Knowing how to tell if parts are compatible with each other is crucial before purchasing any components to either add, replace or build a complete computer from scratch. If you need to know more about individual computer parts and what they do, there will be a link to it at the end of this post.
- Motherboard and computer case
- CPU and motherboard
- CPU Cooler
- Graphics card
- SSD and other storage
- Power supply
- Cooling fans
- RGB Fans and lighting
To this day, I still spend lots of my time researching parts before building, upgrading, or repairing a computer.
Why? It’s because this is the most crucial step to plan and budget, but more importantly, get everything right. Then, when the parts arrive, I know everything will go together like hand and glove. It’s the foundation to great performance and reliability.
The quickest way to tell if a computer part is compatible with another is by looking at both product pages from the manufacturer’s website. You will find a compatibility list in most cases. If not, you will have to take that data and do a little research to find out what is meant to work together.
This information is also handy for those who want to purchase second-hand parts to repair or build a new computer.
Now, let’s go through each major part of a computer and discover how you would go about checking if it’s compatible with another.
Motherboard and computer case
In today’s market, you can get a computer case in just about every size imaginable. However, with all this amount of choice comes the responsibility of ensuring that your motherboard will fit into it correctly.
Assuming you have chosen your computer case first, you will have to look at the manufacturer’s website with your case’s product page.
Under the specifications, they will have a list of all the sizes of motherboard 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 or not.
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 cut down the amount of IO that the motherboard can provide.
It will mean fewer connectivity options for all types of connections, in general. Some cheaper models of motherboards can be larger and yet offer less connectivity in more rare instances.
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 quite 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 computer, which isn’t ideal if it has two of them.
CPU and motherboard
You might be surprised to learn that finding a compatible CPU for a motherboard, or a motherboard for a CPU, is actually fairly easy.
Firstly, you will have to choose whether you want 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 listed 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 it can also be list on a separate page.
To be as safe as possible, stick to the CPUs mentioned in that list only. It will be tested and proven to work properly.
CPU Socket compatibility
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 make sure that your CPU socket type is supported.
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 it’s installed on your motherboard and CPU, the height of the CPU cooler could be a problem if there isn’t enough room inside your computer 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 that there is enough clearance around the CPU cooler inside the case to avoid any cooling issues, or 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 computer. It 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 the benefits of it.
So do your research properly on this one. It will save you time and perhaps money by avoiding part returns with the CPU cooler box already opened.
Cooling fan connectivity
Before considering any CPU cooler, make sure 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 that you have that ease of control with your system to keep it quiet and cool.
RAM is a vital component to get right and make sure that it is 100% compatible. For that, it’s imperative to get the RAM compatibility list from the motherboard’s manufactures website.
RAM is a component that you don’t want to risk getting wrong. If you choose any model to install, you may end up with an unstable computer that could end up driving you insane.
Firstly, make sure you are looking at RAM with the correct DDR version. After that, refine your comparison by looking at the specific model of RAM in the motherboard’s compatibility list.
If the RAM module you are considering has big heat spreaders on them, check that it won’t be a problem if you choose to go with 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 itself.
Graphics cards are one of the easiest parts to get matched in terms of compatibility.
PCI Express 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 make full use of your shiny new graphics card.
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.
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 the 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 power requirements of the card.
You may need some adapters to convert a Molex or SATA connector to PCI Express power to allow for more connectors to the card.
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 type 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.
SSD and other storage
These days an SSD is basically a given as your choice for a primary storage device for your computer. The reason is that they are fast, quiet, and don’t suffer from damage by knocks, and last a very long time.
Most modern motherboards have slots built onboard that allow you to 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 brings about something to look out for when choosing an SSD for your motherboard.
It’s a crucial compatibility check as getting the wrong one will result in your SSD not being able to plug into the slot.
That will result in an almost impossible part return situation for most computer part suppliers. Again, an expensive mistake, especially when going for a larger capacity SSD.
There are possible slots when referring to SSDs being plugged in and secured directly into the motherboard.
- M.2: M.2 Slots are currently the most popular choice. It offers better speeds compared to mSATA.
- 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. There are some mSATA SSDs that 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 a 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.
The first thing for you to check for compatibility with your system when looking for a power supply is the physical size.
Power supplies come in three main size options, small form factor, standard ATX, and a larger ATX size for larger power requirements.
Manufacturers provide power supplies with modular, semi-modular, and fully wired options.
- Modular: All the leads that can be connected to the power supply can be plugged into the power supply individually. This means that you only have to plug in the cables that are necessary to power everything in your computer.
- Semi modular: The 24 pin ATX lead is hardwired directly into the power supply and the lead comes directly out of the power supply.
- 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 computer 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 exactly a compatibility specification, but having an underpowered power supply could be considered an incompatible power supply for that system.
When you think of a cooling fan for a computer, 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.
One of the major specifications to look out for to make sure it will be compatible with your computer is the actual size.
Your computer 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 when it comes to small form factor cases.
So it will be to your advantage to make sure that you purchase the correct size for your case.
The other point I’d like to touch on is connectivity. Cooling fans have a standard 3 or 4 pin plug that plugs onto the motherboard or fan controller.
I recommend trying to aim 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
There are two main ways to connect RGB lighting for your fans or your case.
One way is by using your motherboard, and the other is by using a separate RGB controller. Addressable RGB (A-RGB) is the most common way RGB lighting is connected and used today.
So when purchasing anything RGB, consider how you are going to connect the lighting up. For example, are you going to 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 personal 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 take a look at parts of a computer and their functions if you need to know more about each component in more detail.
That’s most of the important hardware covered as far as finding out whether or not parts are compatible or not.
Never rush this part and dig deeper around the internet if you have to. It will save you money and time in the long run and provide you with a better, more reliable system in the end.
So no research is a waste of time. Over time you will get better at it, and the time it takes will be cut down significantly.