The motherboard is the hub to which all components of a PC are connected. It is the most essential component of a computer, as it enables all devices to communicate with each other. A computer cannot function without a motherboard, and different types of motherboards have different functions and features as well. So it is very important to know the difference between the different types of motherboards and their functions to choose the perfect motherboard before building your own PC to get the desired performance.
Different Types of Motherboards
Motherboard types are classified by their form factors. There are 3 basic form factors for motherboards, with some subtypes as well. These include:
1. Standard ATX
ATX stands for Advanced Technology eXtended. This motherboard form factor was introduced in 1995 by Intel as an upgraded design from the previous generation AT (Advanced Technology) form factors. This form factor improved upon the AT design in many ways, such as the introduction of a bracket containing all the external connectors like the USB, keyboard, mouse, and the like.
Standard ATX motherboards are 12 inches x 9.6 inches (305mm x 244m) in size measured from height x width. This construct provided much-needed power management options by allowing the users to manage the Power Settings through BIOS and resulted in configurations that enabled the BIOS to constantly monitor the temperatures, input voltages, and cooling fans. If the BIOS determined that the system temperature had risen substantially and the computer is overheating, it would shut down the system in most cases (although there were exceptions).
This form factor features a construction that allows for better airflow. The CPU and the memory slots were moved away on the board, in order to allow for easy installation of those components and proper ventilation, which was not possible on the legacy AT designs.
1.1 Extended ATX
There is also an enhanced version of Standard ATX known as the Extended ATX (EATX) design. This version uses the same specifications of a Standard ATX motherboard, but is slightly bigger in size; being 12 x 13 inches in size.
The Extended design upgraded the ATX configuration in many ways. For example, EATX may feature 4-8 PCIe x16 ports compared to 3 or 4 on a standard ATX. Similarly, EATX can come equipped with up to 8 RAM slots, allowing for more memory installation over standard ATX.
The greater size and upgraded configurations allow EATX to incorporate more devices that won’t fit on a Standard ATX version. EATX is mostly used in servers or by gamers looking to build powerful gaming systems featuring multiple GPUs in SLI (Scalable Link Interface) or Xfire configurations. They are also a favorite among the extreme tech-geeks who like to overclock every piece of hardware into oblivion, as this construct features excellent cooling and ventilation systems, and its BIOS settings are very friendly for ambitious over-clockers.
2. Micro ATX
A Micro ATX is a smaller motherboard compared to a standard one. It measures 9.6 x 9.6 inches (244 x 244 mm) in size.
This smaller size results in reduced slots and configurations. A Micro ATX board can only contain 2 RAM slots and 4 normal PCIe slots maximum and also provides a lesser number of ports and M.2 drives. Although some micro ATX designs feature 2 PCIe x16 expansion slots to support 2 GPUs, the second one is usually placed very close to the edge of the board (due to smaller dimensions) and makes it very hard to fit 2 GPUs on the same board.
However, modern micro ATX constructions have evolved significantly in order to compete with their bigger brothers, and as a result, there are many micro ATX motherboards available that boast all the good features of a full-fledged ATX version such as the support for high-end modern CPUs and GPUs, excellent cooling and ventilation systems, plus the benefit of fitting inside a smaller and lighter Casing, which costs less and also occupies lesser space.
With that said the disadvantages of a micro ATX build can also not be overlooked. The reduced number of slots, ports, and drives means that the room for future expansion and upgradation is far more limited as compared with the bigger ATX designs. It is also not for people who create professional levels of content or play demanding games at ultra-high settings, because the limited space makes it hard to aim for multi-fan cooling systems or multi-GPU setups necessary to provide the graphical firepower and the ventilation necessary to counter the excessive heating resulting from such a high-end setup. That limited cooling and ventilation capability also proves a hindrance if you are looking to overclock some components on these boards.
For more casual users though, micro ATX is the ideal motherboard form factor, as it marries cost efficiency with a smaller design that is just right for most computer users around the world.
2.1 Flex ATX
Intel also released a slimmer version of micro ATX in 1999 called Flex ATX. Spanning 9 inches x 7.5 inches (229 mm x 191 mm) in diameter, this board featured a maximum of 3 expansion slots. Flex ATX was also backward compatible with the larger ATX and Micro ATX designs, meaning that this form factor could easily fit inside the chassis and casings made for the aforementioned form factors.
