- Motherboards are central to the operation of most desktops, laptops, and gaming consoles, providing slots and accommodations for necessary components.
- Smartphones and tablets integrate a system-on-a-chip (SoC) instead of a motherboard, allowing for faster operation but limited component replacement.
- Micro-ATX motherboards are popular for their smaller size and are commonly used in compact desktops.
Since the 1980s computers have had a motherboard at the heart of their operation. The different types of motherboards in common use have changed over the years, as you might imagine.
This is in part thanks to advances in technology, changing needs for consumers, and computers growing more robust.
This guide isn’t going to go over proprietary SoC or system-on-a-chip designs, as these integrate the functions of a motherboard directly with the other components. These aren’t separate systems that are interfacing, more like a monolithic structure at the heart of the operation of a computer.
Instead, this goes over common motherboards you might have seen in the past or that see use today. Despite the move towards monolithic structures in portable devices, the motherboard is still alive and well.
What is a Motherboard?
The motherboard as it is known is central to the operation of most desktops, laptops, and gaming consoles. A typical motherboard is a non-conductive piece of plastic that contains slots and accommodations for the necessary components which make a computer function.
Motherboards contain room for components like the CPU, RAM modules, graphics processors, power supply connections, and a host of other functions to simply allow the computer to operate as intended.
DIY PC builders are no doubt familiar with the motherboard as much of the process for building your own computer is directly interfacing with the many types of motherboards. Chances are if you’re using a Windows computer of some sort, you’ve got a motherboard at the heart of its operation.
Do All Devices Have a Motherboard?
Not all devices contain a motherboard. Consider your smartphone or tablet, which does function as a computer. If you’re running any of the many popular Android or Apple devices, they integrate something called a system-on-a-chip or SoC.
These do have all the components easily accessible by the computer as needed. However, one notable departure is you aren’t able to readily replace components. Repairs might be addressed with a soldering iron, but you aren’t simply undoing connections to replace damaged components.
SoCs have the benefit of operating at a much faster rate than a standard motherboard. This is due to the distance between the components being minimal. Every component slotted into a modular motherboard introduces an inherent degree of latency.
Now, this latency is imperceptible to the average person, but it is present nonetheless. In the world of computing, there are also integrated devices, which are also monolithic computers. These are more commonly seen in industrial applications, however.
Prior to IBM’s introduction of the motherboard, or planar as it was called, in 1984, computers were very much a mishmash of similar concepts with different methods of execution. The IBM PC started a revolution of sorts alongside Apple’s Macintosh.
Users could use the planar, or in this case, the early AT motherboard to add memory, storage, or additional components to aid with work. Popular additions were along the lines of math processors and sound cards.
The AT form factor is distinct in that it has very distinct measurements. All Full AT motherboards measured 13.8 inches tall by 12 inches wide. This specification would later be replaced by the Baby AT form factor, which was a good bit smaller.
Before the AT, there really weren’t any other types of motherboards on the market. Its most common usage would have been at the heart of IBM’s PC and all subsequent clones. Do keep in mind this is before the standardization of things like computer architectures.
If you were using a PC in the 1980s, you were likely running an AT or Baby AT motherboard of some sort. Its modularity allowed for expansion which had been relegated to either costly modifications or kitschy peripherals in the years before its introduction.
The AT motherboard has fallen out of favor in the decades since its introduction. It lacks modern amenities like support for USB protocols or sleep mode. If you’re a retro PC enthusiast, however, you might still find use for these old motherboards.
11 years after the AT, the ATX was introduced in 1995. Originally devised by Intel, the ATX is still one of the more common types of motherboards you’ll see in use. It is a larger size in terms of dimensions. As you might imagine, this means it needs a larger case.
While the original AT motherboards served their purpose quite admirably, the ATX form factor and specification have given it a shelf life of nearly 30 years. It has capabilities for many modern amenities and has seen subsequent revisions which have enabled it to remain relevant.
You’ll find modern PCI-Express slots, DDR5 capabilities, and sockets for the latest CPUs on a modern ATX.
If you’re building a large PC complete with a case, then an ATX is likely the motherboard of choice. This is especially true if you’re running one of the high-end GPUs on the market, like the RTX 4090.
While you can certainly slot the 4090 in a smaller motherboard, it might cause undue stress on the PCI-E lanes without space and additional support.
ATX motherboards are widely available and come with multiple price points. As such, they still remain extremely popular with DIY PC builders. Its modular nature means it readily adapts to the needs of the user.
