The amount of hardware out there is both awesome and crippling -- especially in the motherboard market; with so many choices, it's easy to feel overwhelmed or as if there is more potential for a "wrong" choice. Luckily, there are a lot of simple tricks to eliminate the boards that are bloated with marketing speak and unusable features, while still pinpointing the boards that do offer features relevant to your interests.
We talk about how to pick the right motherboard below - including some general advice on motherboard feature-sets.
Defining Generic Requirements
- Functional: It must be compatible with all components (see the below section for what specifically needs to be compatible) and whenever relevant, should also support as many up-and-coming technologies as possible. There is no such thing as being "futureproof," but it doesn't hurt to get PCI-e 3.0, USB3, or the newest chipset if the price impact is reasonable or minimal.
- Sturdy: Build quality is always a huge issue when we pick components for our regular PC builds -- it's important to make sure something as important as the motherboard will hold up to the assembly process (you'd be surprised how many crappy plastic boards will chip to pieces after a few builds). Luckily, build quality is often easy enough to determine from images and user reviews.
- Reliable: This is a mix of "functional" and "sturdy," but deserves its own mention. A board failure means the system will be completely unusable until a replacement is received, and since most motherboard warranties (as discussed in our Warranty Comparison Guide) will opt to repair a board before replacing it, that could mean weeks of downtime. It's often easier to simply buy a new board; the best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to ensure it doesn't happen. We'll talk about how to determine reliability of a board below.
Defining YOUR Requirements
As motherboards are much more component-specific than cases, this section won't have nearly as much impact as it did in our "picking the best gaming case" post. That said, there are still personal requirements that need to be laid out before purchasing.
Monetary: This is the obvious one -- determine a budget for the motherboard. This can be hard to do for novice builders and it's tough to provide a solid, unchanging template for motherboard pricing; luckily, we've built hundreds of systems here at GN and can provide some reasonable guidelines.
- Cheap Bastard (under ~$550): Depending on other components, the motherboard will likely range anywhere from $60-$90.
- Budget System (~$550-$750): Again, based on other component costs, you should probably be in the $90-$120 range.
- Hardcore System (~$800+): Now we're talkin' -- at this point, the search options should be narrowed to "between $100 and $200" for the motherboard; you'll likely end up in the $120-$150 range. If the budget is in the range of $1000 or higher, it can scale as necessary, as components dictate, or as enthusiasm dictates.
Budgets higher than these will have a lot of freedom in motherboard choice.
Look-and-Feel: For those with deeper pockets and bigger budgets, it can be fun to flair out the style a bit with a motherboard of the same style of other components; red RAM can be complimented with red highlights on the board, some boards have a military style that matches the combat-ready look of modern gaming case design.
Size: While there are, of course, actual compatibility requirements between motherboard form factor and case form factor, we can tweak them slightly within the case's parameters (or tweak the case to the board's form factor). Personally, I enjoy ATX-sized boards for their ease-of-access and utility, but there are valid reasons to prefer mini-ITX or microATX motherboards as well, so figure out if size is a concern and - as long as everything still fits - go for what you think looks best for your purposes.
What Makes a "Functional" Motherboard?
There are a lot of motherboards out there. One of the most common questions we receive is on narrowing the options of motherboards for builds; with many retail websites directly copying vendor specifications, it's tough to know exactly who to trust. There's a lot of marketing doublespeak out there that means nothing in the context of the computing world or your daily use, so a side-to-side comparison of features on multiple different boards needs to be done with much skepticism and care. Stick to hard specs first, move to features, ignore those that look useless or overzealous for your purposes.
When shopping for a motherboard, we often look into warranty coverage, company reputation, brand reliability, build quality of the board, hard specs, and then "soft" specs (extra features). Driver support and more universal compatibilities are also game changers.
Before anything, though, the parts must be compatible. Here's what you need to look out for when checking for compatibility -- many of you likely already know this, but just in case, I'll lay it out:
CPU Socket Type: The CPU itself must work with the motherboard. Check the socket type of the selected CPU (which we often choose before the motherboard) and the motherboard, ensure that they match. AMD CPU sockets are commonly listed as AM3, AM3+, or FM; Intel socket types are all prefixed with LGA (LGA1155, LGA1366, LGA775, etc).
Memory Frequencies: In addition to the following note about specific RAM module support, always be sure to check the motherboard's natively-supported frequencies and maximum overclock frequencies for memory.
Supported RAM Modules: Our common build mistakes post mentions this, but to re-iterate: Always check the motherboard manufacturer's website for the full and detailed list of supported memory modules; even if RAM fits within the parameters of the hard specs, the board may have issues fully supporting it. Avoid these problems by checking the lists (here's an example on ASRock's site).
Ports & Slots: This one doesn't really need to be checked with as much vigilance as the others, but it's still important (primarily with smaller form factor boards) to briefly examine. Ensure expansion card slots are up-to-par with video cards and other devices (in the form of PCI-e 3.0 or PCI-e 2.X), similarly, check the specs of SATA ports and make sure that SATA 6Gb/s ports are prevalent (or in the least, present).
Everything else can be summed up in the additional features category, which are still important - just not nearly as important as hard specs.
As we did with our case choosing post, let's list out some of the features that we look for when selecting a motherboard:
- Main Features.
- A modern chipset (at the time of writing, a Z68, Z77, or X79 chipset for Intel - AMD's 990FX and 990X are still some of their best chipsets).
- SLI/CrossFireX support.
- Support for on-chip (IGP) graphics if no dedicated card is present.
- Support for IRT.
- SSD caching with mSATA (for high-end boards).
- CPU Unlocking: As many CPUs (especially AMD's options) can have additional cores unlocked, CPU unlocking will help you take full advantage of your chip.
