If the CPU of your computer is the brain, the motherboard is the nervous system that holds everything together. Without it, you’d have no way of transporting data from the various places that it needs to be before they make images appear on your screen. Sure, CPUs and graphics cards get all the column inches, but the motherboard is just as important, if not more so.
Its form factor influences your case decisions, its socket type defines which CPU range you choose from, its RAM sockets define which modules you choose, and so on. With that in mind, it’s important to think through your buying decisions, so you don’t either end up with missing features you decide you can’t live without, or multiple high-end features that you don’t actually use.
You can find decent motherboards for less than $100, or at the other end of the scale, the high-end can reach up to ten times that amount. Do you really need to spend the price of a used car on your motherboard? Well, that depends, and we’ll show you why.
A few things to keep in mind while you shop:
- Socket to ’em: Make sure you get the correct socket type for your CPU. Seriously. It doesn’t matter much if you go Intel or AMD these days, but make sure that the motherboard socket type matches the CPU you bought or you’ll find yourself needing to return something. All current mainstream AMD chips use the AM4 socket, while current 10th Gen Intel Core chips use the LGA1200 socket. On the prosumer side, AMD uses the X399 socket, and Intel uses the X299 socket
- The smaller the board, the smaller the feature set: There are three main sizes for motherboards, ATX, Micro-ATX, and Micro-ATX. You can pull off a build that will take up less space on your desk if you go for the smaller Micro or Mini sizes, but you’ll be limited on how many PCIe slots, RAM sockets and other connectors your board will have
- You don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot: Under $100 will get you a motherboard that will be fine for most use cases. It’s only really if you want to overclock Intel chips, watercool, or if you need a lot of ports that you need to go higher. The only real exceptions to this are motherboards for prosumer CPUs such as Intel’s X299 range, or boards using AMD’s mainstream X570 chipset as those start at around $150
- If you don’t need built-in WiFi or high-end ports, don’t pay more for them: If you plan on using a wired ethernet connection, don’t pay more for a motherboard that has onboard WiFi. The same goes for high-end ports like Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 Gen 2, don’t pay extra for these if you know you won’t need them
We’re going to run through what you really need to know while browsing for your next motherboard, at each price point. The end goal is to get a system that’s fairly well balanced, with options to upgrade if and when new hardware arrives.
If you want to save money to put towards other components, choose from Intel’s B360 range for their 9th Gen Core chips, or AMD’s B450 or B550 (when available in early June) chipsets. Those will give you enough features to get going, with lower PCIe lanes and storage options than the higher-end boards. That’s fine if you’re only planning on using one graphics card, and trust us, dual-GPU just isn’t worth it for anything but bragging rights.
If you really need all the PCIe lanes you can throw hardware at, it’s time to look at the HEDT segment of the market and Intel’s X299 or AMD’s X399 ranges. One last thing before we dive in, if you’re looking at AMD’s Ryzen 3000 range and want PCIe 4.0, you’ll need an X570 motherboard. Our current favorite is the ASUS TUF (WiFi) which you can pick up for $190 when it’s in stock.
What’s your budget?
- Under $100: At this price, you can get hold of overclockable motherboards for AMD chips, or high-end boards if you go for either X370 or X470, the earlier generations of motherboards using the AM4 socket that all Ryzen CPUs use. For Intel, you’ll be stuck with stock speeds, and you’ll also be limited to 8th or 9th gen processors, as the lower tier motherboards for the newly-released 10th Gen processors haven’t hit the marketplace yet. You might even be able to find motherboards with premium features, such as WiFi, in this bracket.
- Between $100 and $250: If you’re wanting to overclock on Intel, motherboards that support that start in this region. You’ll need Z370 for 8th Gen, Z390 for 8th Gen or 9th Gen, and Z490 for 10th Gen. Confused yet? That’s okay, we’ll get you on your way to gaming glory later on. Higher-end AMD chipsets start here too, from X570 as the newest and X470 as the prior generation, with more coming with WiFi, RGB, better power delivery stages, and other sought after features.
- Over $250: This is the start of the premium boards for the mainstream platforms, where the best components are used, the boards have a more coherent design language, extreme overclocking features, and support for watercooling hardware. You also start to see HEDT boards in this range, for the prosumer CPUs from Intel and AMD.
Which CPU did you pick?
Once you’ve figured out which CPU you are going to build with, your choice of motherboards narrows substantially. Well, at least with Intel it narrows substantially. AMD has used the same socket, AM4, for three generations of CPUs now, and any chip from those three should work with any of the three generations of motherboards, with a couple of provisos.
