What to Look For in a Good Motherboard for Gaming
"Gaming" is a sort of useless and general term, but we're assuming that most PC enthusiasts are interested in specific overclocking features and potentially SLI/CrossFire options. I'll also cover favorable motherboards for those who aren't at all interested in overclocking -- the budget-focused -- though that selection is often less research-intensive, given the relative simplicity of the demands.
As always, it's most important to define your objectives before scrutinizing boards. There's no point in opting for a high-end OC-ready board for mainstream tasks, and for overclocking, there's no reason to cheap-out. Here are some common objectives among our readers:
- Enthusiast Overclocking.
- Mid-range / lightweight / experimental overclocking.
- SLI/CrossFireX GPU arrays.
- RAM OCing (useful for media producers).
- High-quality on-board sound processors.
- Simplified BIOS or "beginner-friendly" interfaces.
- Advanced BIOS with unlocked OC/enthusiast options.
The fundamentals of motherboard selection don't really change all that much between AMD and Intel, given a general demand for quality components, but there are obviously differences between Haswell and FX products. The most obvious? Probably the chipset design (AMD still uses the old NB/SB layout, Intel has moved to the unified PCH).
Board selection basics will vary slightly between budget ranges, but they're still fairly universal. Quality is king, here -- as increasingly more features get moved to the CPU and the board's need for dedicated ICs is minimized (see: on-chip VRM), it's decidedly less binary to sort good from bad -- but indicators still exist.
Depending on your price-range, heatpiping and active cooling continue to play an important role in stability (especially in AMD products that still use dedicated VRMs); a proper heat dissipation system will reduce heat buildup from the VRM and power phases, aiding with overclocking by reducing the thermal footprint and increasing stability. Part of the stability boost comes from the phase power design's ability to deliver cleaner power to the CPU/VRM in more consistent firing intervals, which reduces voltage drops by splitting current among the multiple phases as the CPU consumes power.
In general, capacitors are fairly reliable and predictable across most computing products. Once you enter the mid-range board market, though, specialized components start to see more play in manufacturing. Leak-resistant electrolytic capacitors (normally advertised as "Japanese-made" or "Polymer capacitors" or "gold-plated caps") are key to stability and longevity, as cap leaks can render a board dead or power inefficient -- power efficiency degradation as a result of capacitor aging will also be mitigated by high-quality capacitors. Capacitor quality is especially important to pay attention to when purchasing boards that undergo regular thermal stress, like when used in overclocking applications.
Phase power design is a pretty big deal as well, but at this point, it's more immediately important on AMD products given Haswell's migration of the VRM to the CPU. I haven't personally tested some of the current 32-phase design boards on Haswell architecture, but I'd imagine it's almost entirely irrelevant for most overclockers -- maybe if you're dealing with something close to needing LN2, but certainly not for the "average" overclock. Phase power design is an entirely separate article altogether, but we can cover it briefly.
Basically, the blocks sitting around the CPU socket (and one or two near the RAM) are responsible for converting and cleaning power that is eventually delivered to the CPU. The best analogy I've seen was written by "davidebyzero" on TechSpot, who explained phase power design using automotive connections:
"From a very basic standpoint the power phases are like the firing order of the cyclinders in your car. For instance, if the board (or graphics card) has eight phase power, then the incoming voltage from the PSU is made available to eight buck converters* (each being a transistor to take the voltage load from the PSU, and 2 switches that alternately charge and discharge the load from an inductor) - so these eight converters fire through one cycle (i.e. at 45° if one cycle equals 360°) through their seperate switches, and are rejoined into a single board input. [...] Using the car spark plug analogy, it would be akin to an 8-phase board being a V-8 engine, while a 4-phase board would be an in-line/V-4."
You'll normally see phase power design written as something like 4+1, 4+1+1, 8+2, 16+2, etc. The number preceding the + sign is indicative of the phases going to the CPU. In 8+2 phase power design, you've got 8 phases dedicated to converting, cleaning, and delivering power to the CPU. The extra 2 phases are dedicated to other board components, in the case of AMD, that'd be the RAM and HT (HyperTransport). For Intel, it's just going to be RAM. You really don't need more than one phase for RAM unless you're doing some really serious memory overclocking (which has very few practical applications). One phase for HT is fine as well. A general rule of thumb is to demand 8+2 phase power design when you're building an AMD FX-class enthusiast system that wants to overclock cleanly and with stability.
From what MSI told us at PAX East, Haswell seems to really thrive the more phases you throw at the VRM, though we haven't independently confirmed this statement.
