Closeup of a CPU on a computer's motherboard.
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A computer’s motherboard is perhaps the least sexy component next to the PSU, which means users often ignore it in favor of components such as the CPU or GPU. So the question is, can skimping on a motherboard cramp performance?

What Does a Motherboard Do?

The motherboard’s job has changed significantly over the years, but its primary job has always been to let all of the components in the computer communicate with each other. This means that the CPU, GPU, RAM, drives, and every other part of your PC all work together through the motherboard.

It used to be that the motherboard itself would provide the processing power to manage the traffic between the GPU, CPU, and RAM. However, modern CPUs now have most of that functionality on the CPU package itself.

In other words, it’s the CPU that determines how fast and efficient the flow of information is between itself and those components. Motherboards also offer additional connections for onboard peripherals and expansion slots, but the core performance components are largely taken care of by the CPU.

High-End Components With Budget Motherboards

So the immediate answer to the question of whether a motherboard affects computer performance is “no.” If you put a high-end CPU, GPU, and RAM into either a cheap or expensive motherboard, they’ll perform more or less the same. Both motherboards should offer the same minimum standard of performance, assuming that both boards have the same minimum performance rating.

Motherboards May Limit Your Component Performance

It is possible to have two different motherboards that support the same CPUs, GPUs, memory, and SSDs while one will only run them at lower performance levels according to the highest standard that the motherboard supports. For example, PCIe devices such as NVME SSDs and GPUs are backward compatible with older PCIe standards but will default to the older standard’s performance limits.

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In other words, if at all possible your choice of motherboard should allow your components to reach their full potential of the components you want to use with it. Also, it’s a good idea to get a motherboard that’s somewhat future-proof so that you can upgrade to a new generation of CPU or GPU without limiting its performance.

Motherboards Influence Overclocking

While your choice of motherboard should have little or no effect on the standard performance of a component like your CPU or GPU, there may be a significant difference when you try to tap as much performance from those components as possible.

Overclocking” is the practice of making a component run at a faster rate than it’s designed for. Some individual components, such as a CPU, can safely run at higher speeds. However, running these components beyond their approved rating requires more power and generates more heat.

Some higher-end motherboards have additional cooling for the motherboards themselves, more robust power management and delivery components, and more options for fine-tuning components. This makes it easier to get a stable overclock and benefit from the extra performance locked away in your components. The “chipset” of your motherboard can determine whether overclocking is possible at all, with those options omitted from low-end motherboards, even if the CPU in that board is capable of it.

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Modern CPUs and GPUs now also overclock themselves automatically according to the power and thermal capacity of a system. Using a more robust motherboard may allow those components to reach better stable performance levels. However, the entire system needs to allow for this. A robust motherboard is just one piece of the puzzle.

Does It Really Matter?

There are many reasons to spend more money on a motherboard, but additional performance in applications such as games isn’t really one of them. If you want to enter the world of enthusiast computing and push your components to their stable limit, the choice of the motherboard can be crucial.

If you just want the performance you were promised on the box, the motherboard you choose doesn’t matter all that much. Instead, it’s important to make sure your motherboard of choice matches the requirements of the other components you want to use and can accommodate all the peripherals you need. Make sure it has the right number of slots and ports or you’ll come up short.

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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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