When it comes to gaming, it pays to be picky about motherboards. Shortcomings that otherwise go unnoticed in office applications can crash the party in action or racing games, and keep you off leaderboards like a case of shaky hands. Make sure those pricey drives, graphics cards and overclocked CPUs live up to their potential by giving them a loving home with a good motherboard. We’ve looked into dozens of them to find the best at a variety of prices and form-factors.
Update 11/25/2015: The new Skylake CPUs demand a new family of chipsets, which finally pave the lanes wide for serious I/O performance. The 170 chipset blurs the lines between Intel’s extreme and standard platforms with plenty of positive results for gamers and enthusiasts, although X99’s higher prices have rubbed off a little, too.
The best mid-range Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
MSI continues its winning streak in a shocking upset victory over ASUS with the Z170A Gaming Pro, a just-right mix of style, features, and price that resets expectations for motherboards under $ 150. Matching the more expensive ASUS Pro Gaming in features but beating it handily in price and current firmware stability, MSI seems to have a better grip on Intel’s new chipset than the competition, at least in this segment.
With a $ 130 street price, the Z170A Gaming Pro almost qualifies as budget hardware but delivers an experience well beyond the modest asking price, with full-speed M.2, 14 USB ports including a pair of 10 Gb/s 3.1 connectors, enhanced ALC1150 audio, and a fully adjustable Mystic Light LED array along the right edge of the motherboard.
Memory support tops off at a lofty 3600 MHz, but more relevant are stable, standard XMP profiles, a feat ASUS is still having trouble implementing, many BIOS revisions after the release of its competing Z170 Pro Gaming board.
Intel v219 LAN is provided for network connectivity, along with protection circuitry to prevent voltage spikes from travelling along the Ethernet line and frying the port. In fact, much of the board’s construction reflects MSI’s newfound commitment to component quality and reliability. Only time will tell in that regard, but all the visible choices such as heavy soldering, reinforced PCI slots, high-quality caps, and titanium chokes indicate improvements that should pay off down the road.
MSI’s BIOS doesn’t offer the deep granularity found elsewhere but remains one of the easiest to use, and overclocking doesn’t seem to suffer much from this. Top clockspeed results were on par with other mid-range boards and just a single multiplier below many high-end products, although temperatures were slightly warmer at peak load than on motherboards with more sophisticated VRM hardware, for example MSI’s own Z170 XPOWER Gaming Titanium Edition.
The main frustration with the Gaming Pro is an issue caused by the placement of the SATA connectors on the lower-right-hand side of the board. Mystic Light may be cool, but the edge-lit design used here means the drive connectors are inset from their usual home on the motherboard edge and pointed vertically.
Asus Z170 Pro Gaming
Since the second PCI slot is directly in line with these connectors, any multi-card set-ups will need to negotiate the bundle of SATA cables that are sure to block longer cards. L-shaped cable ends should help here, but a full house of hard drives will have problems regardless. More fan headers would be nice too; MSI never seems to include enough of them.
ASUS may be having issues with it at the moment, but don’t count out their Z170 Pro Gaming series yet. The problems all seem early-BIOS related, and while users may be moaning now, the right firmware flash could reverse those fortunes in an instant. Z170 is a brand-new architecture, and there’s sure to be plenty of drama down the road as each manufacturer’s tech teams learns its secrets.
Stay tuned for further developments.
The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
If you’re tired of waiting while ASUS sorts out the Pro Gaming series or gun-shy about going with MSI, ASUS offers the Z170-Pro. This non-gaming focused alternative features better VRM hardware than either of those midrange boards along with ALC 1150 audio, Intel v219 Ethernet, subdued white/silver looks, and ASUS’s signature-series BIOS, a package that provides the best overall experience on LGA1151 today.
Skipping past the beta-board waiting line will cost you a bit though, as the Z170-Pro is only available at its hefty initial list price of $ 195, making it costly for a general recommendation but the best fit for the vast $ 200 gap in between Z170 mid-range and newfound $ 300+ high-end frontier. These are early days for Skylake however, so expect $ 150-170 street prices before long, once the new-car aroma wears off and the discounts begin.
Looks are sharp for a mainstream motherboard. The white plastic shroud and silver heat spreaders that ASUS signature boards share appear sedate at first but match all components equally. In a nod towards MSI’s Mystic Light, a miniature color and pulse adjustable LED light show lives under the chipset logo shield, adding some flash right where the side window on most cases resides and providing a welcome touch of character, one of the Z170-Pro’s few deficiencies.
ASUS includes modes that allows the LEDs to react to sound inputs such as music or to change with system heat levels, although a proper numerical temperature display on the boot code readout would be appreciated nonetheless. That said, ASUS have come a long way from the dowdy look of motherboards past. The signature series is downright sexy for a non-niche product.
While Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and exotic extras like handheld overclocking consoles are absent, bread and butter options such as USB 3.1 connectors, a full-speed 4-lane M.2 slot, and memory support up to 3866 MHz are present and accounted for. XMP modes are stable and worked fine with the various DRAM sticks used for testing in the lab.
The ASUS Z170-Pro’s M.2 slot takes full advantage of four lane, PCI-E throughput
Runners up to the Z170-Pro include ASUS’s own ROG-branded Maximus VIII Hero, which offers largely the same package with more red and black street cred for the expected extra dollars, amounting to around $ 25-50 currently. You also get ROG’s upgraded BIOS, although that can be a mixed blessing depending on the revision since, due to volume, ASUS signature series products are generally more stable than their ROG counterparts.
The best budget Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
Budget boards aren’t meant for overclocking, which puts Intel’s H170 chipset front and center in the value class. The substantial cost saving from H170 vs Z170 comes mostly from skipping K processor price premiums, although there’s cash to be recovered from H-series motherboard purchases as well. When every dollar counts, it pays to put the pennies towards a better GPU once four healthy cores are present.
The battle for budget boards proved contentious this year, with MSI and ASRock Fatal1ty series fielding excellent products designed with gamers in mind. Both are worthy, but MSI’s H170 Gaming M3 takes the budget crown with the better BIOS and lower price, rounding out a smooth package that cloaks cost compromises well.
MSI Gaming 3
The goodness starts with a box and accessories package worthy of a midrange motherboard; there’s a padded connector backplate, adhesive labels for cable ends, the expected manual, CD, and assortment of drive cables along with a novelty door-hanger usually seen with specialty hardware.
The board itself comes padded and the box interior has a treated, matte black finish that lends an upscale atmosphere. It’s easy to forget this product costs less than $ 100 on the street. Looks don’t disappoint either, with a classic black and red color scheme that features enough flash, fit, and finish to satisfy without going garish.
Drive support includes a 32-bit 4-lane M.2 connector, supporting exotic SSD hardware such as Samsung’s 951SM, which pushed drive speeds over 2.5 GB/s in non-sequential read tests, matching high-end transfer rates from boards in this guide costing three times as much.
Seven available PCI slots outnumber ASRock Fatal1ty’s 5, and Gen 1 USB 3.1 ports now stand at 6, with Killer’s E2400 handling LAN duties. If the M3’s looks or LAN choice leave you flat, a mere $ 15 extra nets MSI’s H170A Gaming Pro, a virtually identical board that offers Intel LAN and a simplified Mystic Light LED implementation that are well worth the modest price increase.
Like all H170 boards, the drawbacks revolve mostly around upgrades and potential, meaning CPU multipliers are locked, memory is limited to 2133 MHz, and NVidia SLI isn’t supported, but these are minor issues for gamers who don’t overclock. That makes the Gaming M3 the perfect budget pick for this guide.
The best mini-ITX Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
ITX remains a land of limited returns for gamers, although Skylake’s power and heat reductions mean better build scenarios than Haswell could provide. While ASRock’s Fatal1ty series narrowly missed taking the budget pick in the ATX form factor, the Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming-ITX/ac managed to land the overall ITX recommendation for Z170 with a full-sized feature list along with some special tricks that separate it from the rest of the pint-sized pack.
Since a sizable segment of small builds pull double duty as media servers and HTPC’s, ASRock fortifies wireless credentials with full 802.11ac dual antenna Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 and pairs them off with Intel’s latest v219 Ethernet. Audio gets an upgrade with an enhanced 7.1 channel ALC1150 codec mated to optical connectors. There’s also HDMI 2.0 built in, a long overdue feature and an important one for media center use or if 4K streaming is on the dance card.
M.2 is provided via rear-board slot, at full 4-lane 32 Gb/s speeds, along with a pair of USB 3.1 Gen 2 connectors in A and C sizes and 10 additional USB ports, 8 of which are USB 3.0. CPU socket spacing is excellent, with room on all sides for most reasonable ITX sized cooling solutions.
Dual-memory slots support up to 32GB of DDR4, and the BIOS is rated to 3600 MHz, although actual results depend on a robust memory controller on your specific CPU. XMP profiles proved reliable from both GSkill and Corsair.
Despite the Z170 chipset, overclocking is limited by heat dissipation, VRM quality, and other areas constrained by small form factor designs and tiny enclosures. Still, we achieved results just a few hundred MHz shy of the high-end boards during testing, albeit at higher temperature than normally seen in mid-tower designs.
The tiny size doesn’t cramp the Z170 Gaming-ITX/ac’s style, either. With red textured heat spreaders, the Fatal1ty logo on the chipset shield, and red expansion slots for PCI-E and DRAM, this little ASRock holds its own when it comes to looks and displays nicely though enclosure windows.
In the ASRock tradition, the BIOS is rougher than ASUS, Gigabyte, or MSI, but most options are there if you dig a bit. Stability took a few revisions to arrive, but is good with current BIOS versions, so be sure to upgrade.
