How To Choose A Motherboard

CPU Sockets And Chipset

CPU Sockets

Figuring out any size constraints is most likely the easy part. The CPU you want to use will tell you what socket you need. Intel CPUs use Land Grid Array, or LGA sockets; the pins are in the socket, and pads on the underside of the CPU rest on them. Although it can be very difficult to straighten bent LGA pins, this method is extremely robust if you take reasonable care when placing the CPU. There is almost no way to physically damage the pads on the CPU.

AMD’s sockets have holes in them, which fit pins on the CPU. The pins are a lot harder to bend, but may break if they do. Drop an AMD CPU on its pins, and getting them all perfectly aligned to fit into the socket will be time consuming and carry considerable risk of breakage. Once in place, however, an AMD CPU will remain securely in its socket.

Intel uses four push-pins on its coolers to hold them in place (you can see them in the first picture above); not all Intel sockets use the same spacing, an important consideration when selecting a third-party cooler. AMD has retained a mounting system that uses clips onto a frame, and provided it has sufficient cooling capacity, you can place a cooler built for one AMD socket onto the others (with the exception of AM1).

The sockets used by currently available CPUs include AM3+, FM2+ and AM1 from AMD; and 1150, 1151 and 2011[-v3] from Intel. Those Intel socket designations are a reflection of the number of pins.

In general, you will want to choose the latest generation to maximize longevity and future-resistance, unless you have a specific reason not to (like re-using a CPU and RAM). The exception for most people is that Intel’s socket 2011 and 2011-v3 are typically targeted for high-end workstations. They may also be appropriate for some high-dollar gaming PCs, but they are generally unlikely to offer benefits to mainstream system builders (including gamers) commensurate with the added cost.

At the opposite extreme, AMD’s AM1 socket is for people whose performance and expansion requirements are extremely low, and those who are more concerned about cost (including TCO). Mainstream users are unlikely to be satisfied by the performance and expansion options provided by motherboards using this socket.

Chipsets

Each socket is supported by the chipset. The chipset and associated components (for example, plex switches) provide peripheral connectivity to the CPU. Because the chipset defines the types and limits of most connections between the CPU and peripherals, it may be the most important consideration in a motherboard. A chipset is basically composed of a Northbridge and a Southbridge, although the last few generations of Intel CPUs and recent AMD APUs integrate Northbridge functions within the CPU die.

The interfaces requiring the greatest performance are integrated onto the Northbridge, and slower interfaces connect through the Southbridge. Since they are the oldest chipsets available today, we’ll begin with AMD’s offerings.

AMD AM3+ Chipsets

AMD’s 700, and 900-series chipsets provide a multitude of options for both discrete (no graphics) and integrated graphics customers. Northbridge products include:

990FX
With 42 PCI Express 2.0 lanes and a 2600 MHz (max) HyperTransport connecting these to the CPU, this is the best match for multiple graphics cards. Unchanged from the 890FX, AMD renamed its core logic when revising its AM3 socket to AM3+. 990FX supports AMD’s CrossFire with up to four cards, and Nvidia unblocked this chipset to allow three-way SLI support as well.
Why: Can handle multiple graphics cards; plenty of lanes for extra ports; good for overclocking.Why Not: AMD CPUs do not offer top-tier performance for most tasks; most expensive AMD option.
990X
A lower-cost 26-lane version of the 990FX that supports a single graphics card with sixteen lanes or two cards with eight lanes per card. CrossFire is supported across two cards, and Nvidia allows for two-way SLI as well.
Why: Almost as robust as 990FX but cheaper.Why Not: See 990FX, above.
970
Supports a single graphics card in true x16 mode over a 2400 MHz HyperTransport bus. An additional graphics card can be hosted at reduced bandwidth by using four of the chipset’s x1 pathways.
Why: Cheap; good connectivity options.

Why Not: Slightly lower performance; supporting components may not be good for overclocking, especially with 125W CPUs; limited or non-existent multi-GPU options.
770
An earlier, now obsolete chipset very similar to the 970, but lacking modern interfaces such as SATA 6Gb/s unless provided by additional third-party (PCIe-based) controllers.
Why: Cheap.