If the phase power design isn't listed in the specifications, it can be easily determined by counting the blocks on the board. The CPU socket will be surrounded by the majority of the phasing system, then there'll normally be a +1 or +2 on the perimeter somewhere.
Phase power design only really starts getting important when you're dealing with enthusiast overclocking, so if you're just building a mainstream gaming rig and never overclocking it, you don't really need more than a normal 4+1/4+2 system. Technically, having a more advanced phase power design will improve stability by having more consistently clean power delivery and fewer voltage drops, but neither of those is a likely issue on a mainstream rig.
As a final aside, some boards have special dedicated components on-board that offer advanced functionality. The Killer NIC and BioStar's Hi-Fi audio chips are both examples of this. In the case of Killer, you're obviously still throttled by your ISP, but the NIC does prioritize gaming tasks over other tasks; for instance, if you're a YouTuber and upload a lot of files, but want to be able to game online simultaneously, Killer NICs will throttle your YouTube upload speed until your game ping is reliable. That's really going to be the only significant advantage, though. As for Hi-Fi and other audio devices, since discrete cards have faded from necessity to accessory, it really just depends on how crazy you are about your audio quality. Most on-board processors are decent enough for the average headset-wearing gamer / music-listener, but if you've got a serious sound system, it's worth researching.
Let's cut to the chase. The following lists for Intel & AMD boards is not intended to be comprehensive. We're not saying that these are the only good boards available, but we do readily endorse the boards found within for their respective price ranges. I've listed four price-points in the same fashion we categorize our PC builds:
- Cheap Bastard (inexpensive rig - $500 range).
- Budget Gamer ($500-$650 range).
- Mid-Range ($650+ range).
- High-End (Enthusiast-class).
We generally try to push system builders toward "budget" and "mid-range" categories, as the Cheap Bastard's configurations do come with the inherent risk of lower quality in favor of price. High-end configurations are largely unnecessary for the majority of system builders.
The Best Intel Motherboards for Gaming & Overclocking (Haswell)
The 'given' here is that the socket types must be LGA1150 to be compatible with Haswell. Chipsets will vary based on objectives/budget.
There aren't a lot of low-end ATX boards out for Haswell yet, so we're settling for a decent-quality micro-ATX board by ASRock. There's not much to say about this board, but it does what it needs to do: Native support for 1600MHz memory, 4xSATA III ports, standard 7.1 channel audio (other low-end boards are limited to 5.1), and UEFI BIOS with ASRock's interface. Most of the features are dictated by the chipset, and being that this runs on a business-class B85 chipset, you're going to be limited in functionality. There's no overclocking, no potential for decent SLI/CrossFireX configurations, and a generally limited featureset, but it does what it needs to do when supplied with appropriate companion hardware. Best used for single-card configurations and for those who don't care about overclocking.
The budget and mid-range price-points tend to be where we feel most comfortable with the compromises made between quality and featuresets. For the Intel budget range, we turn to MSI for its Z87-equipped G41 motherboard, ready for basic CPU & memory overclocking and advanced storage configurations.
We're not quite to the SLI/CrossFire boards yet, but the Z87-G41 is a solid choice for anyone operating on a one-card machine with the intention of exploratory CPU/RAM overclocking. This board runs on 6-phase power design and has passive phase cooling (near most the phases, anyway), so you won't get world record overclocks, but it's stable enough for most entry-level power users.
Got $20 more? Spring for the Z87-G43 Gaming.
This is where we've historically recommended ASUS boards for their focus on high-quality components and longevity. Since Haswell's launch, though, MSI has started to steal a bit of ASUS' mid-range spotlight; this is coupled with the fact that some of ASUS' new mid-range boards have exhibited high DOA rates among early Newegg reviewers.
We had the chance to check out MSI's Z87-G45 Gaming motherboard at PAX East 2013 and were impressed by the overall quality. Granted, the whole "dragon" aesthetic did feel like an overzealous marketing team screaming "G4M1NG!1!" at the engineering team, but still, the quality is there and the colors are at least good.
The G45-Gaming board uses an 8-phase power design with passive cooling on both flanks of the socket, has a large heatsink atop the chipset, and ships with the highest-quality audio chipset and LAN chipset we've seen this side of the market. At this price-point, we finally start seeing some more serious video card array support, including x16/x4/4, x8/x8/x4, x8/x8, and normal x16 configurations. The board is rated for up to 180W coursing through the CPU, easily offering enough room for serious overclocks, and also ships with the company's auto-OC software for inexperienced enthusiasts. We like to recommend running the auto-OC utility to set yourself a "safety" baseline when learning how to overclock, as it'll provide reliable settings to base education on.
