How To Tell If PC Parts Are Compatible

Determining which computer parts are compatible is one of the most important steps before purchasing any parts for a computer. It is crucial not only for getting the machine to run but also for reliability.

The information in this article is also handy for purchasing second-hand parts to repair or build a new PC.

1. Motherboard and computer case

In today’s market, you can get a PC case in almost every size imaginable. However, with all these choices comes the responsibility of ensuring that your motherboard will fit correctly.

Assuming you have chosen your PC case first, you must look at the manufacturer’s website with your case’s product page.

Physical size

Under the specifications, they will have a list of all the sizes of motherboards it can support.

The same goes for the motherboard. Again, there will be a size specified for the motherboard, so you won’t have to guess whether or not it will be compatible.

The ideal scenario is to try and get an ATX-sized motherboard to fit and if the case is smaller, go down in motherboard size until it can fit into your case’s maximum allowed size.

Going too small with your motherboard when it isn’t necessary will reduce the amount of IO it can provide.

It will mean fewer connectivity options for all types of connections. In rare instances, some cheaper motherboard models can be larger yet offer less connectivity.

Front panel connectors

The other point of compatibility to look out for is the number of USB connectors for the case’s front panel supported by the motherboard.

It’s not ideal when your case requires two onboard USB headers, and your motherboard only has one. It means that you can only hook up one port on the front panel of your PC, which isn’t ideal if it has two of them.

2. CPU and motherboard

A CPU being installed into socket.

You might be surprised to learn that finding a compatible CPU for a motherboard, or a motherboard for a CPU, is fairly easy.

Firstly, you must choose whether to go with an Intel or AMD CPU. Then, the motherboard you choose will have to match that choice.

The motherboard manufacturer will have a specific socket under the CPU support specifications. So it’s a good place to start, but we can take it a step further to be sure.

Look at the product page for the motherboard on the manufacturer’s website (by searching the specific model you are researching) for a CPU compatibility list. They sometimes include a PDF you can download but can also be listed on a separate page.

Only stick to the CPUs mentioned in that list to be as safe as possible. It will be tested and proven to work properly.

3. CPU Cooler

Securing a CPU cooler.

Compatible CPU Socket

The manufacturer of any CPU cooler will have clear details about which CPU socket type it’s compatible with. Take the time to carefully read the list to ensure that your CPU socket type is supported.

Physical size

There is one more important thing to check for compatibility. And that is the size of the cooler and whether or not it will fit into your case.

Once installed on your motherboard and CPU, the CPU cooler’s height could be problematic if there isn’t enough room inside your PC case.

It may mean that you won’t be able to fit the case lid back on. To avoid this, make sure you read the specifications area of the CPU cooler to find out the exact dimensions and measure it inside your case, from the surface of the CPU to the inside of your case lid.

Ensure enough clearance around the CPU cooler inside the case to avoid any cooling issues, something vibrating against it, or even worse, preventing you from installing a component like a drive or RAM modules.

Remember, manufacturers can only do so much to avoid collisions with various parts inside your PC. This is especially true when it comes to height.

It’s nice to have a large air CPU cooler for obvious reasons, but your case might not allow you to enjoy its benefits.

So, do your research properly on this one. Avoiding part returns with the opened CPU cooler box will save you time and money.

PC Cooling fan connectivity

Before considering any CPU cooler, ensure the cooling fan has four wires and a four-pin connector with a wire leading to each terminal.

It’s not the type of cooling fan you want to mess around with to try and get your fan speeds regulated properly.

The four-wire cooling fan will ensure ease of control with your system to keep it quiet and cool.

4. RAM

Installing RAM.

RAM is vital to getting it right and ensuring it is 100% compatible. For that, getting the RAM compatibility list from the motherboard’s manufacturer’s website is imperative.

RAM is a component that you don’t want to risk getting wrong. If you choose any model to install, you may have an unstable PC that could drive you up the wall.

Firstly, ensure you look for RAM with the correct DDR version. After that, refine your comparison by looking at the specific RAM model in the motherboard’s compatibility list.

If the RAM module you are considering has big heat spreaders, check that it won’t be a problem if you choose an air-type CPU cooler.

The extra height might not work well with some CPU coolers and collide with the cooling fan on the CPU cooler or the heatsink.

5. Graphics card (GPU)

A computer's graphics card with three cooling fans.

Graphics cards are one of the easiest parts to get matched in terms of compatibility.

PCI Express version

PCI Express slots are backward compatible, so it’s not like an older motherboard won’t run a new graphics card version.

But there are things to consider from this. For example, do you want to lose performance from your new card by adding a bottleneck like this?

If not, you might consider a motherboard upgrade to use your shiny new graphics card fully.

Look at the motherboard’s specifications by looking at the make and model and searching the manufacturer’s website for the specific product page.

If you download the manual, it will have the specification of the PCI Express slot, more specifically, the version of it.

Check the graphics card in the same way to find out the version of PCI Express of the card.

Physical size

The other compatibility issue will be the size of the card and whether or not it will fit in your system. For example, some cards require one or more bays.

Length is also an issue. Some graphics cards are extra long and can easily take up room from the back of your case to the front area, depending on the size of your case.

