Best Motherboards for Gaming – Intel & AMD – Black Friday, 2014

By Published November 23, 2014 at 8:02 pm
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Motherboard selection is mercifully less intimidating than picking a laptop for gaming. With boards, we can establish a set of criteria and narrow down the selection immediately to something more manageable; lower prices than other components also make selection somewhat easier to mentally justify. Our criteria for motherboard selection typically includes consideration of socket type, form factor, ability to overclock, and chipset

We've previously published chipset guides for both AMD's latest chipsets and Intel's Haswell chipsets, each of which shows the differentiating features between various inter-platform options. This buyer's guide looks at the best gaming motherboards for Intel's Haswell and Devil's Canyon processors, then AMD's FM2+ platform. AM3+ is not considered in this guide, given its age and our decision to abandon the platform in PC build guides. We've also opted to exclude X99 motherboards from this guide, given the added complexity and entirely different architecture.

We'll start with tables, then cover the things to look for in a motherboard, and then move on to our selections for this season.

The Best Intel Motherboards for Gaming PC Builds

  Board Price
Cheap Bastard's Board MSI B85M-G43 $75
Budget Gaming Board ASRock Z97 Anniversary $90
Mid-Range Gaming Board Gigabyte GA-Z97X-UD5H $150
High-End OC Board MSI Z97 MPOWER Max $250

The Best AMD Motherboards for Gaming PC Builds

  Board Price
Cheap Bastard's Board MSI A78M-E45 $38
Mid-Range Gaming Board Gigabyte GA-F2A88X-UP4 $85
High-End OC Board ASUS Crossblade Ranger $153

Picking a Motherboard

Back when it was revealed that Haswell would move more functions to the chipset and CPU, we were concerned that motherboards would become more barren and boring than previously. Motherboards are a composite of a host PCB and various electrical components, controllers, and chipsets. The chipset developed by the CPU vendor can be thought of as the motherboard's brainstem, responsible for handling much of the buses and I/O. Various other chipsets and controllers find their way onto boards, though – especially higher-end options.

The differentiating marks made by motherboard manufacturers can be seen in component selection: Audio chipsets (almost always located near the HD Audio connector) ensure higher-quality audio output without necessitating a sound card; SATA controllers add additional SATA ports to the native limitations; VRMs with custom MOSFET designs grant higher OC ceilings than reference components; high-end capacitors and chokes ensure cleaner power delivery and stability.

When shopping for a motherboard, it's first important to determine the needs of the system being built. Not every computer needs a Z97 or A88X chipset; it's just not necessary. Key factors include:

  • Are you overclocking? Do you want to leave the option open? If so, a higher-end chipset is suggested. If not, consider saving the cash and opting for an H-series or lower-end A7X chipset.
  • Do you have SLI or CrossFire needs? If so, higher-pin PCI-e needs exist.
  • Is there an interest or need for alternative storage interfaces, like SATA Express or M.2?
  • If overclocking, take the VRM design into careful consideration.
  • If overclocking, research UEFI / BIOS interfaces to ensure the selected board grants control over the specific variables you'd like to manipulate. Not all Z- and A88X motherboards allow fine-tuning of specific memory and CPU settings.

We've got selections for each major category below, including budget motherboards, mid-range non-OC boards, and OC / high-end boards.

The Best Intel Motherboards for Gaming & Overclocking

All of the selected Intel motherboards host the LGA1150 socket type. Note that this most recent Intel launch has caused some confusion in the lineup: Intel has historically launched a new chipset and platform with each CPU, ensuring the CPU and motherboard were always upgraded at the same time. The Haswell Refresh and separate Devil's Canyon CPU launches are still compatible with some of the last-gen boards and have the same socket type (LGA1150). Some features are specific to Z97 motherboards and may not be compatible with older CPUs, and vice versa.

We've previously written that the Haswell Refresh CPUs are “worth it” given the near-identical price to the preceding Haswell lineup. The same goes for Devil's Canyon – there's just no reason not to opt for the slight upgrade, given the price proximity.

Intel Cheap Bastard's Gaming Motherboard – MSI B85M-G43 – $75

MSI's B85M-G43 motherboard hosts the Intel B85 chipset, a consumer-class solution without noteworthy overclocking support. Reducing the chipset to a non-Z option allows MSI to divert cost elsewhere, ensuring overall higher-quality components while keeping MSRP down. The chipset may not allow unlocked overclocking, but this micro-ATX board does host room for 4xDIMM slots, PCI-e 3.0 x16 support, an easy-to-use BIOS for new system builders. RAM is supported up to 1600MHz without overclocking headroom, so we'd encourage a dedicated GPU (see options in next paragraph) rather than an IGP, which would be bound by system memory speed.