If you want to spend a lot more money for a little more performance, ASUS offers a Z170 Cadillac in the form of the Maximus VIII Impact. This ROG mighty-mite goes one better than the ASRock in most areas, but comes up short on price, asking a full $ 100 extra for a slight edge in numbers and a less flexible design. Some quality control issues have plagued these ASUS boards as well, with reports of failing Wi-Fi, a problem that we experienced with our otherwise functional sample at the lab.
The best high-end Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
While ASUS may be having problems with a few mid-range boards, there’s no problem at the high end. A perusal of the product catalog shows a bevy of overachievers above $ 200. There isn’t a loser in the lot, but some are smarter than others, and the Z170 Deluxe is ASUS’s overall valedictorian. A genius in motherboard form, it can do everything other motherboards do, only better.
It starts with feature list that leans towards the tangible. While other high-end boards tout fairly abstract upgrades such as armor plating or level-up electronics, ASUS gives you extra LAN ports, triple antenna 1300 Mb/s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and half a dozen 10 Gb/s USB 3.1 ports, including an elusive built-in type C connector.
Asus Z170 Deluxe
This motherboard isn’t cheap, but you’ll never wonder where the money went. There’s a shelf full of extra components spilling out of every aperture.
ASUS’s BIOS remains a model for other manufacturers in terms of control and options, although new users can quickly get in over their heads if they aren’t careful. Manual tuning options are deep enough to let enthusiasts squeeze every drop of reliable speed out of Skylake, with automatic overclocking controls producing impressive, if voltage happy, results in their own right.
Beyond the high price, shortcomings are few and mostly petty in nature. The box and presentation are a bit bland for a board in this class, with the cables, antenna, and other accessories housed in a mainstream cardboard package that looks little different from a budget special.
Extra onboard, built-in M.2 slots would be nice, but ASUS provides a workaround via the handy Hyper M.2 X4 Mini kit.
Auto overclocking results for ASUS’s Z170 Deluxe were just 100 Mhz off hand-tuned settings
The best mid-range Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
Asus has dominated the mid- to high-end motherboard market in recent years, and the current generation is no exception. The generic but reliable (and out of stock) Z97-A works well as a baseline recommendation, but if you’re willing to drill down a bit into the product lineup, the situation get more interesting.
Not listed in most Asus comparisons is a hybrid board that combines some of the better Republic Of Gamers brand features along with the robust simplicity of the main Pro series, a product line Asus dubbed the Z97 Pro Gamer.
Sporting a fashionable but restrained black and red color scheme, a 10Gbs M.2 socket, 8-phase VRM, a bevy of controller-enabled fan headers and plenty of overclocking tricks, it’s the best mix of features and fashion in the midrange market, running $ 160 on the street.
All the features are smart picks, from the Intel NIC to Realtek’s top shelf ALC1150 which is given Asus’s Supreme FX treatment, including isolated circuitry, improved contacts and a custom software stack shared with high-end ROG products. The networking package includes traffic shaping software designed to prioritize gaming packets, although like most packages of this nature, the actual benefits remain dubious.
The Gamer Pro’s most obvious missing feature is USB 3.1, which despite the heavy marketing blitz isn’t much of an issue now. Considering most Z97 motherboards support USB 3.1 by bundling a PCI card anyway, it’s not such a serious oversight. Another missing luxury is M.2 3.0 x 4 compatibility, which hurts but is a rarity at any price for the Z97. Lastly, no Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. For these extras you’ll need to step up to the high-end boards in the next section.
Runner ups outside of Asus’s own products include Gigabyte’s snazzy orange GA-Z97X-SOC Force, an overclocker’s dream motherboard that serves double duty as the backbone of a great gaming rig.
Gigabyte SOC FOrce
Orange is the new black.
Mid-range runner-up (LGA 1150)
The Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SOC Force offers physical buttons you can press to adjust clock speeds, PCI access and other low-level features on the fly, allowing unmatched Z97 tweaking freedom. Special variants are designed for open bench use with LN2 and other exotic cooling systems, making these the perfect motherboards for competition and display.
Don’t let all those slots fool you, however. No PLX chips keeps the latency down but also keeps card arrangements standard. You’re still limited to 2 cards at 8 x 8 via Nvidia SLI, and although The GA-Z97X-SOC’s $ 190 price pushes it out of contention for a mid-range pick, gamers who like to tweak or overclock should give it a close look.
The best budget Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
ASRock’s Fatal1ty takes the budget motherboard pick by combining a boatload of midrange features with high style, easy installation and trick overclocking for an overall package that’s hard to beat for the price.
While not as robust as Asus’s low-budget runner up, the H97 Gamer Pro, the Fatal1ty matched Asus’s raw performance and outdistanced ASRock’s own Z97 Extreme boards on cost, stability and compatibility in this price-sensitive segment. Not bad for less than a Benjamin. Utilizing Iow-latency Intel gigabit Ethernet and Crystal Sound-enhanced Realtek 1150ALC audio, the H97 Fatal1ty Performance forgoes M.2 support to reach a fantastic $ 80 street price, and represents the best choice in budget gaming if you’re sticking with standard SSD drives, such as Samsung’s 850 EVO.
