Understanding PC hardware can be very daunting when you’re planning to build you first PC. All the confusing nomenclature like DDR4, LGA 1151, ATX, M.2, SATA, H450M, Z390, etc…. is very hard to comprehend when it’s shoved at you all at once.
It’s very important for all the components in your PC to be perfectly compatible, as you want your PC to run smoothly and safely without risk of failure.
Here we have a run-down of what you need to look for in the name of a PC component to figure out it’s compatibility.
Though it’s not the most important component on your PC, the compatibility of almost every single component is dependent on what motherboard you have. Every critical component in your PC, from your processor to SATA drives, is connected directly to your motherboard.
The Motherboard and CPU
The first component that PC builders choose is the CPU. Even though the graphics card is more important for gaming purposes, most gamers will still build their PC around their initial CPU choice. When you select a CPU, you need to find a motherboard with a socket that will accept the CPU. Be sure to read our guide on the differences between a CPU, APU and GPU.
AMD and Intel produce consumer PC CPUs, and there is a main socket type for each one.
Most current generation consumer AMD CPUs use the AM4 socket, while most Intel CPUs use the LGA 1151 socket. Some exceptions include AMD Ryzen Threadripper’s TR4 socket, but Threadripper CPUs are out of the budget of most PC builders.
Motherboard compatibility with CPUs goes far beyond the Intel or AMD standard socket. The chipset of the motherboard, the integrated circuit that manage the data transfers between the main PC components connected to the motherboard, also matters for CPU compatibility.
All of Intel‘s chipsets are only compatible with its own generation of CPUs, even if all the motherboards have the same LGA 1151 socket type. An 7th generation Kaby Lake Intel processor is only compatible with the 200-series Intel chipsets, while the 8th generation Coffee Lake processor is only compatible with the 300-series chipsets.
On the AMD side, there are a lot less restrictions on chipset compatibility with CPUs. All chipsets on AM4 socket motherboards support all AM4 socket compatible AMD CPUs. A 2015 AM4 motherboard will support a 2018 AMD AM4 CPU, and vice versa.
Chipsets and overclocking
If you want to overclock your CPU, you also need to have a motherboard with a chipset that supports overclocking. Although unlocked and overclockable CPUs for example work on the Intel H310 chipset and the AMD A320 chipset, they can’t be overclocked on motherboards with those chipsets.
These are the current generation motherboard chipsets are support overclocking:
Intel: Z370, Z390
AMD: B350, B450, X370, X470
Also note that while all Ryzen CPUs are overclockable, only K-series Intel CPUs can be overclocked.
The previous LGA 1150 and AM3 socket support only DDR3 RAM.
Motherboards and Graphics Cards
The good news with graphics card compatibility is that there is nothing to worry about as graphics cards have 100% universal compatibility. The PCI Express standard has been around since 2004 and basically all motherboards in the past decade have used PCIe or PCI Express slots, which are the ports that connect graphics cards.
Even a GTX 560 from a decade ago will work on a brand new Z390 motherboard today. Most GPU’s are also overclockable as well which is another bonus.
If your storage is in the form of a 2.5″ SSD or 3.5″ hard drive, your drives will be using the standard SATA motherboard connection and a separate power connector to the power supply.
Most motherboards support the third generation 6.0GB/s SATAIII interface which with a maximum bandwidth of 600MB/s.
SATAII is also backwards-compatible with the older 3.0GB/s SATAII interface
However, if you’re SSD is using the NVMe (non-volatile memory express) interface, it is probably compatible with a special M.2 port, basically a miniature PCIe port. Generally, only high-end motherboards have a M.2 port, so be sure to check if your motherboard supports M.2 SSDs before buying one.
Mixing Storage Types
You can mix and match storage drives of different types and capacities however you want as long as they are compatible with SATA, whether they are SSDs, HDDs, or Hybrid HDDs. It doesn’t matter.
Motherboards and Cases
The compatibility between motherboards and cases don’t have anything to do with the chipsets or any of the technology on the motherboard. Instead, motherboard-case compatibility is determined by the form factor of the motherboard and the form factor of the case.
There are three common form factors: ATX, microATX, and miniITX.
ATX: 12″ × 9.6″ (304 × 244 mm); 4 RAM slots; 2-3 PCIe slots
microATX: 9.6″ × 9.6″ (244 × 244 mm); 2-4 RAM slots; 1-2 PCIe slots
miniITX: 6.7″ × 6.7″ (170mm × 170mm) 2 RAM slots; 1 PCIe slot
There is also the uncommon EATX, which is an even larger version of ATX designed for top-end performance PCs measuring 12″ × 13″.
Cases are labeled with their compatible motherboard form factors; ATX, microATX, and miniITX.
You can fit a smaller motherboard in a case designed for a bigger motherboard, but not the other way around. For example, an microATX or mini ITX motherboard will fit in an ATX case, but a microATX or ATX motherboard will not fit in a miniITX case.
Most cases come with a few default pre-installed fans and a lot of extra places to mount new fans. There are three main case fan sizes: 80mm, 120mm, and 140mm.
80mm fans are generally for very small ITX or microATX cases, 120mm fans are generally for microATX and ATX cases, and 140mm fans are only for large ATX cases.
Be sure to get the fan size that your case supports.
CPU Cooling and Sockets
When you want to cool your sexy new unlocked Ryzen 7 or Intel i7, you can’t just pick up any random aftermarket cooler and expect it to be compatible with your motherboard CPU socket. Although most aftermarket coolers are compatible with both the AMD AM4 socket and Intel LGA 1151 socket, you should still check just to be safe.
Power Supplies and Compatibility
While the CPU, motherboard, graphics card, fans, and drives all use different power cables for power delivery, you PSU will come with all the proper cables so that is not an issue for any PC builder.
However, the amount of total power you PC needs is an important figure, as you PSU will need to deliver the required wattage to power your PC. If you PSU is too weak, you could break both your PSU and all your expensive PC components like your RAM, GPU, CPU and motherboard.
Check out this PSU power calculator to calculate how much PSU power your PC needs.
While being short on PSU power is rarely an issue today due to the fact that people generally buy PSUs with far more wattage than they need, overclocking you CPU or graphics card will significantly increase you power consumption. Also Radeon cards, especially those that are factory overclocked, are extremely power hungry — sometimes consuming 2x as much power as the equivalent Nvidia graphics card!
pcpartpicker.com The Messiah
In the end, you don’t actually need to know whether PC hardware is compatible or not, you need the website pcpartpicker.com. Just hit the “start a new build” button and start choosing PC components. The website will filter out parts that are compatible with the components you choose automatically! There’s no reason to trying to figure out everything by yourself now with the risk of making a mistake.
However, pcpartpicker doesn’t catalog every single possible PC component as there are many thousands of them, so don’t rely on it as your only resource.
Be sure to read our guide with questions most new PC builders have.