATA 6GB/s offering.
The other factors worth bearing in mind when looking at any board are the options available for adding additional graphics cards, the quality of the onboard audio and the overclocking potential on offer. Now that memory controllers are integrated into the CPU, there's little performance difference between motherboards other than when they're overclocked, so this latter point is quickly becoming the defining ground between the likes of Gigabyte, Asus and MSI.
Even if you have no intention of doing this manually, the latest motherboards all boast automated systems that attempt to run the device faster than its specified speed.
When it comes to motherboard options, the core chipsets are surprisingly limited. For the top-end Intel Core i7, the X58 chipset is the only option, while for everyday computing the P55 does battle with the H55 and H57 variants. These boards support the newer Clarkdale integrated offerings, but don't natively support dual graphics cards.
For AMD processors, the recently released 890GX is a feature-rich offering, while the outgoing 785GM chipset can be found in some powerful budget motherboards.
How to: Install a new motherboard
1. Back up your data
Upgrading your motherboard can cause a few problems for Windows. Not only can it count as a fundamental hardware change, and thus require that you reactivate the operating system, but if the new motherboard is sufficiently different to your existing one, Windows can fail to load at all due to driver conflicts. This is why it's wise to back up your entire system and assume that you'll need to reinstall Windows after the upgrade.
Microsoft's OS has a back-up tool built-in; use this to transfer your files and important settings to an external hard drive.
2. Remove all of the components
Turn off your machine, remove the side panel and unplug, unscrew and disconnect everything you see. Everything plugs into the motherboard one way or another, so be prepared to systematically remove it all. Taking a photograph of how everything fits together can help for later.
Take out your graphics cards, memory, processor, cooler, soundcard and any other expansion cards you have. Disconnect the hard drive and optical data cables and unplug the power cables and any chassis cables. Finally, unscrew the old motherboard and put it to one side.
3. Build a base rig
The best way of checking that your new motherboard is in full working order is to build a base rig on the box that the motherboard came on.
First, make sure that everything is resting on the antistatic bag that the board came in. Then install the processor, attach the cooler and connect the fan's power cable. Install your memory, making sure you use the right slots (check in the motherboard manual), plug in your graphics card and then attach the power.
Don't worry about your drives at this point. Plug in the keyboard and check that you can access the BIOS.
4. Rebuild the system
If the base rig shows a BIOS screen, it's tempting to assume that everything is OK and start screwing your new components into the case.
But before getting your screwdriver out, check through the BIOS and ensure all your components have been identified correctly. If something has the wrong name or isn't showing up, rectifying the problem on the bench is much easier than when everything has been wired into a case.
When you're happy that everything is as it should be, switch the base rig off and begin transferring things carefully into their new home.
First published in PC Plus Issue 296
Liked this? Then check out 9 best PC upgrades for gamers
Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register