You’re not the first to wonder about the role of a motherboard chipset. It’s a term that’s used a lot, especially when building your own PC, and it helps to know a little bit about it to avoid mistakes in processing power.
Simply put, the chipset on a motherboard is a crucial part of the communication between all elements of the computer system.
Think of the motherboard chipset as the nervous system in a body, wherein the brain (in this case, the CPU) of the motherboard communicates via the chipset to all the other components, such as the memory (RAM) and peripherals (keyboard, mouse, monitor, and so on).
What Should I Know About Motherboard Chipsets?
To understand what motherboard chipset to buy, let’s delve into the technical aspects and criteria that would determine what you need.
Generally, you’d have to look at your inclination towards overclocking your CPU (thus needing a motherboard chipset that can withstand high CPU temperatures) and further expansion options that you might be considering.
A CPU doesn’t have a single chipset, and they might be microprocessors, modem card chipsets, or any and both. As the name indicates, the chipset is a set of interdependent circuits (including the layout and functionality of the circuit board and mechanisms) that are responsible for the input and output of instructions and data between the peripheral devices and the microprocessor/CPU.
The CPU owes its processing power to the timing of the chipset. Without a fast flow of communication, the cache would be overloaded, external data buses would be overcrowded, and peripherals would lag.
Motherboard Chipset Compatibility
While the compatibility of a chipset with hardware such as the motherboard socket and CPU must be determined from the outset, the possibility also exists of the chipset drivers being outdated when new software and hardware is installed, changing the nature of what’s required. This is a common cause of a slow device, with compatibility issues at the heart of it all.
Without the right device drivers, your OS will use generic drivers which will strip the motherboard of its unique qualities and the speed and stability that you probably paid for. Without the right device drivers, everything will still be functional, but advanced features will be unavailable (such as intelligent CPU or GPU scaling or various sleep states) with the default drivers reducing your motherboard chipset to a lowest common denominator.
Motherboard Chipset Architecture
Everything in a computer has a specific set of functions. The motherboard chipset’s two sections – southbridge and northbridge – each divide the tasks between them.
You might have heard of the northbridge of the motherboard chipset before but under a different name. It’s known more commonly as the memory controller hub, and it connects the southbridge to the CPU.
The southbridge isn’t otherwise connected to the CPU, as it’s responsible for the slower and lower-performing connections on the motherboard. This is also why it’s known as the input/output controller hub, as those connections include the I/O devices, HDDs (and their SATA and IDE connectors), audio and networking devices, USB ports and bus slots for expansion cards (PCI).
The northbridge then takes care of everything that requires much faster computation. Everything the CPU to the RAM and ROM, the BIOS, and the AGP (accelerated graphics port), as well as the southbridge, is linked directly to the CPU. The northbridge frequency is essentially used by the CPU to determine its own operating frequency as the baseline.
However, this model isn’t exactly universal anymore, and might even be rarely seen.
Modern Motherboard Chipsets
Modern motherboard chipsets, in fact, focus on integration in the same way that modern CPUs do.
Many readers might already have noticed that things such as memory and graphics and now integrated into the CPU itself, meaning that the modern motherboard chipset is rather single-chip and more focused on integration via the functions of the southbridge being the only remaining duties it has.
This has made CPUs much more responsive and reduced what’s commonly known as “lag” or latency (the amount of time it takes for signals and information, or a packet of data, to traverse the system and communicate an internal message) due to a single “hop” for all those controllers linked to the chipset.
The terminology has changed accordingly, too: Intel now calls these a Platform Controller Hub and AMD calls it a Fusion Controller Hub (connected to the CPU via what’s called the Direct Media Interface and Unified Media Interface, respectively). Same things, different brand names, increased control and functionality for systems and for the user.
Different Chipsets Could Mean a Different Computer Entirely
We’ve hinted briefly at the importance of going with a chipset that’s compatible with your motherboard and what you want out of it. If you’ve been over to our overclocking article, for example, or know of the process already, you should note that not all chipsets will even allow it.
An easy way to figure out what chipsets will work for you is to look at the generation your processor is and find out the socket number. This is then easy to Google and check on the website of your manufacturer, as well as on Wikipedia with charts and tables that lay out the differences.
To continue the overclocking talk, a motherboard with appropriate VRM cooling capability should be chosen, along with a corresponding chipset. (Usually, Intel chipset models ending with the letter “K” are the ones unlocked for overclocking and the B300, B350, and B450 are the ones to go for on AMD.)
Any chipset that allows overclocking will give you settings to do so directly in the UEFI or BIOS: ‘voltage’, ‘multiplier’, ‘base clock’ are terms to look for. Again, buyer’s guides on the Internet are your friend before you part with your cash.
Your chipset will determine your expansion options by way of the lanes it offers for PCI Express buses. If you want more expansion cards (Wi-Fi cards, multiple GPUs, and such), you’re going to have to spring for a model (or two of one) that will supply you a number of lanes that the CPU can utilize and still leave additional lanes for additional components. This is what determines the “ability” of your computer system and gaming rig in a lot of cases.
If you already know you want to go for the best, high-end stuff, go straight for X299 for Intel and X399 for AMD.
However, if you’re more budget-conscious or don’t want extra bells and whistles, research into motherboard chipsets will pay off. Most users will find chipsets under Z370 (Intel) and X470 for AMD rich with features for a simple computer system with a single graphics card.
It also helps to have this information in mind just as a general purveyor of technology and technological advancements – remember, the motherboard chipset is like the director of traffic on a busy, busy highway.
The slightest of mishaps can cause a pile-up and make routes shut down, even if momentarily. This is what a well-functioning motherboard and motherboard chipset together aim to avoid and keep the nervous system of the computer system’s body healthy and efficient.