Processors and graphics cards often gobble up the majority of build budgets, but your motherboard is in many ways the most integral part of your build. Every part of your PC plugs into it, its form factor dictates the size of your computer and its chipset / socket define what kind of CPU you can install.
Motherboards—particularly high-end models—are a confusing kitchen-sink-full of features that can range in price from a sub-$60 budget board to a $500-plus flagship model. We’re here to help untangle the complexities and help make sure you pick the right model for your wants and needs, without blowing through your build budget.
Speaking build budgets, if you’re looking to save some while shopping for a motherboard this holiday season, you should keep an eye on our Best Hardware Deals page through the holiday season. Now that Intel’s new flagship Z390 chipset is on the market, board makers and sellers may be looking to move a lot of Z370 boards by heavily reducing prices. Unless you’re opting for a Core i9-9900K that you want to overclock, you should be able to get by with a Z370 board (and a compatible CPU of course) just fine. The main features the older chipset loses over the newer model is chip-integrated Wi-Fi (which you may not want or need) and native support for high-speed USB 3.1 Gen2 (which often exists on these boards anyway, just via additional third-party circuitry).
- Get the right socket for your CPU: You can find great CPUs from either Intel or AMD, but whatever processor you choose, make sure that your board has the correct socket to support it. The latest mainstream AMD chips use AM4 sockets while current Intel 8th Gen Core CPUs require an LGA 1151v2 sockets.
- Smaller boards = fewer slots and features. Motherboards come in three main sizes, from largest to smallest: ATX, Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX (Yes, Mini is smaller than Micro). You can use a smaller chassis with the micro or mini boards, but you'll have to settle for fewer PCIe slots, RAM banks and other connectors.
- You can spend under $100: You can find a good motherboard for less than $100, but if you want to overclock an Intel chip or you need a lot of ports, you will have to spend more, usually up to $150. High-end desktop chips like AMD Threadripper require expensive $200+ motherboards.
- Pay for built-in Wi-Fi, high-end ports only if you need them. Don't spend extra for wireless if you are using a wired connection. You can future proof your PC by getting USB 3.1 Gen 2 and / or Thunderbolt 3 support.
The Basics: Chipsets, Board Size, Connectors & Ports
If you’re after a refresher on motherboard basics, including the differences between chipsets, motherboard sizes, connector and port features, and RAM slots, you can find them in our Motherboard Basics feature. There we dive deep into the complexities of board design & features, so you’ll know exactly what to look for (or ignore) when shopping for a motherboard.
How much can you spend on a motherboard?
Prices range from $50 on the low-end to above $500 for premium boards that support HEDT (High-End Desktop) chips like Core X and Threadripper. Here's roughly what you get at each price range:
- Up to $100: You can get overclockable boards for AMD chips (even with the premium, last-generation X370 chipset) in this range. But with Intel, you're stuck with stock speeds (though you can find overclock-friendly Z370 boards for just over $100). Depending on sale prices, you can get a host of features, including onboard Wi-Fi, although Wi-Fi-equipped boards usually start above $80.
- $100 to $150: Boards with Intel's Z370 chipset, which you’ll need for overclocking, start at the low end of this range. You also start to see more AMD boards with higher-end chipsets (X470) and premium features such as RGB lights and Wi-Fi.
- $150 to $200: As you start to climb into the premium tier, you’ll see more RGB lights, beefier heatsinks and better power phases and VRMs (voltage regulation modules)--which are important for serious overclocking. You’ll also find a better selection of ports at this level, including a greater number of USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 2 connectors.
- $200+: For mainstream platforms, this is the truly premium price range, where you’ll see the best board components, giant (often very stylized) heatsinks, and I/O covers designed to deliver a slick, premium look. Extreme overclocking features, which mainstream builders don't need, are also often a key feature set.
Also in this price tier, you’ll find HEDT motherboards for CPUs with very high core counts (Intel Core X and AMD Threadripper). Threadripper boards in particular start at around $300.
What CPU are you using with your motherboard?
The CPU you’re planning on pairing with your board will narrow down your options, since the CPU socket on a given motherboard will only work with the chip line it was designed for.
For instance, if you’re buying an Intel 8th Generation Core processor, you’ll need a board with an LGA 1151 socket--and one designed for 8th Generation processors; older boards designed for 7th Generation chips use the same socket, but won’t work with newer chips. AMD makes this process a bit less confusing because (for now at least) the company uses the same AM4 socket for all of its mainstream current-gen chips, from Athlons all the way up to 8-core Ryzen 7 parts. And AMD has promised to stick with the AM4 socket until 2020. Intel, on the other hand, has a tendency in recent years to switch sockets (or at least socket compatibility) from one generation to the next.
