There are plenty of considerations when picking the right motherboard and it is our aim to help you successfully decide on the right motherboard. We promise by the end of this exhaustive guide, you will know what to buy and how much to spend.
10 Best Gaming Motherboards
Gaming Motherboard Buying Guide (2017)
PC performance is governed by the graphics card, processor and even the RAM you put together. However, it is the motherboard that decides what kind of hardware you can use for your PC. Compatibility is the reason why you should spend time choosing an appropriate motherboard.
Consider the situation a decade back. You had to run demanding software that required only the very best hardware, and because of the limited hardware advancement back then, you first selected all the components necessary for your particular task and then tried finding a motherboard which could take it all without dying on you. That is no longer the case today.
Take any program, and regardless of the benchmarks it demands, any motherboard built in the past five years will meet the minimum requirements. The processors they support and the memory they accept are all quite capable of even the most demanding requirements, including gaming.
As it stands to select a motherboard today is less about the software you intend to run and more about personal preference and aesthetics. In our opinion, you should really concentrate on four traits of a motherboard namely, the size, cost, future-resistance, and longevity. With the release of Ryzen processors, your options have doubled but don’t get swayed by the benchmark scores you see.
Take the cheapest AMD or Intel boards for instance. Currently, the Intel H81 or the AMD 760G board with the correct CPU and graphics card will handle any game so long as you invest more into the memory and graphics card. Are you surprised? Don’t be because games really don’t stress CPUs anymore. They are GPU intensive and memory hungry. With an older generation CPU, you will notice a few frame drops but nothing more.
The question to ask however is whether a cheap Intel or AMD board and processor combination will continue to meet your needs two or even three years from now. What if you need a second graphics card in the future? Your AMD 760G will die before trying, and the H81 will be confused trying to understand what overclocking is.
Future needs also include port availability. How many USB ports do you have, what generation of USB ports are available? How about SATA ports and PCIe slots? Expansion slots are a huge thing with motherboards. More the number of slots, ports and internal headers, the longer it’s useful life. When your built-in sound card begins to sound sub par to that of a mobile phone, you can invest into a dedicated sound card but only if your motherboard has a free expansion PCIe slot.
When your processor begins to bottom out because it cannot meet the rigors of future applications, overclocking can extend its useful life by another six months or even a year. However, to overclock your motherboard safely, it should be capable of handling excess voltage and higher temperatures.
Your motherboard must go into something. Unless you plan on making an open-air system or a custom desk PC (anything other than the conventional “Personal Computer”), the form factor of a motherboard will be governed by the cabinet you choose and the components or rather the size and number of parts you add.
The most common form factors are ATX, Micro ATX, Mini ITX, DTX, and EATX. Based on the market demand, ATX form factor is considered the standard with Micro ATX a close second. The rest fall towards the bottom of the bell curve. Mini-ITX is gradually gaining popularity as transistor sizes fall and components gain in processing power without increasing in size. However, the cost is still a prohibiting factor and so is cooling/TDP.
The EATX or Extended ATX form factor offers yet more slots and ports though if you do not plan on multiple graphics card SLI or 64GB of memory setup, an EATX motherboard is just overkill. By the way, the more you deviate away from ATX form factor, the more you pay for specific features.
Likewise, if you know you will need a wireless NIC or a DAC along with a professional graphics card, a mini-ITX or DTX form factor is not for you. However, if you cannot predict your needs five years into the future, stick with ATX as it will cost you the least and give you the best balance regarding functionality and expansion.
Not many speak on the design of a motherboard, but we consider this an important factor in deciding the right motherboard.
Almost all motherboards today come with a standard set of ports and connector types. However, the arrangement of these ports isn’t the same with all manufacturers and models. Some have PCIe slots that are closer together prohibiting beefier graphic cards, others have M.2 connectors running across a PCIe slot thus effectively blocking it. In some motherboards, using the M.2 slot will block one or two SATA ports. These are all particular limitations of each motherboard because of the design or layout.
You need to consider the kind of ports and slots you need. PCIe x16 is standard as all graphics cards require it to run, so your motherboard will always have one such slot. If you need to run two graphics cards or more, pick a layout with multiple PCIe x16 slots side by side. Likewise, if you need a wireless NIC or sound card, select a design that offers X1 slots as well.
Another consideration is the number of x16 slots you need. The one farthest to the processor nowadays usually is an actual 16 pathways slot. The rest tend to either be x8 or x4 slots. Unless you invest in a motherboard capable of SLI or Crossfire.
