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Motherboard Basics

The motherboard is the main part of your computer that everything else plugs into. Sometimes it is
called the system board. A typical motherboard is a sheet of olive green or brown fiberglass with a
myriad of thin gold lines on it and chips sticking off of it.

By itself, the motherboard is just an empty plate. Its the hardware that sits on it that does the work.
On it sits the CPU, memory sockets, BIOS, etc. The little gold lines act like electronic roadways of
information between each of these features. These roads enable the different parts of the computer
to communicate and perform the functions of your computer, all with the motherboard being the hub
of the activity. Because of this "central-ness" in your PC's operation, the motherboard is a key
ingredient to performance in your PC. All of your hardware is tied together though the circuitry of
your motherboard, so the speed in which your motherboard handles and slings around information
is key to any speed you will get out of your PC.
Minimally, a motherboard will include the CPU, a math coprocessor (usually included in the CPU
nowdays), clock/timing circuitry, cache, RAM, BIOS, parellel and serial ports, and expansion slots. I
will briefly touch on each component on the motherboard...
The CPU is usually the most prominent chip on your motherboard. It will be imprinted with the
type of CPU that it is, such as "AMD K6-2" or "Intel Pentium II" and it will have the chip
manufacturer's logo on it. If you cannot see this, you'll probably see a CPU fan. On Socket 7
motherboards, the processor itself is barely visible. Instead you'll see a large fan which sits upon it.
This fan is quite large and is screwed right on top of the CPU. Its job is to keep the CPU cool while
the system is on. Newer motherboards with Pentium II, III, or Athlon processors cannot hide the
CPU under the fan. The processor, on these boards, is tall and sticks straight up off the board. You
will see a CPU fan attached to one side of the processor. Today's CPU's get extremely hot while
they are in operation.
The CPU is the computer's brain. It's job is to process information and sling information around to
all of the various hardwares that need it. CPU's vary in sizes and speeds.
The above are the absolute basics. For more detailed info on the processor, go to the Processor
The BIOS is another very important part of your computer that makes its home on your
motherboard. "BIOS" stands for Basic Input/Output System. It usually resides on a series of chips.
These chips are typically the biggest chips on your motherboard other than the CPU and the chipset.
Also, there is usually a big sticker on it that says BIOS. The sticker also says what kind of BIOS it
is, such as Award or AMIBIOS, and what year it is.
If the CPU is the brain, the BIOS is the nervous system. It takes care of the behind-the-scenes stuff,
much like our nervous system makes sure we breathe while we aren't thinking about it. BIOS
handles the dirty work: how the floppy disks grab data or what happens when you press a key on
your keyboard. You know...thegrunt work. It also kicks in when you turn on your computer, letting
the computer know how many drives it has and where they are.
When you turn on your computer, the BIOS determines what hardware is installed. It finds out if the
hardware is working and if any of the parts have their own BIOS. If it finds any BIOS type
programming on any of the parts, it lets those parts take inventory before returning to its task. For
example, most video cards have their own BIOS chip. So, the main BIOS turns control over to the
video card until it is done, then resumes to check the rest of the computer.
All this happens behind the scenes every time you boot. You may notice the POST, or Power On
Self Test, plus you'll also see your various lights flash. When your BIOS tests the hard drive, floppy
drive, and keyboard, you'll see lights flash on them. Once all this is done, your BIOS loads up the
operating system. It does this by looking for and reading your various boot up files such as
Config.sys and Autoexec.bat. From there, your operating system takes over.
As you can see, BIOS is important. Every computer needs it. And like CPU's, it comes in versions.
The versions are based on years though. The newer the BIOS, the newer and fancier parts it can
handle. You can usually see what date yours is by looking at the sticker on the chip itself, but if you
don't have a little sticker, you can go to the BIOS screen on your monitor. This is done sometimes
by hitting F1 shortly after you power up your computer. Here it should tell you who made the BIOS
and when.
Most of the time, you buy new BIOS by buying a new motherboard. It comes with it. It is usually
hard to find BIOs chips otherwise and install them yourself. Most newer computers have
upgradable BIOS where you pop in new BIOS software and it copies this data over to the chips.
This is called "flashing" your bios.
Math Coprocessors
There is not too much to say about math coprocessors. It is basically a number cruncher or a real
fast calculator. It cranks out fast answers to math problems, helping the CPU do its job faster
because it doesn't have to think as hard. It can take care of the floating point calculations.
Coprocessors are optional in older computers. They just speed up math. Do you need one? Well, if
you are running math intensive software such as CAD drawing or other software that plays with
arrays, irrational numbers, or trigonometric functions, yeah, a coprocessor might be something
worth having. Some might think spreadsheets could use a coprocessor, but really, these do not
require much math since it is mostly addition and subtracting. For almost all typical business
applications, like the word processor, there really isn't a point.
If you have a 486DX or a Pentium, you already have a coprocessor. They're built right in. All
modern processors, or any processor you would most likely see in a decent computer, has the
coprocessor built in. If you have an SX machine, you dont have one. With these CPU's you will
have to get an external one that fits into a separate slot on the motherboard. If you have such a
setup, you'll find that the coprocessor is almost as large as the CPU. It is probably the most
noticeable chip on the board other than the CPU.
In short, the math coprocessor is now a non-issue, since it is built-in to ALL computers made in the
last few years.
DIP Switches and Jumpers
Dip switches and jumpers are your way of telling the computer what is installed on it.
DIP switches are very small and are usually flipped with a pointed object such as a bent paper clip
or a ballpoint pen. Below is a picture of two types of Dip Switches.

