A motherboard, like a backplane, provides the electrical connections by which the other components of the system communicate, but unlike a backplane, it also connects the central processing unit and hosts other subsystems and devices.
A typical desktop computer has its microprocessor, main memory, and other essential components connected to the motherboard. Other components such as external storage, controllers for video display and sound, and peripheral devices may be attached to the motherboard as plug-in cards or via cables, although in modern computers it is increasingly common to integrate some of these peripherals into the motherboard itself.
An important component of a motherboard is the microprocessor's supporting chipset, which provides the supporting interfaces between the CPU and the various buses and external components. This chipset determines, to an extent, the features and capabilities of the motherboard.
Modern motherboards include, at a minimum:
sockets (or slots) in which one or more microprocessors may be installed
slots into which the system's main memory is to be installed (typically in the form of DIMM modules containing DRAM chips)
a chipset which forms an interface between the CPU's front-side bus, main memory, and peripheral buses
non-volatile memory chips (usually Flash ROM in modern motherboards) containing the system's firmware or BIOS
a clock generator which produces the system clock signal to synchronize the various components
slots for expansion cards (these interface to the system via the buses supported by the chipset)
power connectors, which receive electrical power from the computer power supply and distribute it to the CPU, chipset, main memory, and expansion cards.
Modern Motherboard Diagram
A CPU socket or slot is an electrical component that attaches to a printed circuit board (PCB) and is designed to house a CPU (also called a microprocessor). It is a special type of integrated circuit socket designed for very high pin counts. A CPU socket provides many functions, including a physical structure to support the CPU, support for a heat sink, facilitating replacement (as well as reducing cost), and most importantly, forming an electrical interface both with the CPU and the PCB. CPU sockets can most often be found in most desktop and server computers (laptops typically use surface mount CPUs), particularly those based on the Intel x86 architecture on the motherboard. A CPU socket type and motherboard chipset must support the CPU series and speed.
Block diagram of a modern motherboard, which supports many on-board peripheral functions as well as several expansion slots.
With the steadily declining costs and size of integrated circuits, it is now possible to include support for many peripherals on the motherboard. By combining many functions on one PCB, the physical size and total cost of the system may be reduced; highly integrated motherboards are thus especially popular in small form factor and budget computers.
For example, the ECS RS485M-M, a typical modern budget motherboard for computers based on AMD processors, has on-board support for a very large range of peripherals:
disk controllers for a floppy disk drive, up to 2 PATA drives, and up to 6 SATA drives (including RAID 0/1 support)
integrated graphics controller supporting 2D and 3D graphics, with VGA and TV output
integrated sound card supporting 8-channel (7.1) audio and S/PDIF output
Fast Ethernet network controller for 10/100 Mbit networking
USB 2.0 controller supporting up to 12 USB ports
IrDA controller for infrared data communication (e.g. with an IrDA-enabled cellular phone or printer)
temperature, voltage, and fan-speed sensors that allow software to monitor the health of computer components
Expansion cards to support all of these functions would have cost hundreds of dollars even a decade ago; however, as of April 2007 such highly integrated motherboards are available for as little as $30 in the USA.