Why Not: Lower performance all around; may not properly handle 125W CPUs; dead end.
760G
Possesses integrated graphics, is also missing modern interfaces, and runs its HyperTransport bus at 2200MHz.
Why: Dirt cheap; no graphics card required for non-gaming applications.

Why Not: Bottom rung performance; may not handle 125W CPUs at all; modern interfaces likely missing; dead end.

AMD FM2+ Chipsets

All three chipset generations support the newest-generation APUs (a CPU with certain graphics capabilities built in). This could lead to some confusion over which A55 motherboard comes with a particular socket (FM1, FM2, or FM2+), so buyers need to pay close attention to specifications.

A88X
Supports four PCIe 2.0 lanes in addition to the 20 hosted on the APU, four USB 3.0, 10 USB 2.0, and eight SATA 6Gb/s ports, and the ability to split the APU’s PCIe controller from x16-x4 to x8-x8-x4. Unlike its competitor’s product, AMD also supports legacy PCI (up to three slots) in addition to newer interfaces. Launched in conjunction with the FM2+ socket, it appears to be a new stepping of the A85X with added USB 3.0 debugging.
Why: Most robust platform for FM2/FM2+; feature-complete.Why Not: Not a high-performance platform; dead end; not future resistant.
A78
Represents a reduced feature set of the A88X, reduced to six SATA 6Gb/s ports and without the APU’s ability to split its integrated PCIe controller from x16-x4 to x8-x8-x4. Like the above re-brand, the A78 is a new stepping of the A75 that coincides with AMD’s switch from Socket FM2 to Socket FM2+, again adding USB 3.0 debugging.
Why: Feature-complete for many mainstream uses.Why Not: Dead end; not future resistant.
A55
Was the original version of the A58, and is still available. Although we’re accustomed to re-branding, a change in the engineering code name from Hudson D2 to Bolton D2 seems disingenuous.
Why: Cheap.Why Not: Lacks features of more advanced chipset for this socket; dead end.

AMD's AM1 Chipset

Completely integrated within an AM1-socket APU (a CPU with certain graphics capabilities built in), this low power chipset brings a lower level of device connectivity to the table, summarized here, thanks to Tom’s sister site Anandtech:

  • Single channel 64-bit DDR3/DDR3L RAM
  • USB: 2xUSB 3.0, 8x USB2.0
  • PS/2
  • Up to four eDP/DP/HDMI video ouputs
  • VGA output
  • Four PCIe 2.0 lanes for a discrete GPU/PCIe device
  • Two SATA 6 Gbps ports
  • One PCIe 2.0 x1 lane allocated to an Ethernet controller
  • Three PCIe 2.0 x1 lanes for other controllers (SATA, USB, LAN, WiFi, PCIe 2.0 x1 slots, PCIe to PCI bridges). How these lanes are used is a primary differentiator among motherboards utilizing this chipset.
Why: Dirt cheap; very low power usage.Why Not: Extremely sub-par performance of the APUs for this socket; few ports, limiting expansion options; not future resistant; dead end.

Intel LGA1150 Chipsets

All Northbridge functions have been moved onto LGA 1150-based processors. Compatible motherboards feature only a Southbridge that Intel has relabeled the Platform Controller Hub (PCH).

Z97 Express
Features eight PCIe 2.0 lanes, six USB 3.0 ports, and six SATA 6Gb/s ports. Physically unchanged from the previous Z87 Express, Intel renamed it for its Haswell refresh marketing blitz, and changed the base firmware just enough to call it a new product.
Why: Robust connectivity and expansion; good for overclocking and tweaking;  handles multiple graphics cards.
Why Not: Not future resistant; expensive.
Z87 Express
Intel enables pathway splitting for the CPU’s PCIe 3.0 controller when paired with Z97/Z87 Express, so that any processor can support a single card with 16 lanes, two cards with eight lanes, or three cards at x8-x4-x4 (depending on motherboard layout). CrossFire is enabled across as many as three cards, while Nvidia's SLI technology only works with two cards. RAID modes 0, 1, 5 and 10 are also enabled.
Why: Likely to be cheaper because it is two generations old; supports multiple graphics cards.Why Not: Essentially obsolete; may lack latest interfaces like M.2 and USB 3.1.
H97 Express
Replaces H87 in the same way that Z97 replaced Z87. Both units currently support the same processors and feature set.
Why: All the features of Z except most multiple graphics card options and overclocking.