Jumpers are small pins on the board with plastic or metal devices that go over the pins. This device
is called a bridge. When the bridge is connected to any two pins, it completes the circuit between
those pins, telling the computer what it need to know. Jumpers are much more common than
switches, but they are harder to use. If asked to remove a bridge, always save it for later. A little
trick is to leave the bridge hanging on one pin. The computer will think the bridge is gone, but its
still there so that you don't lose it. Also, knowing the jumper settings for your device can be a chore.
You must have the device's manual to do it.
Integrated Circuitry
Many times you'll have your I/O and video circuitry built right on to your motherboard.
Usually, I/O adapters on the motherboard are of the IDE/EIDE interface and they are marked HDD
for hard drive and FDD for the floppy. You simply plug your data ribbons into these and you can
bypass the need for a separate I/O card. The downside is that if you want to use a system other than
that on the motherboard, you have to disable the circuitry on the board. For example, if you feel like
using SCSI, then you'll have to disable the IDE on the board. For most users, using the IDE
interface on the board works just fine. Some more expensive boards have SCSI adapters hard-wired
onto the board.
Other motherboards have built in video circuitry. This is less common than the drive interface, but it
happens. This allows you to bypass buying a separate video card and saves a slot. But, again, if you
want to upgrade your video later on, you'll have to disable the video on the board and buy that fancy
new card anyway.
The Rest
Other than the above , you have the battery, the keyboard connector, the expansion slots, and the
Memory(SDRAM) slots.
The battery is pretty noticeable. It is a little cylinder just like your run of the mill Energizer, but
shorter. Most batteries are small, round, and flat. These types fit into a small socket and are held in
my a small metal tab. Its job is mainly to keep the system time and a few other settings when the
computer's power is off. If you are asked what time it is or what kind of hard drive you have when
you turn on your computer, you probably need a new battery.
The keyboard connector is self-explanatory, so let me explain.=) You plug your keyboard into it.
The prongs on your keyboard wire's end will match up (hopefully) with the little holes on the
connector on the motherboard. They come in large 5-pin setups or smaller PS/2's. This complicated
setup is usually located next to the battery.
Expansion slots are explained in the Cards section of the site. They come in different types: ISA,
PCI, and AGP.