Computer Questions: How Motherboards Work

The motherboard may go by different names like the

In order to understand how the motherboard works, it is helpful to know which type of board you have. While there are different designs for different purposes, there are two standard types of boards:


The integrated style of motherboard includes many components on the board itself. This style, with its "onboard" features does not require add-ons such as sound cards, video cards, and the like. This type of board is less expensive and easier to manage initially, and is often chosen by those that do not have a lot of computer experience or a lot of money to spend.

All boards have some integrated components, such as onboard sound (which can be turned off in order to add a sound card), but the lure of fully integrated boards is that they have everything wrapped up in one neat little package. Keep in mind that onboard components are "stock" parts. They do not offer the same level of performance as specialized expansion cards. Also, when most onboard components stop functioning, you cannot simply repair, remove, or turn off that component. You may have to replace the entire motherboard, so an integrated board may end up costing you more money in the long run.


With a non-integrated board you can troubleshoot individual components and more easily repair or replace them. You also have the added benefit of customizing your board by choosing high performance expansion cards that best suit your needs.

For example "gamers" -people who are into computer games- are usually most interested in high performance video cards that enhance high resolution graphics. Video cards have built in memory from 8 to 256 megabytes. They also have built in processors called the GPU or "graphics processing unit." These features not only free up memory, but also free up your processor so it can do what it was meant to do. With onboard video, the processor takes on the duties of the video system which then has to compete with everything else, ultimately slowing down all processes.

Expansion cards as well as other components are plugged into different sockets or "slots" on the motherboard, which gives them their power.


The CPU is the Central Processing Unit, or simply, the processor. Since the processor is considered the "brain" of the computer, the motherboard can be compared to the "nervous system." Nearly every component relies on the motherboard and is connected to it in some way. It is essentially a circuit board with paths or "traces" that transmit power and relay commands to the other components to tell them what action is needed. The motherboard links everything together, and helps the different components communicate.

When you execute any function on your computer, it requires a specific action. For each action an electronic impulse is sent to the motherboard. The board determines what the impulse is, what is needed, and which component must be implemented to complete the function. It then sends that component a signal. The component establishes what needs to happen and sends that information back to the motherboard. The motherboard then determines what action comes next and what other components are necessary to complete the task, sending them the appropriate command or impulse.

For instance, when you hit the "A" on the keyboard, an impulse is sent to the motherboard. The motherboard sends the impulse to the video card (or onboard video system). The video card determines that the letter "A" is needed and sends that information back through the motherboard. The board then determines where the information goes from there, in this case to the monitor, where the "A" seems to appear instantly even though many processes have occurred in order to get it there.

Another example is when you click an icon to open a program. Again, an impulse is sent to the motherboard. The motherboard then signals the hard drive to load the information into RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory. RAM is basically temporary memory. It is like a temporary storage space for your operating system, current information, and programs, so the CPU has easy access to them. It is temporary because once you shut down your system, this information is deleted.

The motherboard then sends a command to the video card so it can calculate what needs to be drawn (text, colors, images, etc), and the video card sends that information to the back to the motherboard, which sends it to the monitor. All of these things take place so quickly that the information goes from a click of the mouse to an image on your monitor in mere nanoseconds. As you can see, the motherboard is one of the most important parts of your system, so be sure to choose wisely. Make sure it is compatible with your other components and make sure it is a good stable board.

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