Why Not: Doesn’t officially support overclocking “K” series CPUs; a generation behind.
H87 Express
Reduces features compared to Z97 by limiting the CPU’s integrated PCIe 3.0 controller to a single device (one slot), and officially blocks CPU overclocking. Unofficially, the H97/H87 Express chipset can be unlocked for overclocking, however most manufacturers do not expose overclocking options. Additionally, Intel enables its Small Business Advantage software on H97 or H87 motherboards with compatible firmware.
Why: Same reasons as H97.Why Not: Not future resistant; essentially obsolete.
Q87 Express
Adds a few more business-oriented features (VT-d, TXT, vPro) to the feature set of the H87.
Q85 Express
Removes two SATA ports from the feature set of H87 Express, along with RAID functionality. The total number of supported SATA 6Gb/s ports is four.
B85 Express
Removes four USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports compared to Q85 Express. The total number of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports is eight and four, respectively.
Why: Inexpensive; feature complete for most mainstream users.Why Not: No RAID or multiple graphics card support; a generation behind.
H81 Express
Removes two additional SATA and two additional USB 3.0 ports compared to B85 Express. It also closes off two PCIe 2.0 lanes, leaving a total of six from the PCH-based controller. The least-expensive of Intel’s LGA 1150 products, it was proof-of-concept for our overclock-unlocking article
Why: Cheap; can meet the needs of any mainstream user.Why Not: RAM limited to two DIMMs; only basic port/expansion options.

Intel LGA2011-v3

Recently replacing the X79 Express in LGA 2011 motherboards, X99 Express is the only desktop chipset for Intel’s DDR4-supporting LGA 2011-v3 (Haswell-E) processors. X99 capitalizes on the X79's "missing" features with 10 SATA 6Gb/s ports, adds six USB 3.0 ports, and retains its eight PCIe 2.0 pathways to support low-bandwidth devices. Relying upon Intel's 5900-series Core i7 processors (currently the Core i7-5960X and 5930K) to deliver up to 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes directly from the CPU to up to five slots, the platform drops to 28 PCIe lanes when paired with a 5800-series (Core i7-5820K) processor.

Although the most common configurations for this platform will use one or two high-bandwidth cards (graphics, RAID or both), those who wish to build it with three or more cards and a Core i7-5820K should thoroughly read our reviews to understand its effect on each motherboards slot configuration. Certain models even lose 3-way SLI capability when using the Core i7-5820K.
Why: Greatest connectivity options of Intel’s chipsets (for example, the number of PCIe lanes available).Why Not:Expensive; added connectivity rarely needed.

Intel LGA2011

Although its at the end of its life, value-seeking buyers who want a lot of PCIe connectivity may choose to pair Intel's earlier high-end platform with one of the firm's least-expensive LGA 2011 processors. The associated X79 Express chipset had only two SATA 6 Gb/s ports in addition to four SATA 3 Gb/s ports, although some motherboard manufacturers decided to expose the platform's four hidden SAS ports as SATA. This legacy product also lacked USB 3.0, although most motherboard manufacturers added a third-party USB 3.0 controller to one of the chipset's slow PCIe 2.0 pathways.
Why: Cheaper than LGA2011-v3.Why Not:End of life; still expensive.

Intel LGA1151

The capabilities of Intel’s LGA1151 chipsets may be summarized in the two tables below:

Consumer Chipset

Z170

H170

H110

CPU Overclocking

Yes

No

No

Processor PCIe Configuration

1x16 or 2x8

or 1x8+2x4

1x16


Chipset PCI-E Lanes (Gen) (+16 from CPU)

20(3.0)

16(3.0)

6(2.0)

Max PCIe Storage (x4 M.2 or x2 SATA Express)

3

2

0

Independent Display Ports/Pipes

3/3

3/3

3/2

Mem/DIMMs Per Channel

2/2

2/2

2/1

USB Total (USB 3.0)

14(10)

14(8)

10(4)