The branding may be silly, but the Fatal1ty starts to win friends and influence people the moment you open the box. Large red metal heat spreaders offer enough fashion for a windowed case, a slick touch even many midrange boards neglect. Touches like high-quality mouse ports, smooth driver installation and bundled XSplit software sweetens the deal further, especially for gamers.
Board construction can’t stand up to market leaders, but ASRock has come a long way from the snap, crackle and pop installation experience that marred their past budget offerings. Fatal1ity boards feel like serious products.
Installation is painless and the quickest of all the boards I tested, although the dearth of extras included in the box is as responsible for this as smooth driver installation. An updated BIOS accepts the latest Haswell processors readily, rounding out a remarkable feature list for the price.
The Fatal1ty board provided a stable overclock just shy of the lab’s i7 4790K’s 4.8 GHz maximum, although it needed higher temperatures and some BIOS tuning to get there. Booting off a fast SSD and displayed in the right enclosure, the Fatal1ty does a credible imitation of a high-end gaming part that could easily cost twice as much.
ASRock’s closest competitors here are other Fatal1ity boards, such as the H97 Killer which includes 10 Gb M.2 but replaces the Intel NIC with Atheros Killer Ethernet and its annoying, naggy drive, but as the price crests $ 100, outside options start looking a lot better.
All ASRock Fatalit1ty boards tested for the guide suffered from mediocre to poor results with DTC Latency Checker, depending on the included driver mix, but that’s expected at this end of the cost spectrum and didn’t affect game performance in a serious fashion.
Asus’s runner up, the H97 Gamer Pro, has similar features and better construction but sports a price one third higher than ASRock’s cheapest Fatal1ty offering. At that price, it’s easier to just go ahead and recommend the excellent Z97 version instead, which happens to be our midrange motherboard pick. Read on.
Why H97 and not Z97?
Drop much lower than $ 100 and the motherboard market starts to get murky. While some vanilla boards deliver the basics, gaming with élan on the basement end of the budget requires more careful consideration. Cheapo Z97 motherboards cut a lot of corners to push the prices down, but they aren’t the only game in town. There’s salvation in the form of the H97 chipset.
H97 gaming requires remarkably little sacrifice in either performance or looks. It’s a less flexible world, but when it comes to money, the savings multiply quickly. You can skip high-speed DRAM since 1600 MHz is the order of the day. You can also forget about SLI, although there are still enough lanes around to play with AMD Crossfire setups if you don’t mind the performance penalty. Who uses multiple graphics cards in a budget system, anyway?
Another sacrifice is serious overclocking. You’ll still be able to push clockspeeds in a rudimentary fashion using a few friendly processor SKUs via the handy Non-Z overclock feature, but staying at the speed limit and going with a non-K series i5 over an i7 will net serious dividends that can be redirected towards a higher horsepower graphics card, which is where you’ll realize the biggest ROI for gaming.
The best high-end Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
Stuck between the excellence of the Z97 midrange and the opulence of X99 extreme platforms, high-end Z97 boards have a hard time standing out. While the driver and BIOS abandonment issues that plagued the early gaming-ghetto motherboard brand era are mostly gone, it’s hard to justify spending over $ 200 when better choices exist both up and down the ladder.
The smart strategy for high-end Z97 shoppers focuses on useful features over seasonal fashions, which puts Asus’s Z97 Pro Wi-Fi/USB 3.1 at the top of the list. One of the few products that include USB 3.1, Bluetooth and high-speed Wi-Fi integrated on the motherboard, the Z97 Pro satisfies most computing needs out of the box and leaves the slots and ports free to configure as you like.
Mature drivers, Intel-based gigabit Ethernet and 12-phase CPU power control add up to stable, low-latency operation and the highest LGA 1150 overclock scores in this evaluation, a stable 4.8 GHz from the lab’s Intel i7 4790K. Automatic overclock controls in the BIOS produced stable settings that pushed speeds almost as far as manual tuning. There are also plenty of 4-pin, PWM fan headers to keep that overclocked CPU cool and quiet. If Asus hadn’t skimped on the 4 lane M.2, the Z97 Pro would be nearly perfect.
High-end board options don’t stop at the Z97 Pro Wi-Fi, however. Specialty Asus variants such as the Z97 WS offer quad SLI graphics support via I/O lane-multiplying PLX chips for a similar price, allowing X99-like slot expansion capabilities with standard i7 and i5 CPUs. The Z97 Pro Deluxe features an overkill 16 phase VRM and dual Intel Ethernet controllers along with a 3T3R 802.11ac Wi-Fi module and wireless charging pad for mobile devices, but the best balance of useful rather than theoretical features sits with the Z97 Pro Wi-Fi/USB 3.1.