You can use it as a full-form daily driver for office work or as the centerpiece of a modern gaming setup. The only thing really holding you back at that point is what power supply you choose.
Now, there are many different types of motherboards in the ATX form factor. Usually what this refers to is the capabilities and the overall structure of the motherboard.
Not every user wants to run a full-sized PC tower on a daily basis. This comes up especially if you’re looking to build something meant to take up less desk real estate.
Micro-ATX is just one of the many variants of the ATX specification. It does have the distinction of being the first and one of the most common choices, however. Capabilities largely haven’t changed from ATX to Micro-ATx.
Micro-ATX motherboards are very popular with home builders and organizations looking for the power of a desktop without a large footprint.
You can use a Micro-ATX motherboard in a standard ATX case, but you also get access to much smaller cases. In most cases, you can certainly slot in the full complement of components to create a powerful PC.
You might not want to run one of those huge GPUs on a Micro-ATX, however. The PC will likely use it just fine, but the case and motherboard might barely be able to accommodate it.
Before the ATX motherboard made its mark on the landscape, there were multiple attempts to improve the AT form factor. One such attempt was the LPX, which is a variant of the Baby AT motherboard. It would prove to be somewhat popular among the other types of motherboards for a time.
What makes the LPX unique is its multiple slots for expansion devices. Modularity is the name of the game for the LPX, and it served well in this function for a number of years.
What finally did away with the LPX was the introduction of the Pentium II processor from Intel. More power requires additional cooling capabilities. The LPX itself wasn’t geared toward this and fell out of favor shortly after.
If you were running a setup in the late 80s to early 90s that required a fair few expansion devices, the LPX was the way to go.
It still has a place for retro PC enthusiasts, but do be aware you aren’t running processors more modern than the original Pentium if selecting an LPX motherboard for use.
The BTX motherboard was originally introduced by Intel in the early 2000s to replace the ATX form factor. As you can see if you go to any modern PC store or retailer, this development didn’t really catch on.
There was certainly a lot to like about the BTX form factor, however. It may have been a more expensive solution to a mainboard for a DIY PC build, but it had more airflow over the components themselves. Like many other types of motherboards, it failed to replace the ATX.
Sadly, this one has been relegated to the history books. Instead of pushing the BTX form factor, Intel instead opted for creating more heat-efficient CPUs and other components.
BTX had its heyday in the early to mid-2000s, and as such doesn’t really see much use these days. You might still find used examples for retro PC builds, but the more common ATX form factor is a far better choice due to its popularity.
2. Pico BTX
As has been seen with other motherboards, there is always a smaller form factor variant waiting in the wings. Pico BTX took the perks of the BTX and slimmed it down to a more manageable size for compact PC cases.
Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX have largely stolen the thunder Pico BTX may have had. As with BTX, it is more a curious departure from the norm rather than an option you can choose from for a new PC build.
Pico BTX didn’t make it out of the 2000s intact. As such, Pico BTX motherboards are a rarity to find today. They would have served as great home theater PC motherboards in the mid-2000s, however.
1. Mini ITX
One of the only other form factors to stick when compared to the ATX. The Mini ITX serves as the smallest possible form factor motherboard you can run full-size PC components into. You can still find these new on the shelves today.
They are much smaller than even the Micro-ATX, and as such have their own specialized cases. The Mini ITX is great for things like super compact builds. The smaller form factor is likely the smallest size you’ll find a PC in aside from moving to laptops and tablets.
Mini ITX excels when building PCs as a gaming console or home theater solution. The small form factor enables you to have a full-sized PC without having to accommodate a bulky or heavy case.
If you’re looking for something with more power than a laptop but don’t want to swap to a Mac Mini, a custom build Mini ITX PC might be the way to go.
|Motherboard Type||Common Uses|
|Mini ITX||Great for building PCs as a gaming console or home theater solution. Enables a full-sized PC without a bulky or heavy case.|
|Pico BTX||Would have served as great home theater PC motherboards in the mid-2000s, however, they are a rarity to find today.|
|BTX||Had its heyday in the early to mid-2000s but doesn’t see much use these days.|
|LPX||Popular in the late 80s to early 90s for setups that required a fair few expansion devices.|
|Micro-ATX||Popular with home builders and organizations looking for the power of a desktop without a large footprint. Can be used in a standard ATX case, but also allows for much smaller cases.|
|ATX||Popular choice for building a large PC complete with a case. Remains extremely popular with DIY PC builders due to its modular nature.|
|AT||Most common usage would have been at the heart of IBMâs PC and all subsequent clones in the 1980s.|
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