You don't have to hang out with tech professionals all day to have heard the term "motherboard." This critical component of the modern PC plays an important role in keeping your computer running. But what does a motherboard do? How can you make sure it's functioning correctly? Is it possible to replace it yourself? We answer all your motherboard-related questions in this simple guide.
How does a motherboard work?
The official motherboard definition is that it’s the main printed circuit board within a computer, which means it’s the primary piece of circuitry that all of the other pieces plug into to create a cohesive whole.
The motherboard is the backbone that ties the computer’s components together at one spot and allows them to talk to each other. Without it, none of the computer pieces, such as the CPU, GPU, or hard drive, could interact. Total motherboard functionality is necessary for a computer to work well. If your motherboard is on the fritz, expect some big problems.
Common motherboard parts
While you don’t need to peek inside your computer to look at the motherboard on a regular basis, it’s smart to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of this essential tool. The motherboard will look like a piece of flat cardboard or plastic with lots of metal designs and wires on and around it.
Parts of a motherboard include power and data connectors, capacitors, heat sinks, and fans. You may also see screw holes for adding new parts or for anchoring it into a device. Look for expansion slots that may be present for adding on other components later as well.
The pieces that plug into it, either with wires or directly, are often called motherboard components. These include:
- Optical drives, such as DVD and CD-ROM
- Video cards and GPUs
- Sound cards
- Hard drives (SSD or HDD)
- Processors (CPU)
- Memory sticks (RAM)
In short, if a computer uses it to function, it’s probably connected to the motherboard so that it can coordinate tasks with other computer parts. Without the motherboard, nothing happens as it should.
How can I tell if my motherboard is dead?
As with all tech things, motherboards eventually die or become unusable. There are many symptoms of a failing motherboard and some include:
- Peripherals that fail or take a long time to start up
- Computer powering off unexpectedly
- Computer not turning on at all
- Burning or chemical smell coming from your computer
These behaviors can be symptomatic of other, more common PC problems, too. It's best to troubleshoot each solution one-by-one before assuming it is your motherboard. Even if you think you've ruled everything out, which can be a lengthy process, you should see if your motherboard BIOS may be an issue. Flashing the BIOS could solve the problem and save you the expensive replacement ahead.
Pro tip: A loose connection or failing power supply is more common than a failing motherboard. They are certainly a more affordable fix as well, so try these first before assuming the worst.
How to replace a motherboard
If you decide to replace your motherboard yourself, you'll need to know the exact model, along with compatible replacement models, before you take the plunge. Motherboards can be extremely difficult to replace in laptops because they are not easy to open or disassemble. The space is also narrow, and one wrong move could damage more than just the motherboard.
You'll also need to be prepared to replace more than just the motherboard. Most people find that the CPU, the graphics card, and even the power source have to be swapped out when they get a new motherboard. This isn’t a cheap repair. Make sure you’ve ruled out the other possibilities and then budget for what could be a costly repair to do yourself.
Finding your motherboard model’s information
This replacement is generally easier to do on desktop computers, but anyone uncertain about the exact replacement instructions for their particular model may be better served to leave the job to a professional.
In any case, knowing how to find motherboard model information can be helpful for you and your computer pro. You can get this information by checking your computer’s documentation, or if you are able to log onto your PC, run a command prompt to find it.
To do this, follow these steps:
- Open the command prompt in Windows by hitting the Windows+R keys or using the search box in the start menu to type in “cmd"
- When the command prompt box pops up, type in the following: “wmic baseboard get product,Manufacturer,version,serialnumber”
- Write down the information or take a screen shot, which should include the serial number as one of the last bits of info on the new line that comes up
You’re now armed with the right info for making purchase decisions for any component that needs to be compatible with your motherboard, as well as replacing your motherboard itself with the same model.
Caring for the motherboard
Most motherboards outlast the rest of the computer parts, assuming they are well-maintained. You shouldn’t have to do anything to actively care for your motherboard, but being aware of the common motherboard killers can be useful. Things that will prematurely destroy a motherboard include:
- High heat, usually due to inadequate cooling systems and fans
- Damage from impact, such as dropping your laptop
- Electrical damage, from spills or using incorrect power accessories
- Faulty connections or connector types
If you buy your computer from a reputable manufacturer, treat your device well, and only use approved accessories and power devices, you likely won't run into these issues.
A motherboard is one of the most difficult parts to diagnose and repair, so it’s worth considering extra buyer protection so that you don't have to worry about failure. The HP Care Pack
, for example, will cover even accidental damage to computers where the motherboard may be affected. It's often better to pay for additional coverage than try to resolve this costly fix on your own.