Gamers looking for more bling in their high-end builds can opt for the identically priced runner up Maximus VII Hero, which trades the traditional Asus gold accents for ROG red and black, brings along isolated audio circuitry and an improved software stack, but loses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and some CPU voltage refinement in the process.
The best mini-ITX Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
The number of valid ITX gaming system scenarios are nearly as small as the motherboards themselves, so there’s just a pair of recommendations for motherboards in this class, the Asus Z97I Plus and the Maximus VII Impact. Why aren’t we crazy about ITX for gaming? Well, you’re paying a lot more for the miniature form-factor and getting less in return. Tiny boards only have room for so many features, so some ATX niceties get cut, and cooling is tougher in a smaller case, too.
But if you do want to build a tiny ITX rig that can sit in your living room or on top of your desk, you might as well get a great one. Despite a limited 6 phase VRM and just two DRAM slots, this little Asus Z97I Plus proved a competent overclocker in testing and is more likely to be limited by the realities of ITX enclosure cooling than any motherboard design limits.
You’ll find fewer ports than larger offering but 2T2R Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both standard, along with a 10 Gb/s M.2 slot situated on the back of the motherboard, options that are likely to get plenty of use for media center duty. At $ 155 on the street, the Asus Z97I Plus delivers all you need from an HTPC box at midrange motherboard prices. Too bad Asus didn’t include ALC1150 audio.
Maximus VII Impact
The best high-end mini-ITX motherboard (LGA 1150)
Bucking the high-end ITX trend, Asus’s Maximus VII Impact is actually reasonably priced and offers one of the cheapest routes to full speed, 30 Gbps Ultra M.2.
For windowed cases or high end specialty ITX builds, the upscale Maximus VII Impact is an attractive, surprisingly affordable fit at $ 215. The Maximus comes in classic red and black and shockingly offers a full four lane M.2 implementation along with 3T3R WiFi and the usual ROG goodies for an reasonable $ 50 over the Z97I, both worthwhile additions but the end of the line when it comes to sensible gaming with ITX. Good luck squeezing a video card in there!
The best Intel Extreme motherboard (LGA 2011 v3)
Nice as high-end Z97 is, it’s the Haswell-E builds that represent the end of the rainbow for Intel gamers, and the Asus Rampage V Extreme is the best board I’ve tested in this high-end dreamland.
X99 is a strange, expensive land where the law of diminishing returns is an accepted fact of life. X99 and Haswell-E make more sense for desktop performance junkies like videographers than they do for gamers, as the core count performance advantages over high-end Z97 systems don’t translate into framerate increases or added features beyond ultra-rare triple- or quad-GPU setups, but gaming systems based on X99 motherboards still have some tricks up their sleeves.
Currently, Haswell-E is the home of the fastest 4-lane gen 3 M.2 slots. While Z97 technically supports this type of M.2 slot, so few manufacturers implement it that it’s easier to simply shoot for X99 or bite the bullet and go NVMe via an Intel 750 PCI card. If you’re having doubts this single feature makes a difference, think again. These drives transfer data at rates three times the speed of the fastest SATA SSDs; it’s an increase you’ll notice immediately.
X99 also boasts either 28 or 40 I/O lanes via the CPU, giving SLI gamers some bandwidth breathing room for additional expansion cards without resorting to the PLX trickery of Z97 or low IPC cores performance of FX.
While some consideration must go to cost, there’s no such thing as a budget X99 build. All of these components cost big money and evaluations here give more pause to money wasted than money spent.
As is normal for motherboards in this rarified class, the motherboard itself is just a part of the package. Along with the usual USB 3.1 card, 3T3R WiFi antenna and other expected goodies, Asus’s crazy play in the X99 arena is a detachable module with a color screen called the OC Panel that reports real-time system information and allows changes in clockspeed, cooling profiles and other areas on the fly. This module can be flush mounted in a 5.25” drive bay and attaches to the Rampage V Extreme via a custom braided connector just long enough for it to sit near the case when removed.
The OC Module is cool and useful, but styled like a prop for a sci-fi bad guy.
In addition to the usual bevy of ports inside and out, Asus includes a few on-motherboard buttons to help system tweakers directly manipulate hardware functions, and a small two digit LED readout provides quick access boot codes and other useful information. Along with OC panel, this creates a very friendly environment for system exploration, second only to Gigabyte’s SOC Force board for LGA 1150.
Between the overclock friendly hardware, slick ROG BIOS, quad-SLI support and gen 3 M.2 storage interface, there’s little left on the table when it comes to speed although you’ll lose the last PCI slot if you enable M.2.
At $ 515, the Rampage V Extreme 3.1 is moonshot money even for X99, but the accessories help balance out the price. There’s even a bit fun in the form of stickers and Do Not Disturb signs, but these seem halfhearted. For those kinds of thrills, you’d be better served by the runner up, MSI’s Gaming 9 ACK.