3. Mini ITX
A Mini ITX (Information Technology eXtended) is a 6.75 x 6.75 inches (170 x 170 mm) design. As is evident from the dimensions, it is even smaller than the micro ATX construct and features an even lesser number of RAM slots (2). The system features a reduced cooling mechanism, as there is no fan inside but a solitary heatsink to manage all the heat. The original Mini ITX constructs consisted of only a legacy PCI slot, which didn’t support some of the higher-end graphics cards. However, that problem was addressed via the Mini ITX 2.0 design which was rolled out in 2008 and featured a PCI Express X16 slot. Some of the newer models based on the Z77-Architectures will also allow you to throw in a high-end Intel Core i7 CPU if you want.
Mini ITX is for those people who want to build a minimally-powered PC for tasks that do not require big-time processing power.
There are 3 subtypes of Mini ITX, which are too small for normal computing purposes but are used inside miniatured systems demanding limited computing power such as DVRs, vehicle software, mobile phones, media centers, tablets, eBook readers, and so on and so forth. Let us take a brief look at them as well:
3.1 Nano ITX
Nano ITX is the biggest subtype of the Mini ITX architecture which measures up to 4.72 x 4.72 inches (120 mm x 120 mm).
3.2 Pico ITX
Pico ITX measures up to 3.9 x 2.8 inches (10 cm x 7.2 cm). This architecture was developed by VIA Technologies and supports miniaturized CPUs developed by that company.
3.3 Mobile ITX
Another construct developed by VIA Tech, this design is a minuscule 2.4 x 2.4 inches (60 x 60 mm) in dimension and is used mainly in mobile devices, and other portable devices with limited uses.
Before & After ATX Motherboard
Many people wonder why one form factor introduced in the mid-1990s has been so dominant in the PC building sector, and why no other form factor has been introduced to replace the ATX technology, just like ATX construct itself did to the legacy AT design.
Actually, that is a misconception. There have been other motherboard architectures designed before and after the ATX form factor, but ATX has prevailed due to striking the perfect balance that most PC builders want. Let us examine some of the most prominent form factors that appeared in this sector.
Planar Breadboard was the first ever motherboard developed exclusively to build a PC around. It was developed by IBM in 1981 and was a complete mess as a number of chips and sockets were scrambled on a board which caused a number of electrical and heating problems.
In response to Planar’s shortcomings, IBM developed the eXtended Technology (XT) motherboards in 1983. This architecture addressed some of the issues posed by Planar and resulted in a board with considerably organized sockets and chips as compared to its predecessor. XT Motherboards allowed for slot-type processors and consisted of DIMM RAM slots and Low Insertion Force (LIF) sockets.
IBM’s follow-up was the Advanced Technology (AT) motherboard in 1984. This construct proved to be a huge success and was the standard PC motherboard until it was finally replaced by ATX during the mid-1990s. The original “Full AT” model was laid out on a huge 13.8 inches x 12 inches (351 mm x 305 mm) board, which is no longer compatible with the modern streamlined Tower and Mini-Tower casings. This model used 12-pin plugs to power the system and featured only a single outside connector (for the keyboard). AT construct lacked a sleep mode, and caused significant power-hogging issues, which proved to be its downfall later on.
3.1 Baby AT
AT’s huge size proved to be quite a problem, which IBM tried to fix by rolling out the baby version. Spanning 8.5 x 13 inches and providing most of the key features of the full-AT design, Baby-AT quickly became the industry standard until its eventual dethronement at the hands of ATX.
The Low Profile eXtension (LPX) was a 9 inches x 13 inches wide motherboard developed by Western Digital in 1987. It was the second most widely used motherboard form factor during the 1990s and used a riser card for device installation. This method of expansion card integration allowed LPX boards to be much slimmer than the AT-based motherboards. LPX form factor was a nightmare for the average home PC builder, as this construct was non-standard and hard to understand for an average Joe. Moreover, LPX also featured shoddy cooling which caused massive heat-ups during demanding tasks and was very hard to upgrade thanks to them being non-standard.