But for the true high-end, both Intel (LGA 2066) and AMD (TR4) have different sockets to accommodate the larger size and power draw of their Core X and Threadripper processors. For more on processor considerations, see our CPU Buying Guide.
|Intel||LGA 1151||LGA 2066|
What size motherboard do you want?
We’ve covered this in detail in our Motherboard Diagram feature. But most modern motherboards come in three sizes.
- ATX is the de facto standard and offers the most space for plugs and slots.
- Micro-ATX is 2.4-inches shorter, which means less room for expansion slots.
- Mini-ITX can make for a tiny PC, but you’ll usually only have room for one add-in card (like a graphics card), and fewer connectors for storage and RAM.
What ports do you need?
It’s always important to check the I/O area on a motherboard to make sure it has the external connection options you’re after, but also check for USB headers on the motherboard. These will let you add more ports via front-panel connection on your PC case, or via inexpensive expansion slot brackets at the back.
Here's a list of common ports, and our take on each:
- USB 3 / USB 3.1 Gen1: You can never have too many of these, because they work with most peripherals.
- USB 2: Slower than USB 3 / 3.1, but more than adequate for keyboards, mice and many other devices.
- USB 3.1 Gen2: Not many peripherals support this standard yet, but it delivers 10 Gbps of bandwidth, which is double what you get with USB 3.1 Gen 1 / USB 3.0.
- USB Type-C: These ports could be either USB 3.1 Gen1 or USB 3.1 Gen2 compatible and are designed for newer devices such as phones.
- HDMI / DisplayPort Video out: You only need these if you plan to use integrated graphics. Discrete cards have their own ports.
- Audio ports: Important if you plan to connect analog speakers or headphones.
- PS/2 ports: Give you compatibility with really old keyboards and mice.
- Thunderbolt 3: Very rare to find this built into motherboards, but some boards support it through dedicated add-on cards. Provides the fastest possible connections, up to 40 Gbps.
While you may not need USB 3.1 Gen 2 or Type-C ports today, they are good ways to future proof your PC.
How many RAM slots do you need?
Most mainstream boards these days have four RAM slots, although compact Mini-ITX models often have just two, and high-end HEDT boards (like the one pictured above) frequently offer eight. The amount of slots of course limits the amount of RAM you can install.
But for mainstream tasks and games, 16GB is sufficient and 32GB is ample. And even with just two slots, you can install up to 32GB of RAM. Note, though, that you may pay a slight premium for a 32GB kit that uses two 16GB sticks, rather than a 32GB kit that’s spread across four 8GB sticks.
What expansion slots do you need?
You’re most likely to come across just two types these days: the short PCIe x1 shot (often used for things like USB and SATA expansion), and the longer PCIe x16 slot (used for graphics cards, RAID cards, and extremely fast PCIe storage like Intel’s Optane 905 SSD). If you’re just planning on installing a single graphics card, a couple of SATA/M.2 drives, and perhaps a video capture or sound card, you should be fine with most ATX or Micro-ATX boards, which offer at least one x16 slot and one or two x1 slots.
However, figuring out how many drives and cards you can install is tricky, because no matter how many physical slots you have, there's a limited number of HSIO (high-speed input/output) lanes and PCIe lanes that all of your components must share. We could spend 3,000 words trying to explain how these lanes work, but the bottom line is that many mainstream motherboards compensate for bandwidth limitations by switching some connections off when you install hardware in specific slots.
For example, adding a PCIe M.2 drive may disable some SATA ports, or installing a card in a third PCIe slot may disable a second (or third) M.2 slot, etc. These issues vary greatly by motherboard, so you’ll need to consult online manuals before buying--especially if you’re planning on loading up your board with lots of components.
That said, if you are planning on plugging lots of drives and cards into your PC, it’s worth considering one of the high-end HEDT platforms, as they have more PCIe lanes to work with. All of AMD’s Threadripper processors have 64 lanes (60 from the CPU, 4 from the chipset), while Intel’s competing Core X platform provides up to 44 lanes, depending on the CPU, and up to 24 more from the chipset. So if you’re planning on plugging, for instance, multiple graphics cards and a RAID array of PCIe/NVMe storage, or other bandwidth-hungry hardware into your system, these higher-end platforms are definitely the way to go.