X99 Extreme runner-up
MSI’s titan, the Gaming 9 ACK, is surprise runner up for X99.
MSI offers the runner up Gaming 9 ACK, a solid alternative at $ 440 that offers performance in the same ballpark as the Ramage V but with greater style and a built-in hardware assisted, Twitch friendly AVERmedia game streaming engine for its wow factor.
The Gaming 9 ACK was stable, friendly to use and includes motherboard integrated USB 3.1 but a less advanced BIOS, non-Intel NIC controllers and a few quality control ghosts from MSI’s past kept it from taking the top spot. That’s nevertheless a huge jump from MSI, and the new disco-LED Godlike X99 flagship gives them another shot at the top spot when it comes under evaluation soon.
The best AMD motherboards (AM3+)
With AMD motherboards always on sale these days there’s little reason to skimp if you’ve decided to build an AM3+ or FM2+ based system. Gigabyte’s GA-970A-UD3P is the best place to start for a budget AM3+ build; around 90 bucks gets you a generic but well-made board with an 8+2 phase VRM and a solid collection of SATA drive controllers and USB connectors. You also get a few modern touches like BIOS backups and quick-charge USB connectors, but there’s a distinctly vintage feel to the proceedings since AM3+ is getting on a bit in years
You won’t get SLI support on the GA-970A-UD3P’s cut-down AMD 970 chipset but Crossfire remains an option if you feel like filling expansion slots. If you can foot the bill, stepping up to the full FX chipset is recommended as the flexibility well worth the price and some of the options are surprising.
ASRock disrupts the pecking order with the $ 160 990FX Killer/3.1, making AM3+ feel new again.
The best mid-range AMD motherboard (AM3+)
AMD may have designed the 990FX chipset before technologies such as M.2 and USB 3.1 but there’s no reason those features can’t be integrated into a motherboard later. While most AM3+ products take the fiscally conservative design approach and lock the feature list down to what was available when the FX chipset was released, ASRock’s 990FX Killer/3.1, acts like AM3+ came out yesterday.
From the slick red gamer-livery look to the 10 Gb/s M.2 slot and the bundled 3.1 USB card, this $ 160 board competes blow for blow with Intel’s latest Z97 midrange offerings and on both features and price. A full range of overclocking controls are complemented by plenty of 16x PCI slots to accommodate just about any configuration you want to try. Audio is provided by Realtek’s ALC1150, which gets the Crystal Audio treatment to reduce distortion.
In typical ASRock fashion, construction isn’t top shelf but stability is nevertheless excellent. Overlocks came within 5% of best in class, thanks to an 8+2 phase VRM and reasonable BIOS controls. Pretty much everything you could want from an FX990 board is present, except for a single detail – no official support for AMD’s super-hot 220W FX-9590 or FX 9370 as the 990FX Killer/3.1’s CPU socket is rated for 140 watts only.
There’s little reason to go beyond this point in the FX market, but if you want to run the high end FX-9590 chips in style there’s always Asus’s legendary Crosshair Formula-Z or Sabertooth 990FX, excellent but aging runner up AM3+ boards that still charge fully for a piece of their excellent reputations.
The best AMD motherboards (FM2+)
Life with the A88X chipset is a bit more modern and bit less expensive since it’s still an actively developed platform designed for tight budgets from the start. Since you won’t be buying a video card, you can spend a bit more on the motherboard and 2400+ Mhz DRAM to extract the most from your rig, which means skipping the lower end boards and go straight to the midrange. That makes the Asus A88X-Pro the primary pick for FM2+. You can find cheaper A88X boards, but the 10 or 20 dollars saved at this level aren’t worth the diminished stability or features they’ll cost you down the road.
The reasonable $ 100 entry fee gets Realtek ALC 1150 audio, a stable 6+2 phase VRM and an attractive, unique Asus gold color heat spreader design which includes a nifty looking heat pipe that snakes across the board for better thermal distribution.
You don’t get Intel Ethernet but at least the included generic Realtek gigabit doesn’t annoy like Atheros’s popular Killer LAN package. Asus’s UEFI BIOS and tuning software control allow for easy, highly granular control of the CPU, iGPU and RAM speeds, so you can have fun squeezing the most out of your APU and high speed DDR3 DRAM. M.2 is also absent, but that’s nothing new as no FM2+ boards are shipping with M.2 slots at this time.
The high-end FM2+ pick, Asus’s Crossblade Ranger, puts top shelf ROG hardware in your hands for mid-range money.
The best high-end AMD motherboard (FM2+)
If you’d like to splurge, $ 150 gets you the Crossblade Ranger, which adds Intel Ethernet, improved audio via the Supreme FX, dual 16X PCIe 3.0 slots and ROG red/black accents instead of standard Asus gold. DPC latency goes down in the process as well, no doubt due to that Intel NIC.
Without M.2 or USB 3.1, the Crossblade Ranger feels slightly behind the curve but you won’t find another ROG product near its price, so if you’re looking for entry into Asus’s exclusive club, this is the cheapest ticket around. Besides, isn’t that what you have all those slots for?
