How To Choose A Motherboard

Memory, Expansion Slots And Firmware

Memory

Mini-ITX motherboards are usually limited to two RAM slots because there just isn’t room for more. Intel’s H81 chipset is similarly limited to two slots, because only one DIMM per channel is supported; AMD’s AM1 has only a single channel, with up to two DIMMs, so those boards will also only have two RAM slots. You can easily add up to 16GB to a two-slot DDR3 board (32GB with DDR4), but if you need more, you’ll need to make sure that four DIMM slots are available (and usually start with a larger motherboard form factor).

Expansion Card Slots

Similarly, the size of the board you select will determine the number of expansion slots it might have, but the actual number and type will vary. Note also placement. If you need a PCIe x1 slot, make sure a single such available slot will not be blocked by a double-slot graphics card, which is common. Unlike PCIe x1 cards, M.2 SSDs typically will fit under the graphics cooler of an adjacent card. If you’re going to install a PCIe x4 RAID card, is that going to disable any other slots, or limit their bandwidth? Pore over specifications carefully if you have very precise requirements, and do not hesitate to post a request for suggestions in the Tom’s Hardware Forums!

Firmware Features

If you have specific tasks to be performed by your PC, the components you install will make a bigger difference than the plethora of tweaking options. If, however, you enjoy working (or playing) with your PC as much as on it, or you anticipate needing to extend an aging computer’s useful life by speeding it up via overclocking, then you need to pay some attention to what the BIOS on the motherboard offers in the way of such tweaking, and you need to be sure that the voltage regulator modules (VRMs) are sufficiently robust to handle the additional power draw.

The more VRM phases the motherboard has, the lighter the load on each phase. If there is no heatsink on the voltage regulator, the motherboard is most likely not intended for overclocking, particularly of CPUs that already draw the maximum TDP the motherboard supports. This is particularly important on AMD motherboards, because most AMD CPUs (and APUs) are unlocked to allow overclocking; most Intel CPUs are not. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Either way, make sure the motherboard you choose is up to the task.

Whether or not you can run RAID will be determined by the chipset you select, but set up in the firmware. Any RAID set you define may be managed by a software utility, but settings to enable it in the first place will be defined in the BIOS.

Final Thoughts

Buying a motherboard does not have to be difficult. As long as compatibility is assured across all part selections, with few exceptions even the cheapest low-end models ultimately meet most enthusiast needs.

A look at the successes of Dell, HP, and other pre-built system vendors is sufficient proof of that. However, many of these systems are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. Upgrades or expansion are unnecessarily difficult, because they are typically built with minimally specified parts. Upgrade one piece beyond that minimum and you may need to perform a cascade of other upgrades, and proprietary fit and connections will make that very costly or even impossible beyond a certain point.

As system builders, we want more and we want better. With a little foresight, if today’s system proves inadequate next year, a simple upgrade of the single insufficient component should do, and we can plan for that. Furthermore, even if we’ve chosen a budget board, we’re still likely to get all solid capacitors and more durable components than those used in the pre-built systems, so you can be sure your new motherboard will actually last through at least one upgrade cycle, likely more.

You’ll pay a premium for advanced features such as a robust BIOS that allows a range of performance tweaking, and for VRMs able to reliably sustain high overclocks. Being able to run two or more graphics cards adds to the price, especially for SLI.

The bottom line, though, is that with the exceptions of the outliers (AMD’s AM1 and Intel’s 2011[-v3]), many boards are suitable for many needs, accepting CPUs (or APUs) of varying speed and ability, allowing the use of plenty of storage, and with room to add more RAM or disk space as needed.

Finally, beginners have access to all the resources that professionals use to determine their needs, through review sites like ours and support communities like our Community Forums, where there are plenty of experienced builders all eager to help a newcomer join the ranks of enthusiasts who enjoy building and tweaking our own systems.

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Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject
22 comments
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  • 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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