Which chipset should you get?
Your CPU choice will dictate your compatible chipsets options, and if you opt for the highest-end consumer Intel or AMD chips (Core X or Threadripper), you’ll only have one choice (X299 for Intel or X399 for AMD). But for mainstream users who just want to install a single graphics card and a few drives, you can often get the features you’re after by opting for a chipset below Intel’s Z370 or X370/X470 for AMD.
If you choose an H370 or Q370 board on the Intel side, you’ll lose the option to overclock, though only a handful of mainstream Intel chips are unlocked for overclocking anyway (those with product names that end in the letter “K”). But these stepped-down chipsets are actually newer than Z370, and so offer some features (like integrated/native USB 3.1 Gen2 support) that Intel’s Z370 lacks.
On the AMD side, the B350 and B300 chipsets still support overclocking. Although you will lose some fast USB and SATA ports over the X370 chipset, enough of those connectivity options remain to support most mainstream computing tasks. If you need more ports and drives, stepping up to a X370 board for $20-$30 more than a comparable B350 option is worth the money.
Do you plan to overclock?
As we noted in the chipset section above, if you plan to overlock on the Intel side, you’ll need to opt for a Z370 chipset and a CPU with a “K” in its model name (like the Core i7-8700K), or step up to the high-end X299 platform and a Skylake X chip. On the AMD side, things are a lot simpler, with all current-generation Ryzen chips supporting overclocking, and all but the lowest-end chipsets (A320 and A300) supporting overclocking as well.
But that doesn’t mean that most users should overclock their processors. As we said in our CPU Buying Guide, in order to make your CPU achieve higher clock speeds than it is rated for out of the box, you'll likely spend extra on an enhanced cooling system and a high-end motherboard. By the time you factor in all these extra costs, you're probably better off budgeting another $50-$100 for a CPU that comes with higher clock speeds out of the box.
Now, if you already have a top-of-the-line chip and want to push it even further or you just enjoy the challenge, by all means spend the extra money and time to squeeze out that extra speed.
What about audio?
Unless you’re a serious audiophile, you happen to get faulty hardware, or you opt for the lowest-end motherboard possible while still expecting exquisite sound, you should get by with on-board audio just fine.
Motherboard audio quality is primarily defined by the audio codec (aka processing chip) a given board uses. So, if you’re a stickler for sound quality, you can look up the codec a given board uses before buying and see if it’s a mid-range or high-end model. Alternatively, you can, of course, still opt for a dedicated sound card, or USB speakers that move the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) hardware outside of the PC altogether, like the Audioengine A2+.
What extra features do you need?
Given the sheer number of features that board makers sometimes slap on motherboards--particularly high-end models--it’s impossible to discuss them all. But here are a few to keep an eye on:
- On-board on/off switches: These can be handy in the initial build process, or if your system is being housed in an open case for benchmarking/component testing. But for the average user, on-board buttons (which sometimes also include buttons to clear the CMOS or do basic overclocking) aren’t necessary.
- LED diagnostic readouts: The tiny speaker that plugs into motherboard headers to provide diagnostic beeps when something goes wrong is going the way of the dodo. In its place, many mid-to-high-end boards now include a two-or-three-digit display for the same purpose, giving you an alpha-numeric code when something goes wrong. This can be a real help when building or upgrading and you either forget to plug something in, something isn’t seated properly, or one of your components turns out to be faulty.
- Wi-Fi Card: If you don't have Ethernet near your computer, you want this.
- Dual Ethernet ports: A single Gigabit Ethernet port has plenty of bandwidth for Internet traffic, so this is helpful mainly if you plan to use the computer as a server and the board can aggregate the two connections into one.
How important are aesthetics to you?
If the only time you’re going to see your system’s innards is when it’s powered down with the side panel off, there’s no reason to opt for RGB lights or flashy I/O covers and heatsinks. However, if your case has a window, you should get a board that looks good--with lights if you like them.
Just keep in mind that, particularly if you’re a novice builder, a dark motherboard can make building or updating your system more difficult, as on-board labels will be harder to see. Also, if you are building a system that you want to look as clean as possible (that is, with few visible wires snaking around the motherboard), look for a board with its fan and USB headers placed around the edges, and SATA and USB 3 header ports that point to the side, rather than sticking up vertically.
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