Despite struggles against MSI in the mid-range market, ASUS still lays claim to the throne of the high-end boards. When talking to ASUS at CES, they emphasized a focus on board-wide quality -- suggesting that where some manufacturers cheaped-out on components (LAN, audio, random ICs), they opted for more consistent quality.
The Maximus VI Hero Z87 certainly is a testament to that: For starters, its caps are made out of materials that are more temperature- and age-resistant than the other boards we've looked at thus far, theoretically providing 20% greater temperature endurance. The new Maximus uses higher-quality MOSFETs in a smaller form factor, an amped-up audio controller with serious interference shielding, and a new T-Topology design (created by ASUS) that affords configurations with maximum DIMM saturation greater OC potential by minimizing signal integrity interference. ASUS' T-Topology design is worthy of its own article entirely, but it's worth noting that the company invested in a complete memory routing redesign from Intel's reference boards, something that most manufacturers won't experiment with.
This board is really meant for extreme overclockers and enthusiasts. If you're "just gaming" or only have limited interest in overclocking, look to the previous options. If you want the possibility to do everything in the future, grab the Maximus VI. It's a damn impressive piece of motherboard engineering.
Moving to AMD...
The Best AMD Motherboards for Gaming & Overclocking (AM3+ - FX)
AMD's product line hasn't changed a whole lot this year, but that's partly due to all kinds of manufacturing delays and partly due to a general slump in the GPU market. The Steamroller CPUs have been delayed a couple times at this point, and with the launch date still in limbo, we're making these recommendations assuming current Piledriver FX hardware on AM3+ sockets. Steamroller will also use an AM3+ socket, from what we've been told, so these board recommendations will persist for quite some time.
And here's where the Cheap Bastard's category really shines -- it's not quite as easy to build on such a restrictive budget with Intel, but we can make it work with AMD. I want to note that - again - I'd strongly urge you to bump up to the "Budget" category if it's affordable; while the Cheap Bastard's category of products are price-appealing, you do assume a bit of risk of DOA/defects when purchasing such inexpensive products. That said, if you're the type who's willing to risk an RMA in favor of saving $20, then this is your deal.
Older AM3+ boards are stuck on old chipsets, like the 760G, and thus may require BIOS/Firmware updates in order to accommodate some of the newer Piledriver chips. Luckily, this is fairly easy to do (we've done it pretty regularly), so drop by our forums if you need help.
For this ultra-budget board, we're opting for ASUS' M5A78L-M LX Plus AM3+ board on the old 760G chipset. It's a clean $55, supports modern chips (though might require an update, depending), and simply works. I'd advise against overclocking on this board, given its non-existent VRM cooling and phase power heatsinks. If you're just trying to build a mainstream/lightweight gaming build, it's good for that.
A lot of the cheaper AMD boards have serious quality and DOA issues, but ASUS tends to stand strong (ASRock also has good offerings, but we'll get to those in a moment). The M5A97 Revision 2.0 board offers basic overclocking functionality on a 970 chipset, is best used with a single video card, and has generally standard offerings across all I/O standards. Passive heatsinks are present near the phase power design and atop the chipset, allowing for thermal dissipation when OCing your processor.
Running on the 990FX chipset, this AMD board offers basic CrossFireX/SLI support, OC support, supports high-TDP AMD CPUs, overclocking, and has higher-quality capacitors. This board has a large passive heatsink mounted over the overclocking-centric components (all explained above), a sink on the SB & NB, and offers OC Genie to help newcomers to overclocking test the waters.
ASRock's 990FX Extreme9 motherboard is fitted with a 12+2 phase power design (12 CPU phases, 1 RAM phase, 1 HT phase) and massive heatpiped sinks to keep the VRM, phases, SB, and NB cooled. All the caps on the board are gold-plated, ensuring greater longevity and thermal tolerance, and a dual-stack MOSFET design is used to help further diminish heat and space utilization.
The Extreme9 also has full SLI/CrossFireX support (up to 3 cards, x16, x16/x8, x8/x8, etc.), 8xSATA III ports, 2 of which are on a dedicated controller. On-board troubleshooting & diagnostics tools are also available, making error detection and testing significantly easier. This is definitely the flagship of the sub-$200 AMD boards.
Still have questions or need help? Drop a comment or head over to our forums for expert one-on-one PC build support!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.