Total SATA 6Gb/s

6

6

4

Maximum HSIO Lanes*

26

22

14

 

Business Chipset

Q170

Q150

B150

CPU Overclocking

No

No

No

Processor PCIe Configuration

1x16 or 2x8

or 1x8+2x4

1x16


Chipset PCI-E Lanes (Gen) (+16 from CPU)

20(3.0)

10(3.0)

8(3.0)

Max PCIe Storage (x4 M.2 or x2 SATA Express)

3

0

0

Independent Display Ports/Pipes

3/3

3/3

3/3

Mem/DIMMs Per Channel

2/2

2/2

2/2

USB Total (USB 3.0)

14(10)

14(8)

12(6)

Total SATA 6Gb/s

6

6

6

Maximum HSIO Lanes*

26

20

18

Depending on form factor and features, the maximum number of HSIO lanes can be a big deal. Unless an expensive Plex switch is added to the motherboard (more common on previous generations of Intel motherboards), this will sharply limit the number and type of devices that may be used at the same time.

For example, if you use the M.2 slot, only four or five of the possible six SATA 6Gb/s ports may be available (seen in the initial H170 roundup). Four is enough for most people, but if you plan to run a RAID5 array, you may need to add a controller card. If you run multiple graphics cards, you may lose PCIe x1 slots. The why and why not will be similar to the previous generations, except these won’t be previous-generation, so Why now includes the fact that you’ll have all the current interfaces, such as M.2 (in SATA and/or PCIe flavors) and USB 3.1. Why not will include that not all ports are likely to be available at the same time, so check descriptions carefully.

Editor’s note: Each USB 3.0, SATA and Ethernet port consumes a HSIO lane, as do any PCIe devices connected through the PCH rather than directly to the CPU. This means that the typical Z170 configuration of six USB 3.0 ports, six SATA ports, four M.2 PCIe lanes and one Gigabit Ethernet port blows well past the H110M’s HSIO allocation before any slots are even added. This is why so many H110 and even B150 motherboards have four USB 3.0 and four SATA 6GB/s ports, and why these reduced-cost PCHs often target smaller form-factor motherboards that have fewer expansion slots.

Although motherboards with older chipsets (and older sockets) are still available, there is little reason (other than initial cost, which may be shortsighted) to buy them today. Hardware and software tend to keep pace, and newer software may not include driver support to work properly with older hardware. Components do have a maximum useful life, and buying older parts (particularly used) that may be reaching that point is asking for down time and additional expenses sooner rather than later.

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22 comments
    Your comment
  • I find it extremely irritating that every time AMD has a new review, the next day you release more reviews than you have in the past month to push the AMD review off of your front page.

    It is things like this that make me not want to continue reading articles on your site.
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  • You forgot E-ATX Motherboards.
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  • I'm hoping mini-STX becomes a popular form-factor. It's what Intel uses for their NUCs and it's just the thing for micro servers.

    BTW, I think the difference between chipset-connected PCIe lanes and CPU-direct PCIe lanes should be highlighted, better. The latter is not supported for SLI and generally not a good idea for graphics cards (or even fast, PCIe-based SSDs, on DMI 2.0 chipsets).
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  • Here's how Intel chooses them: Step 1: add USB 3.0 lane Step 2: Add one pin to socket Step 3: profit.
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  • One question, I have an MSI board and was thinking of getting an MSI GPU for OC Genie. Good or bad idea?
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  • 151198 said:
    You forgot E-ATX Motherboards.

    I made only a brief comment on it, since it adds no more expansion slots than is on ATX. The case selection will determine if a double-slot card can go in the bottom slot.
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  • 251426 said:
    One question, I have an MSI board and was thinking of getting an MSI GPU for OC Genie. Good or bad idea?

    OC Genie is a motherboard feature that is independent of the graphics card, so the GPU vendor won't matter. I've only used MSI's OC Genie on one board and not one I reviewed for TH. Like the other such automated tools I've tried, it may not do a great job, possibly setting excessive voltage and creating more heat than needed. Manual settings may give you better results, but obviously will take more time and effort.
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  • 612443 said:
    I find it extremely irritating that every time AMD has a new review, the next day you release more reviews than you have in the past month to push the AMD review off of your front page. It is things like this that make me not want to continue reading articles on your site.