- On-board USB 3.0 headers.
- WARRANTY SUPPORT! Who has the best warranty? (Hint: We've already done motherboard-specific research for you). A motherboard failure could mean weeks out of the game if time is spent waiting for shipments.
- Overclocking Features.
- High-frequency memory support (example: 2800+ OC).
- Extreme Memory Profiles (XMP) for Intel boards will allow higher memory overclocking and better performance.
- Build Quality.
- Examine the images of the motherboard (better yet, if it's available locally, go to the retail outlet and look at it on display) -- check for heatsink placement, quality of materials, and overall design of the board. Nicer motherboards will often features two larger heatsinks on either side of the CPU (top, left) and one heatsink on the northbridge. Look at a board that is $50 over your budget to get an idea of what is out there, then use that as the high standard for boards within the budget; try to determine what comes closest in terms of quality materials and design.
- Proprietary firmware/software functionality -- examples: ASRock's XFast technology, Intel's Visual BIOS, ASUS' ESP (efficient switching power design),
- UEFI BIOS: While not necessary, some UEFI-enabled BIOS options have more accessible feature-sets.
- SLI/CrossFire bridges will often come with compatible motherboards - if you plan on running either of these configurations, check to ensure that either the motherboard or video card kit (if applicable) will ship with a bridge.
- Motherboards typically include a few SATA cables (at least two) for use with an HDD and optical drive. Lower value boards may not include quality cables (they'll either be the type of SATA cables that disintegrate or SATA II instead of SATA III). Check the manufacturer's website and your retailer for confirmation - if you don't like what's included, order them separately.
- Many, many more -- far too many to list.
Yeah, there are quite a few features for motherboards, as we all know well. The list goes on, but the above should present a good overview for what's worthy of attention. If you think we've missed something, comment below and we'll add it or explain why it was left out!
Many of the features that motherboards sport are meant to improve ease-of-use, so they aren't necessarily immediately useful (or even noticeable) when the system is running. Chances are, assuming Newegg is used for shopping, anything listed in the "features" section is - for a budget build - mostly optional; for mid-to-upper range builds, it's a bit more important to keep an eye on these features. Always ask us below or research a particular feature before letting it become a deal breaker.
How Much is "Enough?"
It's tough to limit motherboards -- cases are easy: There's a point of diminishing returns or zero gain; only so much can be spent on a case before the advantages become grossly disproportionate to the investment. A motherboard, while it follows the standard model of practical-use-to-investment as many components, still can offer valuable improvements as the price increases. An additional PCI-e 3.0 x16 slot, more RAM capacity, better overclocking support, more solid heatsinks, and more powerful chipsets or bridges are all contributors to price, but are all potentially required or usable for a build. It comes down to what your build needs.
So then, as mentioned in our "define your requirements" part of our PC build guide, it's important to lay-out the following requirements for your system (there are always more, of course, but these are the basics):
- How much RAM do you want/need - either now or in the future?
- Will you require SLI/CrossFireX support? What about triple- or quad-SLI/CrossFire support?
- Will you require additional expansion slots (PCI-e or PCI) for other cards (sound, capture cards, USB expansions, PCI-e SSDs, etc.)?
- How many SATA III ports do you require?
- Will you be heavily overclocking?
- Do you feel wealthy today?
These questions should help narrow down options. Keep our by-build price range for motherboards (above) in mind as well. As "no" is answered to questions, options can be eliminated and the price will come down; "yes," of course, will more-than-likely increase the price, but such is the price paid for being an enthusiast.
Keep in mind that we're assuming a Windows OS will be installed to these -- for Linux variants, more research will need to be done to ensure driver support is available for components.
Pulling the Trigger
And now comes time to ultimately answer the question: Choosing a motherboard is easy, actually, and normally chooses itself. For purposes of this article, we're going to use Newegg for its easy motherboard search functions -- feel free to purchase from your favorite retailer, we're just going to use Newegg for searching.
After selecting a CPU and determining the required socket type, start looking at motherboards in a price range that makes sense for your build -- let's assume the average gamer buys a motherboard valued at around $120. You'll want to get as new a chipset as possible (either Z68 or Z77), but don't spend money on a chipset that won't be utilized by your everyday use or components -- you can learn more about what a chipset actually is here, with some additional info on the differences between them.
Using Newegg's power search, we'll set the price range (for this board, let's say $100-$170), chipsets, and socket type. When results are presented, sort them first by 'featured items' (to see what is new), checkmark a few of the ones that have reasonable user review distribution and seem to have promising specs, then sort by 'most reviews' to find the boards that have had the most long-term success in the community. Checkmark one or two of these, then hit the 'compare' button and look at the hard specs; let the overall look-and-feel and additional features determine your final decision. Utilize user reviews and warranties as the deal breaker if two boards are otherwise tied.
Disclaimer: Keep in mind that there are a lot of unhelpful people on the internet -- read through a few one-egg reviews to see if they all complain of DOAs (these are acceptable to an extent, as it happens frequently), then check the two- and three-egg reviews to see what people complain of. If the complaints seem like they won't affect you, great, just make sure to read a few to ensure a reasonable sample size that allows for the occasional moron (you know, the guy who zapped his board and then rated it as a terrible product because it doesn't work).
Don't be too brand loyal - it's always possible for a company to turn around, however unlikely, so if a motherboard looks exceedingly more promising than your favorite brand's closest competitor, consider giving them a shot.
Have questions about picking a motherboard, specific features, or anything we've missed? Post 'em below and I'll make sure we answer all of your questions, as always. Visit our forums for in-depth support and custom PC build shopping.
-Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.