The New Low-Profile eXtended (NPX) motherboard was introduced in 1997 by Intel and provided similar functionalities as the LPX such as a riser and low-profile slimline case. NLX was an attempt to modernize the vintage LPX design by standardizing the design (compared to the non-standard LPX construct) and featuring support for the latest technological upgrades. However, by then the ATX design (also developed by Intel) had become popular and NLX quickly faded away.
The most notable attempt to replace the old ATX architecture was made in 2005, by Intel itself when the company introduced the brand-new Balanced Technology eXtended (BTX) design. This design featured a better cooling system and support for technological advancements made since the late 1990s. With dimensions of 10.5 inches x 12.8 inches (266 mm x 325 mm), BTX was designed to be slimmer (low-profile) and lighter as compared with ATX. This construct featured 7 expansion slots, support for Serial ATA, and (then new) USB 2.0 attachments.
Despite being a modern design and boasting a superior cooling system, BTX failed to supplant the ATX architecture mainly because ATX had become too mainstream by that time, and users were not interested in dealing with complicated design problems that were to result from having to choose between two motherboard architectures. Moreover, Intel also went on to standardize the BTX design, which failed to provide backward compatibility with the ATX form factor which the majority of PC builders craved. That proved to be the ultimate downfall of this motherboard architecture.
5.1 Micro BTX
First among three subtypes of BTX form factor, Micro BTX spanned 10.4 inches x 10.5 inches (264 mm x 267 mm) in dimensions, and supported a maximum of 4 expansion slots compared with 7 on the standard BTX design.
5.2 Nano BTX
The second subtype of BTX motherboard was 10.5 inches x 8.8 inches (266 mm x 223 mm) in size and only supported up to 2 expansion slots.
5.3 Pico BTX
The final subtype of BTX (released in the same year in 2005) was 10.5 inches x 8 inches (266 mm x 203 mm) in dimensions and only had room for 1 expansion slot.
1. Which is the best type of motherboard?
There are motherboards for every purpose. For example, if you are just looking to play casual games on your PC, then a micro ATX motherboard will suffice. But if you are looking to do processing-heavy tasks then you should consider opting for a standard or extended ATX motherboard.
2. Which is the best motherboard for gaming?
ASUS Vs Gigabyte: As of late 2022, the two motherboards consistently rated as the best gaming motherboards by a variety of gaming reviewers are Gigabyte’s Z690 Aorus Pro and ASUS’ ROG STRIX X670E-E Gaming. The former is better for Intel and Nvidia-based systems, while the latter is geared more toward AMD-based machines.
3. Which brand motherboard is best?
Gigabyte, ASUS, and MSI make some of the finest motherboards in the market. It again comes down to personal preference. ASUS and MSI motherboards are generally preferred by people looking to build processing-heavy systems, whereas Gigabyte and ASRock design better gaming motherboards.
4. Can I install two GPUs inside a micro ATX motherboard?
Micro ATX Motherboards have smaller dimensions than their Standard or Extended cousins. This allows for reduced space for PCIe x16 slots which are necessary to support modern GPUs. Some micro ATX versions do feature 2 PCIe x16 slots, but they are clumsily thrust inside the existing architecture, and it is very hard to fit two GPUs in there together.
If you can somehow overcome that spatial problem and manage to find a way to deal with the heat issues that will result from such a dual-GPU setup, then, by all means, you have struck gaming gold on your micro ATX. But in most instances, it is advisable to just stick with one GPU inside a micro ATX, which is what it is built for.
5. Is there a PCIe x16 slot available in a Mini ITX motherboard?
The original Mini ITX architecture released in 2001 consisted of only a legacy PCI slot, which was good enough for the GPUs of its time. However, when GPU companies rolled out modern chips that required brand-new PCI Express x16 slots to function, then Mini ITX 2.0 constructs were introduced in 2008. These upgraded designs featured a full-blown PCI Express slot to accommodate all the fancy new GPUs of today and work flawlessly.
Motherboards are the most critical part of computer architecture because all other components are connected to them. Most PC builders are confused as to what different types of motherboards are available in the market, and which form factor is best suited for their particular interests. Everyone PC builder should have a basic know-how of motherboard form factors. After all, it is pointless to be throwing close to (or over) $1000 on an Extended ATX if all you want is to write some college assignments or check emails. Careful research into each type will let everyone know what each type of motherboard is good at, and that information should be utilized to good effect while shopping for one.