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How To Determine Your Motherboards Capabilities

Dennis from MO writes:

How can a person find out how much RAM their motherboard can handle and how big a processor they can add without going to a tech shop that will charge them just for the information?

Back in the good-old-days of PCs every PC was sold with a host of manuals and information about the components that went inside of it. It mattered back then, since you would need this information to make the hardware work correctly.

Fast forward to today and manufacturers rarely tell you what components are in your system – and sometimes the technical information is buried on an order page under “tech specs” or “system information”. How do you find this information out when your ready to upgrade or need to replace a piece of hardware?

For starters, a fantastic utility called CPU-Z, available here [1], can tell you a lot about your internal system components.

CPU-Z has quite a few features, but we’ll go over a few of the main ones for now.

Once you open CPU-Z you’ll see the CPU tab.

1 – This is the name of the processor currently installed.

2 – This is the socket/package type. This is important to know if you want to upgrade as CPU’s come in different packages/sockets and you can’t interchange them.

3 – This is the detailed product name and speed rating at maximum power.

4 – This is the current CPU clock speed. You’ll notice even though this CPU is rated for 2.4ghz, the current power saving plan has it running at 800mhz. Some CPU’s support down-clocking, which will lower the CPU speed when it’s not being used to save power and reduce heat output. This is more common in laptops than desktops, but found in some desktops also.

The next tab you’ll want to check is the Mainboard tab.

1 – Manufacturer will tell you who made the motherboard. Some motherboards are made specifically for a certain PC maker, while others may be “name brands” such as Asus, MSI, Gigabyte and others.

2 – Model number will give you specific information to this motherboard. When searching for a replacement it’s important to combine manufacturer and model number into a search. This computer would be “dell 0yr8nn motherboard”

3 – Bios version is important when upgrading a CPU. Bios can be updated to support other CPU’s of the same package type and often will include fixes for bugs or support issues on motherboards. Checking with the manufacturer website for the latest BIOS version is always a good idea. Read the update notes though before applying bios updates as the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here. Bios update failures have the potential of leaving your machine non-working.

– Graphic Interface tab shows both the type of graphic interface and the link width. If you want to upgrade your video card, you need to know if your graphics interface is AGP or PCI-Express, and what the maximum link speed is along with other information.

The next tab is the SPD tab.

1 – Slot will both show you both the number of slots you have and when you select a slot what type of memory if any is in it.

2 – Module size will show you the size of the current RAM module – important if you’re going to upgrade and want to use some of the existing memory. Most modern computers work better in matched pairs of memory (or in the case of new Ivy Bridge CPUs) four matched sticks.

3 – Max bandwidth will show you the speed of the current chip and is usually a good place to start for replacement chips. In this case I’d look for DDR3-8500 rated memory.

* The final arrow on the bottom shows you various timing tables. This is only important for people looking to overclock, but it’s worth looking at to find out if the memory your purchased is as fast as the older memory. Lower numbers are generally better with the exception of frequency. The ideal combination is as high a frequency with as low a CAS/RAS numbers as possible.

 The final tab we’ll cover is the Graphics Tab.

1 – The device selection drop down will let you choose your graphics adapter if your computer has multiple. Some laptops and desktops contain both an integrated CPU graphics card and a dedicated graphics card. Dedicated graphics cards are usually made by ATI or Nvidia, and you can Google the product name for more detailed benchmarks by gaming sites. Intel graphics are usually integrated and designed to perform every day computing tasks and video viewing, but not serious gaming/content creation. This is changing a bit on newer intel HD 3000 and HD 4000 graphics, but that’s another article!

2 – Perf level will show you the current plan and allow you to select the other levels that the graphics adapter can engage when performance is needed. Most graphics adapters have a power down state when the more advanced power-hungry features are not in use. Changing the drop down box will show you the speed rating/settings that the graphics adapter runs in in the selected mode.

3 – GPU name will show you the specific make and model of the graphics processor. Small number changes can have a big impact, so a GeForce 525 and a GeForce 555 GT have drastic performance differences.

4 – Memory will show the amount of memory dedicated to the graphics adapter. This is important as some games or software require a certain amount of dedicated video memory. Integrated graphics from Intel can “share” system memory, and as such can report up to 2048 MBytes, but the graphics adapter has no dedicated memory to itself.

CPU-Z has a lot more information available, but we’ve covered some of the most important screens. Hopefully we’ve saved Dennis from having to pay a PC tech to answer these questions.