How-To Replace Your Motherboard

March 13, 2009

If you are looking to use an updated processor, want to add some newer components that require the latest technology, or have shorted out your motherboard with an incorrect audio cable (not that we’re speaking from experience), changing your motherboard is the way to go. Though the process looks daunting, it requires little more than a Phillips screwdriver and some patience. Here’s everything you need to know.

Step 1: Assess the situationBefore you pull out your toolkit (or even your credit card), do a bit of reconnaissance inside your PC. Some things to keep in mind:

If your case is a proprietary one from a major vendor, it might not easily house a replacement board. And if it’s a small-form-factor PC, you won’t be able to put a larger ATX motherboard into it. Make sure your case supports the form factor (ATX, MicroATX, and so on) of your new board.

Many older motherboards require a 20-pin main power cable from your power supply, but recent boards require both a 24-pin connector and a separate 4-pin one. Your motherboard won’t work if improperly powered, so a new power supply could be in order.

Do your optical and hard drives connect via IDE (usually with ribbon cables) or via newer Serial ATA (thinner cables)? Many newer motherboards have only one IDE port (which supports two drives), whereas older boards have two. If you have more than two IDE drives, be sure your new board has a second IDE connector.

What kind of processor, RAM, and graphics card will you be using? What was top-of-the-line a few years ago could be obsolete today. AGP graphics cards certainly are—most newer motherboards lack slots for them, replacing them with PCI Express (PCIe). Processor socket technology and RAM design have also changed. If you don’t want to buy all new components, make sure yours work with the new motherboard. Not sure what you have? A free utility like CPU-Z can suss it out.

Be mindful of Windows’ licensing requirements—replacing a motherboard can necessitate reactivating Windows. Depending on whether you have a full-retail or OEM version, you may have to repurchase Windows.

Step 2: Cleaning up

Here, you’ll have to make a choice: Install your new motherboard and keep your existing Windows installation in place, or take the opportunity to wipe your boot drive and start from scratch. If you do the second, have your Windows and application discs handy. Either way, you’ll want to back up your data.

Open your case’s side and take photos of your PC’s rear panel and interior, or label all the cables. (Sticky notes work well.) Many of today’s connectors are color-coded, but if yours aren’t, this precaution could prevent frustration later.

Once you have all the correct equipment (and a screwdriver), it’s time to begin. Disconnect the PC’s power cable and everything attached to its rear panel (which is part of the motherboard). Then, turn the case horizontal to tackle the interior.

Ground yourself, either by using an antistatic wrist strap or by touching the metal chassis. Then remove any cards in your old motherboard’s expansion slots. Remove the screws securing them to the chassis, then pull the cards straight up and out. (For a PCIe x16 card, you might need to depress a lever on the slot before doing this.) Place them on a clean, static-free surface.

Next, detach all cables and wires connecting your motherboard to the PSU, case front panel, optical and hard drives, or other components (such as fans). For the big PSU power-cable connectors that plug into the motherboard, squeeze a lever on one side to release the connector; most other cables should pull out easily.

Step 3: The great swap-out

Now for the switch. Locate the screws holding down the motherboard (usually six or nine), and remove them. Once done, the motherboard will lift out. To protect it, place it in the antistatic bag your new board came in.

Next, pop out the I/O panel—the metal rectangle with the port cutaways—attached to the case. Your new motherboard will come with its own, designed for the board’s port arrangement. When inserting the new I/O panel, apply enough pressure around the edges to hear the clicks.

It’s more convenient to install the processor, its cooling fan, and the RAM before installing your new motherboard. RAM is easy: Lower the levers on the RAM slots, line up the notch in the module with the slot’s protrusion, then press the chip until both levers lock. If you’re using two RAM chips, put each in an identically colored slot—this dual-channel architecture increases performance.

Processors are more complicated. Intel’s and AMD’s designs vary, sometimes between their own lines, but today’s processors and sockets are keyed so it’s hard to orient a CPU incorrectly. That said, never force anything: If your processor resists when you engage its locking mechanism, you could damage it. Once it’s in place, apply a layer of thermal paste to the CPU, and attach the fan to the board, covering the CPU. Don’t forget to plug in the fan’s power cable to the board’s “CPU fan” header.

If your new motherboard is the same size and shape as the old, you shouldn’t need to adjust the standoffs that keep the motherboard from touching the case. If, however, you’re upgrading from a smaller board to a larger one, you might. Place the motherboard in the case, lining up its holes with the standoffs. Make sure there’s a standoff for every hole, and vice versa. After the standoffs are settled, gently place the motherboard, fitting its ports through the I/O panel. Once the holes are directly over the standoffs, secure it using the screws removed earlier.

Step 4: Working backward Reconnect all the components you disconnected in step 2. Slide each expansion card into its appropriate slot, and screw it down. Cover any unused openings with a blank spacer.

Most interior cables are keyed to connect only one way, so replacing them should be easy. If you’re unsure where certain connectors live on the new board, consult your manual for a diagram. Take special care with USB and FireWire cables—mixing these up could cause system-crippling problems.

The front-panel connectors can trip up even the experts. For your power/reset switches and activity lights to work, you need to match up the connectors with the proper pins and orient them correctly. Your motherboard manual will explain the proper layout, but a little trial and error may be required.

Step 5: Finishing up

Close the case, reattach the rear-panel cables, and turn on the computer. It should boot, and you’ll see your new motherboard’s splash screen. Follow the instructions to enter the BIOS. There, check the drive and RAM configuration to make sure everything’s recognized, set the boot-device priority, and enable USB 2.0 or PCIe support, if your board requires it. Save any changes.

Then, assuming you aren’t reinstalling Windows, boot for the first time. Windows will need to install drivers for the motherboard, most of which it can and will do automatically, though you might need the CD that came with your board. That CD might also contain additional drivers (such as for the Ethernet port) or other helpful software, so keep it handy.

If you’ve gone the Windows-reinstall route, put your Windows CD into the optical drive, direct the BIOS to boot from it, and follow the prompts to reinstall the OS.


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