Power supply connectors

Check that your power supply has enough PCI Express connectors to support the card’s power requirements.

You may need some adapters to convert a Molex or SATA connector to PCI Express power to allow for more connectors to the card.

Cooling fans

In addition to all of this, check the card’s cooling system. There are mainly two types of fan configurations. One is a fan or fans that blow straight down onto the heatsink, and the other is a centrifugal fan.

The centrifugal fan type is more suited for smaller form factor cases with slightly less efficient cooling for the card but takes the heat from the cooler and blows it out the back of the case.

6. SSD and other storage parts

SSD with hard disk drives.

These days, an SSD is a given as your choice for a primary storage device for your PC. The reason is that they are fast, quiet, don’t suffer from damage by knocks, and last a very long time.

Most modern motherboards have onboard slots that plug an SSD directly into it. This slot saves you from mounting drives in your case and reduces the amount of wiring in the system.

However, this option is something to look for when choosing an SSD for your motherboard.

Slot compatibility

It’s a crucial compatibility check, as getting the wrong one will result in your SSD being unable to plug into the slot.

That will result in an almost impossible part return situation for most PC part suppliers. Again, this is an expensive mistake, especially for a larger SSD capacity.

Certain slots are compatible with SSDs so that they can be installed directly onto the motherboard.

  1. M.2: M.2 Slots are currently the most popular choice. It offers better speeds compared to mSATA.
  2. mSATA: M.2 is the replacement for mSATA, and motherboard manufacturers have phased them out.

The NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) protocol allows SSDs to operate at their maximum potential when looking at transfer rates to and from the internal memory media.

You will find NVMe drives mostly used in M.2 SSD drives. Some mSATA SSDs have NVMe but will be limited to the maximum speeds of mSATA.

Serial ATA 3.0 offers a maximum transfer speed of around 600MB/s, whereas Gen 4 NVMe drives can currently offer writing speeds over 5000MB/s.

Other types of storage, like an internal hard disk drive (HDD), are connected using a SATA data connector and a SATA power connector.

3.5-inch SSDs are also available and use the same type of connectors. However, SATA SSDs won’t provide the data transfer speed compared to M.2.

7. Power supply

A standard desktop computer power supply.

The physical size is the first thing to check for compatibility with your system when looking for a power supply.

Power supplies come in three main size options: small form factor, standard ATX, and a larger ATX size for larger power requirements.

Power supply connectors on the modular power supply.
Modular PSU
Power supply cables.
Fully Wired PSU

Manufacturers provide power supplies with modular, semi-modular, and fully wired options.

  1. Modular: All the leads connected to the power supply can be plugged into the power supply individually. This means you only have to plug in the cables necessary to power everything inside your PC.
  2. Semi-modular: The 24-pin ATX lead is hardwired directly into the power supply, and the lead comes directly out of the power supply.
  3. Fully wired: All the power supply leads are hard-wired into the power supply and come directly out of an opening from inside the power supply.

These options are important for saving on the number of wires in your case, but sometimes a fully modular power supply can cause space problems inside small form factor PC cases.

Secondly, you’ll need to calculate how much power in watts you require to run your system safely, with an extra 10 or 20% extra headroom for longevity and to help with reliability.

This point isn’t a compatibility specification, but having an underpowered power supply could be considered incompatible with that system.

8. Cooling fans

Computer case cooling fans.

When you think of a cooling fan for a PC, compatibility isn’t one of the first things that come to mind. However, given how the product market has exploded with all different cooling products, I thought it would be a reasonable mention in this list.

The actual size is one of the major specifications to look out for to ensure it will be compatible with your PC.

Physical size

Your PC case will have various mounting options for different fan sizes. The most common size is the 120mm fan.

Some case manufacturers only include mounting for specific sizes, especially for small form factor cases.

So it will be to your advantage to make sure you purchase the correct size for your case.

Connector

The other point I’d like to touch on is connectivity. Cooling fans have a standard three or four-pin plug into the motherboard or controller.

I recommend aiming for 4-pin fans, as it’s easier to control. Also, the extra wire adds easier control for hardware to regulate the fan speed.

I cover more about selecting fans in our article titled how to add extra fans to your PC.

RGB Fans and lighting for your gaming build

There are two main ways to connect RGB lighting for your fans or your case.

One way is using your motherboard, and the other is using a separate RGB controller. Addressable RGB (A-RGB) is the most common way RGB lighting is connected and used today.

So when purchasing any RGB lighting, consider how you will connect it up. For example, will you use your motherboard’s A-RGB or an add-in controller?

Controller software using your motherboard may be limited in some aspects, but adding a controller matching the lighting manufacturer’s hardware could offer better control and compatibility.

So it’s encouraged (in my opinion) that you get the appropriate controller for your RGB lighting and only use your motherboard ARGB output as a stop-gap measure or when you are out of mounting options for ARGB controllers.

Ensure that the lighting system used on the components you are looking at is compatible with your motherboard if you wish to use your motherboard as the lighting controller.

Go and look at my other post about the various parts of a computer and their functions if you need to know more about each component in more detail.

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