Mini-ITX Alternative: If you've got $60 to spend and need a mini-ITX solution for a Steam Box of sorts, we'd recommend considering this H81 ASRock motherboard for non-OC Pentium solutions. Note that you'll want a dedicated GPU given the memory speed limitations, so relying on an IGP is not recommended. Something like the GTX 750 Ti ($120) or R7 265 ($130) would match well.

Intel Budget Gaming Motherboard – ASRock Z97 Anniversary – $90

For a budget gaming solution that offers greater overclocking ability, ASRock's “Anniversary” motherboard uses Intel's unlocked Z97 chipset and has four-phase power design with a basic heatsink. It's certainly not the best overclocking setup, but it'll get beginners started. High-speed memory support also grants access to the entry-level memory overclocking world.

The motherboard is only usable with single GPU configurations, given that there's just a single PCI-e 3.0 slot on the board. An additional 3xPCI-e x1 slots and 2xPCI slots are present. We'd suggest this motherboard for system builders with a tighter budget – probably in the $550-600 range – who intend on purchasing a higher-end CPU, but will stick with a single video card.

Intel Mid-Range Gaming Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-Z97X-UD5H – $150

gigabyte-ud5h

The $130-$150 price-range is the most popular motherboard cost among our readers. It makes sense, too – at that price, you've got a higher-end chipset, flexible overclocking support, room for SLI / CrossFire upgrades, and higher build quality. Gigabyte's GA-Z97X UD5H motherboard offers multi-GPU support with its 3xPCI-e 3.0 slots, hosts a Z97 chipset for fully-unlocked overclocking, uses an 8-phase power design (which is fine for Haswell), and has more USB outputs than most users will ever need.

Dual RJ-45 Gigabit LAN ports are available for users with more complex network configurations.

Intel High-End Overclocking Motherboard – MSI Z97 MPOWER Max – $250

ASUS has historically reigned supreme of high-end overclocking motherboards, primarily by way of its ROG lineup. The company still has some of the best high-end motherboards out there (and often ships them with voltage tuning tools), but MSI's MPOWER motherboard has taken the high-end industry by force.

The MPOWER unit linked here hosts a 12-phase power design with high-quality chokes and solid capacitors, using a massive heatsink and copper pipe to handle thermals. Liquid connections are available for open loop cooling, ensuring rapid dissipation with extreme OC setups.

3-Way SLI also makes a presence, available at x8/x4/x4 or x8/x8 in 2-way.

M.2 SATA and 8xSATA III are present for storage. A more interesting divergence from the norm is MSI's dual-band AC wireless support, allowing upwards of 867Mbps throughput over compatible wireless devices.

The Best AMD Motherboards for Gaming & Overclocking (FM2+)

AMD's motherboard selection is a bit slimmer than what Intel chipsets offer. In part, this makes the search less overwhelming, though it does mean we run into some limitations for picky buyers.

AMD Cheap Bastard's Gaming Motherboard – MSI A78M-E45 FM2+ – $38

We found this motherboard during our most recent Black Friday Pre-Sales round-up post, somewhat shocked at its $38 price-tag after discounts and rebates. For the cheap buyer with a tight budget, this $38 option gets you started for building with APUs or CPUs similar to the 760K. MSI's A78M-E45 micro-ATX board won't offer any overclocking options worth noting, though it's got 4xDIMM slots, DDR3 support up to 2133MHz (excellent for APUs), and PCI-e 3.0 x16 support for a single GPU. An additional PCI-e 2.0 slot (x4) is present for add-on cards.

AMD Mid-Range Gaming Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-F2A88X-UP4 – $85

Moving into the A88X chipset, Gigabyte's GA-F2A88X-UP4 motherboard offers full overclocking support with an 8-phase power design and passive heatsinks. CrossFire is supported for users looking to double-up on AMD devices at x8/x8.

Dual BIOS chips ensure safety in the event of a BIOS lock-out or brick during flashing, allowing the user to easily toggle to the alternative BIOS chip. We'd recommend this board for higher-end FM2+ builds (like those using the 860K) that aim to overclock.

AMD High-End Overclocking Motherboard – ASUS Crossblade Ranger – $153

asus-xblade-ranger

Very few users will have the desire or need to purchase a $150 FM2+ board, but they do exist. ASUS' new Crossblade Ranger motherboard uses the A88X / Bolton D4 chipset and offers full overclocking support, as the UP4 board above does. Somewhat differently, AMD has invested in high-end audio components (“SupremeFX”) for reduced EMI by physically isolating the audio components on the PCB. 8-channel output allows proper surround setups if building for a home theater environment. The motherboard's audio chipset is capable of modifying audio output based upon headphone or speaker impedance (automatically detected), making for a somewhat unique motherboard feature.

If you've got any questions about Intel or AMD motherboard selection, feel free to throw a thread up on our forums for free, expert advice.

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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