Intel is currently on 10th Gen Core CPUs using the LGA 1200 socket. That means only Z490 motherboards at current, the premium tier until lower chipsets are released. If you’re getting an 8th Gen Core processor, you need an LGA 1151 socket, and it also has to be specifically designed for the 8th Gen, as that’s also the same socket that the 7th Gen chips used.
Both high-end, prosumer lines (LGA 2066 for Intel, TR4 for AMD) use substantially larger sockets to accommodate the larger CPUs, and to feed the power requirements of those. Head on over to our CPU buying guide for more information on this.
Which form factor do you want?
Do you want to make a shoebox-sized PC, maybe so you can carry it to LAN events? You’ll want a Mini-ITX then, which will be more expensive than normal sized motherboards, only allow one PCIe slot (usually used for your graphics card), and have a limited selection of other ports for things like storage. The upside is, well, you can carry it easily.
If you still want to save some space on your desk, Micro-ATX is your friend. You’ll usually get support for at least two PCIe slots here, so you can technically use two graphics cards or maybe something specialized such as a capture card.
For all other builds, ATX is still the king. That’ll give you the most choice for expansion, the easiest time finding components that will fit your chosen case, and give you more space to work with when plugging everything in.
How many RAM slots do you need?
Most mainstream motherboards have four RAM slots, usually set up in dual-channel mode. Mini-ITX usually only has two, and high-end prosumer boards often have eight slots, four either side of the CPU socket. While it’s true that the number of slots does limit the amount of RAM you can install, sticks of RAM are now available in 32GB sizes, so the number of slots isn’t the limiter it used to be.
For most users, 16GB is still the recommended amount of RAM, with 32GB giving extra headroom for things like video editing or streaming. HEDT users will probably want as much RAM as they can afford, filling as many of those eight slots as possible.
Motherboard connectors you need to know about
It’s always a good idea to take a gander at pictures of the I/O area of the motherboards you’re trying to decide between. You want to make sure that it has all the external connectors you’re after, and you also want to check the bottom edge of the motherboard to check for USB headers there as well. Those go to the front-panel connectors on your case once you’ve built your PC, or to inexpensive expansion slot brackets you can add at the back.
Here are the most common back panel ports, with a quick rundown:
USB 2: The slowest type of USB ports that are used nowadays, but they’re great for mice, keyboards, and audio gear
USB 3 / USB 3.1 Gen1: This is the main standard for USB ports, they’re fast, plentiful, and work with almost everything
USB 3.1 Gen2: This is the newest standard, with only a few devices supporting the 10 Gbps of bandwidth they can provide
USB Type-C: These ports might be either of the USB 3.1 standards and if you’ve got a recent smartphone, you already recognize the easy-to-plug socket.
HDMI / DisplayPort Video out: Strictly speaking, these aren’t necessary as most builds will have discrete graphics cards that will provide the output to the monitor. They’re nice to have for troubleshooting though, or if you’re buying a CPU with integrated graphics
PS/2 ports: This is the old connector for keyboards and mice, you probably don’t care if this comes on your motherboard
Audio: Onboard audio has gotten pretty good nowadays, and this is where you’ll plug in your headphones, microphones, or speakers
WiFi/Bluetooth: Usually only found on higher-end motherboards, you’ll find a place to screw on the antenna used in wireless communication on the I/O panel
Thunderbolt 3: You probably won’t see this on your motherboard, but if so, it’s super speedy and able to output to displays and other hardware.
What expansion options do you need?
Modern motherboards pretty much only have two types of expansion slots, both PCIe but there’s the longer x16 slot used for graphics cards or other cards that benefit from the extra bandwidth, and shorter, x1 slots, that are good for USB expansion cards or sound cards. If all you want to put in your PC is one graphics card, you only really need a single x16 PCIe slot, which is why the M-ITX form factor is a favorite for gaming-only computers.
If you want to add more than one graphics card or other expansion cards such as PCIe storage, or as many storage drives as you can; you need to figure out which configurations will work for your needs. The TL;DR version is that to compensate for the limited PCIe lanes of some CPU and motherboard combinations, manufacturers over-book the lanes. Think of it as airline overbooking, but for your PC. If you put something on the motherboard, you might not be able to put on a second thing.
Make sure you read the online manuals for any motherboard you’re thinking of buying if you have needs such as using more than six SATA drives, using all the m.2 slots, filling all the PCIe slots, and other high-usage situations. Nobody wants to start plugging in their brand new rig and find that some things won’t work together.