    I promise you it's not on purpose, it's just a coincidence. We try to publish our Best Picks updates monthly and we were running a little behind and . . . it's the end of the month. One of our editorial requests for our next site design is the ability to keep or place articles where we want, which would give us the ability to hold the AMD review in the #1 slot for a few days -- at the moment, it's just an artifact of the current design that the next feature bumps the previous one to the right.
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  • "I promise you it's not on purpose, it's just a coincidence. We try to publish our Best Picks updates monthly and we were running a little behind and . . . it's the end of the month. One of our editorial requests for our next site design is the ability to keep or place articles where we want, which would give us the ability to hold the AMD review in the #1 slot for a few days -- at the moment, it's just an artifact of the current design that the next feature bumps the previous one to the right."

    Not sure why I cannot quote from the forums anymore, but thank you for sharing. Lately, it just seems like almost all AMD reviews or topics get pushed off the page the day after they're released which seems fishy to me. Glad to hear that isn't the case.
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  • 151198 said:
    You forgot E-ATX Motherboards.
    No, because it's not really a thing for the consumer market. Over 90% of the boards you see listed at EATX aren't anywhere close to 13" deep.

    I guess we could have put it in the picture, but that would have just confused newbies even more: They would be looking for a case with 13" of clearance, based on the image, when the board they might be considering is only 10.7" wide.

    These are "extreme" enthusiast boards anyway, so just not talking about them in the article brings those few newbies with "extreme enthusiast" aspirations to the response thread, where we can have this conversation.
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  • Just wondering: are you not doing System Builder Marathons anymore? I haven't seen one for Q2 yet, and tomorrow's July...
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  • 2258723 said:
    Just wondering: are you not doing System Builder Marathons anymore? I haven't seen one for Q2 yet, and tomorrow's July...
    Our agreement expired: It's in the air how we'll proceed from this point.
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  • *Impatiently waits for AMD to launch socket AM4 based products*
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  • Enjoyed the article. How about the same for CPU selection ? It would complement the 'best CPU for $$' article nicely.

    Very much liked this articles Pros and Cons section. Especially in the AMD section where I know the least. Understand why it boring to repeat for socket 1151, but would have been nicer if you repeated.

    Not sure how to express Quality of MB vs 'buy the cheapest with the chipset you want". On my last two MB purchases (z97 and b85) I went with the cheapest I could find that had decent number of positive reviews. Not sure that was the right strategy, but no regrets so far.
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  • Future Resistance isn't mentioned anywhere as a "Pro" when listing each type of mobo.

    That's understandable, but I was hoping for some kind of comment on a few of these that would suggest they are going to hang around for the next 2-3 years..

    None of these boards are future resistant for that duration?
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  • While I probably could have included that on some of the latest boards, even the ones that aren't could still be suitable if used to build a PC that meets current and immediate future requirements.
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  • 226731 said:
    Future Resistance isn't mentioned anywhere as a "Pro" when listing each type of mobo. That's understandable, but I was hoping for some kind of comment on a few of these that would suggest they are going to hang around for the next 2-3 years.. None of these boards are future resistant for that duration?
    It's become a myth. If you want future resistance you buy AMD, then in a few years the platform is still "current" only because they haven't developed a new high-end processor.
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  • 47340 said:
    While I probably could have included that on some of the latest boards, even the ones that aren't could still be suitable if used to build a PC that meets current and immediate future requirements.


    Thanks for the feedback!
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  • 8708 said:
    226731 said:
    Future Resistance isn't mentioned anywhere as a "Pro" when listing each type of mobo. That's understandable, but I was hoping for some kind of comment on a few of these that would suggest they are going to hang around for the next 2-3 years.. None of these boards are future resistant for that duration?
    It's become a myth. If you want future resistance you buy AMD, then in a few years the platform is still "current" only because they haven't developed a new high-end processor.


    Thanks for the feedback!
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  • Despite some of the other comments, I think this was an excellent article to introduce beginners to motherboards and all the variations associated with them. It would be great if you could provide this article in PDF form so it could be referenced later when this article is no longer available on the web!
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