What you need to know about motherboards and how we tested
What’s the coolest, most personal part of your rig? It’s not the CPU. Those all look the same, and there are only a few noteworthy ones per cycle anyway. It’s not the graphics card either, although those are pretty cool. They have a little more variety than CPUs, but not much. The coolest component of your system, the part with the most personality and style by far, is the motherboard. There’s one for every use, niche and sensibility. It’s hard to believe how many of them are out there.
so many mobos
Seriously. There are so many.
Motherboards don’t provide performance themselves, but like their parental namesakes, they enable it by allowing quality components to reach their full potential. That unlocked Intel K-series or AMD Black processor performs exactly the same as its cheaper brethren on a motherboard that doesn’t support overclocking. Even on boards that do overclock, you’ll get a lot more reach and a wider stability envelope from a quality board over a cheap knock-off. There’s a metaphor for life in there, if you’re not picky.
Chipsets provide the control logic required to make the components of a system work together, from CPUs to storage, and are responsible for style and numbers of connectors available on a PC both inside and out. Motherboards are identified by the chipsets they are based on, and these names change when major new CPU revisions are released, which happens frequently. That means that at any given time, a few generations of motherboards share the marketplace, adding to the confusion. To help make sense of this, here are the current chipsets and the sockets they support.
The sunset begins for the 9 series. Long live Haswell.
Intel’s current chipset, the 9 series, plays home to the fifth generation Haswell-based processor. The Z97 chipset, which supports overclocking and SLI, is the most popular with enthusiasts although the mainstream H97 and high-end X99 chipsets help round out the gamer’s corner of Intel’s lineup.
Z97 and H97 support socket LGA 1150 with X99 using the larger LGA 2011v3 socket whose greater pin count accommodates the extra cores and other features found in Haswell-E. The 9 series has precious few improvements over earlier Intel chipsets, but the main attraction, native M.2 SSD support, is a sweet fruit indeed, delivering over 2 GB/s transfer rates under ideal conditions.
Intel motherboards featuring the new 170 series are just around the corner, but stability, price and the new product pecking order are yet to be established. They utilize a new socket, LGA 1151, which means plenty of additional investment along with the motherboard including a new CPU and DDR 4 RAM.
While Intel’s Skylake CPU and the 170-chipset motherboards that support it are scheduled for introduction between August and October, don’t expect full availability or all the quirks to be ironed out until early next year. This keeps Haswell competitive through the holiday season, especially as sales and other discounts sweeten the deal. If you need a new system today, don’t wait for Skylake. The line is longer than it looks, and much of Skylake’s goodness can be purchased today via X99 and Haswell-E if you really need it.
M.2 SSDs: 2.1 gigabytes per second of sequential read goodness awaits those with 4 free lanes and a compatible controller, like the one in MSI’s Gaming 9 ACK.
Speaking of X99, for the first time in years, the extreme platform has relevance beyond bragging rights for Intel. Haswell-E sports up to 8 cores/16 threads, next-generation DDR4 RAM support and I/O lanes aplenty for multi-GPU gamers. Four-lane, gen 3 M.2 support, which more than triples performance over SATA SSDs, is commonplace on X99, a stark contrast to the Z97 marketplace where anything beyond the standard 10 Gb/s M.2 is almost impossible to find.
You’ll also get all the bling you can handle. From LED light shows to remote-control overclocking panels, you’ll find the best crazy ideas in Intel’s computing world. The X99 isn’t cheap, but it delivers tomorrow’s tech today.
AMD is a bit better about sockets, I/O lanes and motherboard longevity than Intel, which is one of the reasons why Team Red remains popular, especially with budget-conscious gamers. While the AM3+ and FM2+ sockets have been around for a while, development remains active, especially for the latter.
The upcoming Zen architecture promises to change AMD’s landscape quite a bit, but it won’t hit the market for a while. Today’s reality is that AMD processors aren’t competitive with Intel at the high end, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling reasons to put a system together around one
990FX and A88X are the current motherboard chipsets for AMD’s sockets, and what they lack in cutting-edge features they make up for with flexibility, cost and user-oriented design. Where Intel doles out miserly, 16 lane portions of I/O to top-shelf customers buying i7 4790K CPUS, AMD serves up a generous 40 lane helping via the 990FX chipset.
Processor compatibility spans multiple product generations, so older CPUs work in later motherboards without a problem for both FM2+ and AM3+ based systems. You’ll need to pay nearly a grand more to Intel for just a few of those privileges, and that’s for the cheap seats. High-end AMD APUs, such as the A10-7870K, don’t even require graphics cards to deliver reasonable gaming performance and readily Crossfire with inexpensive entry-level discrete cards for a sizable boost.