If you really need all those PCIe lanes though, you should be looking at the HEDT options from Intel or AMD. All of AMD’s Threadripper CPUs have 64 PCIe lanes (60 from the CPU, 4 from the chipset), while Intel’s Core X supplies up to 44 PCIe lanes depending on the CPU, and up to 24 more from the chipset.
What extra features should you look for?
There’s a multitude of extra options that you could add to your shopping list, but there’s only really a few that matter to most buyers. For overclocking, any AMD motherboard that’s a B350 or higher can overclock, with varying results. On the Intel side, you need a Z370, Z390, or Z490 motherboard, and a corresponding CPU with “K” at the end of the model name, like the Intel Core i5-10600K.
Other features you should look for are:
- Onboard on/off/reset switches: This is a great addition for troubleshooting purposes, or for testing. Without it, you’ll have to make sure your front panel connectors are plugged in correctly, or use a screwdriver to short some pins to start your computer
- LED readouts: No, this isn’t your RGB lighting. This two-digit readout helps with troubleshooting, giving you an alpha-numeric code to check against the list in your manual. This is a major help if something goes wrong, and it’s a feature I personally won’t buy a motherboard that doesn’t include it
- WiFi and Bluetooth: If you’re nowhere near your router to wire Ethernet to your computer, you probably want to look for onboard WiFi. Nowadays, it’s almost always bundled with Bluetooth as well, so you can easily add peripherals or audio equipment
What about features you probably don’t need?
So now we know what to look for. Simple, right? Well… now there’s one section that’s not always mentioned – those features you probably don’t need. These are just used to drive up the price of the motherboard, and the majority of users don’t need them.
In no particular order, here’s what you probably don’t need, and why:
- More than six SATA ports: As we covered earlier, unless you really need that many SATA ports and nothing else, you really only need six. Most motherboards turn off other ports if you start to plug in more than that number, or sometimes even before that
- 2.5Gb or 10Gb Ethernet ports: Unless your home network is set up for faster Ethernet, you won’t need this. Most home broadband connections are around 100 Mbps or a hundredth of the 10Gb bandwidth
- More than one Ethernet port: Again, this is just driving up the price of your motherboard, for something that most users won’t ever use
- OC (overclock) buttons: Seriously, just learn to do this the long way. We’ll show you in an upcoming article
- Premium integrated audio: Basic onboard audio is pretty good nowadays, and you can be better served by buying an external DAC/AMP if you want better audio as it takes the signal path out of your EMF-filled computer case
- Slow Mode / LN2 Mode: Unless you’re chasing overclocking records by covering your motherboard in vaseline and dumping Liquid Nitrogen or other super cold substances onto it, you don’t need this feature
A word about aesthetics
If you’re going to end up with a computer case without a window, does it really matter to you if your motherboard looks snazzy? I mean, it’s hard to get away from RGB lighting nowadays, but do you need to pay the premium for things like M.2 Shields, toughened RAM slots, and other bling?
If your heart is all set on having the internals shown with your case having a window or full sides of tempered glass, then it’s time to consider aesthetics as well as function. At the minimum, you should get a motherboard that you wouldn’t mind staring at all day (because you will be). If you want the cleanest look, you’ll also want to consider where things like the fan, USB, and SATA ports are arranged on the motherboard, as you’ll have to route cables from these to other components.
If you want to take this further, you also need to consider the rest of the parts you will be using in your computer. That could be something as simple as using a coherent color scheme, or you could take it even further. ASUS has the TUF Gaming Alliance, with nearly twenty members creating everything from RAM to cases and more, all decked out in the signature TUF digital camo. ASRock also has a similar program, the Phantom Gaming Alliance, with fewer members but some influential names such as NZXT and InWin, all using the Phantom Gaming edgy black and red theme.
One last word on motherboards…
When you’re on the market for a new motherboard, the one question you need to answer first is “What am I going to be using this computer for?” Is it a straight replacement for a broken system, a new build to get a family member on the internet, or an overclocking monster that you’re going to chase records with? You wouldn’t buy an entry-level board to chase records, and you shouldn’t be buying the most expensive motherboard in the store for grandma (unless you really, really love her, of course).
After you’ve answered that question, and chosen the CPU that will be going in your build, then it’s time to figure out your budget for your motherboard. PCPartPicker is great to not just check out your budget for all your necessary parts, but also to root out any potential incompatibilities in your chosen parts.
Once you have a shortlist together based on your requirements, spare a thought for aesthetics if that’s something that matters to you. You’ll thank yourself later.
What do you think? Has this article helped guide you on your next motherboard purchase? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.
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