Intel Vs AMD
We were inclined to name this section as Chipset Choices but decided at the last moment to change it to Intel vs. AMD because chipsets are no longer the primary deciding factor. Up until the release of Ryzen processors, chipsets made better sense since you mostly decided on what kind of Intel chipset and thus processor generation you would invest into.
Now, the battle is truly between AMD and Intel. Ryzen is newer, has more cores, costs less and is just as capable as current generation Intel processors. The natural choice today is to go AMD. However, Intel has a proven track record and a design that has been improving in efficiency over 7 generations now. Naturally, Intel is a more efficient option though Ryzen is a newer more futureproof option with multi-thread benchmarks beyond current generation capabilities.
Your choice, therefore, is between AM4, LGA 1151, AM3+ and LGA 1150 chipset motherboards. AM4 takes a Ryzen processor, LGA 1151 takes a 6th or 7th generation Intel processor depending on the motherboard capabilities. The rest are an older generation from either AMD or Intel. Remember, motherboards for AMD processors tend to cost less than boards for Intel. We are sure this will change in a few months’ time but until it does, if cost is your only prohibiting factor, go with AMD.
However, if you decide to go with AMD’s latest Ryzen processors, remember that they do not come with integrated GPUs. Hence, you have to purchase a dedicated graphics card just to see the POST screen. With an Intel processor, you can steadily build as you acquire funds. Just the processor and motherboard will be sufficient for basic tasks as current generation Intel HD graphics cards can run 4-year-old gaming titles with ease at 1080p!
Depending on the motherboard chipset and processor type, you can have anywhere from 16GB to 64GB configuration. The form factor also plays an important role. Mini-ITX motherboards do not have space for a full four DIMM arrangement hence you have to make do with just two DIMM slots and therefore a maximum of 32GB memory. With ATX motherboards you can go as far as 64GB.
The number of memory slots aren’t the only consideration when picking a motherboard. Yes, total memory does matter to a great extent but so does the generation and frequency of said memory. Higher frequency memory sticks will always give you lower latency and better performance. With Ryzen processors, the jump in performance is staggering when you move from the base 2400MHz DDR4 memory to 3200MHz overclocked modules, though this performance boost is only limited to simulated benchmark tests.
Gone are the days when PCs were fat and ugly. Modern day assembled computers look just as attractive as a PlayStation or Xbox if not more. Some might even argue that they look way cooler thanks to RGB lighting and cutting edge design features. Motherboards with RGB lighting, multiple fan headers, and AIO cooler support will cost you more, but they look like machines from tomorrow.
Just remember not to make this your priority when buying a motherboard. You can always invest in fans, custom cooling loops, and cabinets for an aesthetic appeal.
This is where vendors probably differentiate themselves the most. Some offer a plethora of tweaking options while others make it easy enough for five years old to understand the firmware interface. There is a subtle balance that must be maintained between giving control to the customer and ensuring the motherboard is lucrative to the masses.
When you pay more for a motherboard, you aren’t just investing in hardware but also a better firmware, one that is capable of intuitively overclocking your individual components, giving you better feedback on the health of each element and helping you troubleshoot potential problems without the need of an expert manual.
With a proper firmware backing your motherboard, you can speed up your PC as it ages via overclocking. But to do all this, you must ensure your motherboard uses robust VRMs that can handle the additional power draw. The best way to find this out is to count the VRM phases. More the number of phases less is the load on each, and hence greater is the motherboard’s capacity to overclock. Understanding the power limitations of a motherboard is vital especially if you plan on using AMD chips as they are not the most efficient.
Likewise, functions such as RAID depend heavily on the firmware in place. Maximum OC frequency of the memory sticks depends on the firmware. This is why with subsequent BIOS updates motherboards tend to gain support for higher rates or become more stable at overclocking.
Not everyone talks about the build quality, but we feel this is important enough to warrant at least a small paragraph. Expensive motherboards tend to offer steel reinforcement, more attention to weak points and the use of cutting-edge material for fabrication of boards. Some even have full back plates to prevent EMI and physical damage.
A well-built motherboard is like a soldier. It may gather rust, but it will always be functional when the time comes to reenlist.
Buying a motherboard need not be difficult. Just list out all the individual parts you plan on buying in the foreseeable future. Do not calculate for more than three years as that is the current time gap between generation changes. Unless you are looking at the cheapest motherboard, anything you decide will give you a good two or three years of usage regardless of what you intend to do.
Just remember to match the form factor to your build, your applications and budget before buying a motherboard. Modern day motherboards above $100 are all well-equipped and sturdily built to last a lifetime.