That said, expect a lengthy hunt for USB 3.1 support, M.2 controllers or any other current-generation technology enjoyed by Intel users. Even high-end AMD motherboards feel trapped in 2013. To compensate, it’s wise to shoot for plenty of slots, because you’ll likely need them. Also, weak IPC means AMD processors are poorly suited to low-thread workloads, including many demanding games, so you’ll need to compensate with a beefy GPU selection and just learn to live with lower framerates on CPU-limited titles.
If you don’t need top-of-the-line CPU performance to satisfy your enthusiast urges, you’ll find life with AMD pleasant and inherently more flexible. Cheap and fun are a winning formula.
Picking a motherboard: What do you want from your system?
The key to navigating the motherboard maze is mapping where you want to take your system. It starts with size. How small does your computer need to be? When it comes to motherboards, bigger is better, roughly up to a full-sized ATX. Go with the biggest board your case can comfortably accommodate; don’t let the novelty of a small board tempt you unless absolutely necessary, or novelty is the part of the mission plan.
Why? Smaller boards cost more, provide fewer features and just aren’t as stable as big ones. Unless there’s a specific reason to go ITX, it’s better to avoid them for gaming. Larger boards are easier to work with, provide better voltage regulation and offer niceties like room for serious graphics cards, slots for M.2 drives and extra RAM capacity. You also avoid the skinned knuckles and high blood pressure inherent in every tight build.
For example, ITX boards that feature M.2 slots frequently put them on the backside of the motherboard, so you’ll need to disassemble your system to reach them or purchase an enclosure that has a cutout specifically for this purpose.
The “bigger is better” rule erodes for the largest motherboards, as prices for E-ATX and ATX-XL boards and the cases they require skyrocket. Enclosure prices can more than double moving from mid- to full-sized towers, adding significantly to a system’s bottom line. Remember to factor in that hidden expense when buying and building beyond ATX.
The next step is listing all the things you need from a system. What kind of drives are you hooking up? Are you using Ethernet or Wi-Fi? Are you running more than one graphics card? How big is the CPU cooler? Any new motherboard should accommodate it all with to room to grow. It’s easy to be seduced into a high-priced boutique board only to find out the RAM slots are too close to CPU socket, or it has one less USB 3 port than you need. When it comes to motherboards, features and stability trump performance claims.
Learning about lanes
High speed I/O inside a motherboard is limited to the number of PCI lanes available to the chipset and CPU. Standard Intel desktop processors have 16, with another 8 provided by the chipset. This seems like plenty until you remember one graphics card uses up to 16 lanes by itself. This is why standard Intel Z97 motherboards can’t run two video cards at full speed: 16 +16 = 32 lanes. Instead, Z97 boards run the cards at 8x, which nips performance imperceptibly but allows for some flexibility with card arrangements.
The performance drop from 16x to 8X is unnoticeable in gaming and most workloads, but some components require 8x slots at minimum to operate, such as Nvidia graphics cards. This means many motherboards won’t be able to support SLI and 4 lane M.2 at the same time without PLX support, which adds simulated lanes by multiplexing existing ones. This translates to added cost, latency and a radically reduced pool of motherboards to select from.
Intel i7-6770K – Socket LGA 1151
Intel i7 5930K – Socket 2011V3
Intel i7 4790K – Socket LGA 1150
AMD 8350K – Socket AM3+
AMD 7850K – Socket FM2+
AMD 7870K – Socket FM2+
Cooler: Corsair H100i GTX
Power Supply: Corsair HX 1200i
SSD: SATA – Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB
M.2: Samsung SM951 ACHI 128 GB
Case: Corsair 760T
RAM: 16 GB Corsair Vengeance LPX 2800 DDR 4 (4×4) CMK
Graphics cards: Nvidia
Single – MSI 980ti Gaming
SLI – MSI 980ti Gaming
Graphics cards: AMD
Single – Powercolor R390
Crossfire – MSI R290X
How we tested gaming motherboards
The motherboards recommended in this guide all received various forms of hands-on evaluation including enclosure installation, performance benchmarking, stability testing and a follow up period of real-world break-in that focuses on gaming, entertainment and media software. When possible, all tests are performed with the same components installed to remove any variables except the motherboard itself. We also researched the entire field of gaming motherboards and narrowed the list down to the best, most competitive boards before choosing these to test.
Benchmarks include AIDA 64 Extreme, Cinebench 15, Crystal Disk Mark, Unigine Heaven, 3DMark’s FireStrike and Skydiver tests, Unigine Valley and DPC Latency Checker, while the real world break-in period encompasses office and creative work, media streaming and gaming with a variety of demanding titles such as GTA-V, Bioshock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, Far Cry 4 and others. Gaming tests are run at 1080P to remove any bottleneck caused by graphics card performance. When possible, both single and dual graphics card configurations are tested to insure motherboard stability in high bandwidth situations.
Special thanks to Intel, Asus, MSI, AMD, Corsair, Nvidia, GSkill and ASRock for their assistance and cooperation in putting together the guide!
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