Picked the perfect CPU for your build? Now you’ll want to find the right motherboard to support it and your business needs. This motherboard buying guide for 2016 will get you familiar with the latest PC motherboard developments and technologies that you need to know to make an educated purchase.
Brands to Know
Since AMD and Intel are the two major desktop CPU manufacturers, all motherboards support one of the two— though never both on the same board. Intel and AMD typically don’t manufacture motherboards themselves anymore, though they did so in the past. Today, they stick to designing the chipsets—more on what those are below—manufacturers such as Asus, Foxconn, and Gigabyte use to make their own motherboards.
Things to Look For
One of the most important things to look for when purchasing a motherboard is the type of CPU socket it uses, as that determines what processors a motherboard can support. Over time, Intel and AMD introduce new and more efficient socket designs to support their latest processors, so upgrading to a new CPU may also mean upgrading the motherboard. Intel and AMD processors always use different sockets.
Chipset is a term that describes a group of on-motherboard chips and components that interface the processor. Every processor generation from Intel and AMD is accompanied by at least one chipset design specifically for that CPU. For instance, Intel Skylake-generation CPUs work only with the H110, B150, Q150, H170, Q170, and Z170 chipsets. Those Skylake chipsets differentiate themselves through their feature sets, such as overclocking, PCI-e lane support, number of memory channels, and more.
Sometimes, newer chipsets can work with older processors and vice versa—though that isn’t always the case. For example, the Z77 chipset designed for Ivy Bridge processors also supports older Sandy Bridge CPUs.
One of the biggest determinants for the size of your computer aside from the case is your motherboard’s form factor. Form factor basically means the size of the motherboard, which dictates how big your computer case needs to be to fit the mobo. While a small form factor motherboard will fit in a large case, a large motherboard won’t fit into a compact case. We highlight the most popular standard motherboard form factors below.
- ATX – The most popular form factor for mainstream and enthusiast motherboards, it measures 12 × 9.6 inches or 305 × 244 mm.
- Extended ATX (E-ATX) – Larger than ATX and popular for system builders that want to add a lot of multiple PCI-e expansion cards—typically video cards.
- Micro ATX (mATX) – A small form factor that measures only 244 × 244 mm, mATX is often used for compact office builds or portable entertainment PCs. One defining characteristic of mATX is that it only supports up to four expansion cards.
- Mini-ITX – Even smaller than mATX at 170 × 170 mm, Mini-ITX is commonly used for small form factor computers. It only supports one expansion card and up to two system memory slots.
System builders often take into account the area where desktop computers will occupy when planning which motherboard and components to use. Smaller form factors are of benefit in places where space is at a premium.
The number of PCI-e slots is limited by the motherboard’s form factor. An ATX motherboard supports up to seven expansion slots while mATX is limited to four and Mini-ITX one. If you need a lot of PCI-e slots for your build, you should consider an ATX or even E-ATX motherboard.
Aside from the number of PCI-e slots, also consider the configuration of those slots. PCI-e slots come in four form factors that are closely related to data transfer rates and what expansion cards you can install: x1, x4, x8, and x16. The x1 size is the smallest and offers the least amount of bandwidth while x16 is the largest with the most bandwidth. You want to make sure that the motherboard you choose has the right PCI-e configuration.
Multi Graphics Card Support (SLI/CrossFire)
If you plan to use multiple video cards in your build, you will want a motherboard that supports either NVIDIA SLI or AMD CrossFire—or even both. Even though a motherboard has the correct number of PCI-e x16 slots, without SLI or CrossFire support, it might not be able to let you use both.
Most motherboards include an integrated sound card and audio ports that should be adequate for most non- production uses. Integrated audio has the benefit of saving you money by negating the need for a dedicated sound card. However, if you’re going to be doing studio recording or need high-fidelity audio, a sound card is still required.
The type of memory (DDR3 or DDR4) the motherboard uses is determined largely by the chipset, but the amount of memory varies quite a bit between motherboards. Be sure that the motherboard you choose can support the amount of system memory you want to install.
Nearly all motherboards include some sort of onboard Ethernet networking while only a few include Wi-Fi out of the box. If you don’t expect to use Wi-Fi, you can save money by foregoing built-in wireless networking capabilities. In addition, built-in Wi-Fi usually can’t be upgraded to support new wireless standards in the future.
Many motherboards have built-in video output capabilities, often called an integrated graphics or onboard video. It is designed to work with processors that have integrated GPUs, such as AMD APUs and most Intel Core processors. If budget is a concern, choose a motherboard and processor that features onboard graphics capabilities. Keep in mind that motherboard graphics performance lags quite a bit behind dedicated video cards.
Though M.2 devices aren’t quite mainstream yet, expect the standard to be more popular for SSDs in the future. If you do plan to purchase an M.2 SSD, you’ll want to make sure that the motherboard supports NVMe standard. Without NVMe, you can’t use the M.2 SSD as a boot drive.
U.2 ports (SFF-8639)
A small number of high-end SSDs such as the Intel 750 Series connect to the motherboard via U.2 connector, which is also called SFF-8639. Most motherboards do not have U.2 connectors, though they can be added at a later date by expansion card. If you don’t want to use up an expansion card slot but still use a U.2 SSD, be sure to get a motherboard equipped with U.2 ports.
Users that want more processing performance from their hardware without upgrading said hardware often turn to overclocking for additional speed gains. It has the benefit of being free, with the downside of requiring additional cooling and potentially decreasing stability. It is essentially changing several settings in the motherboard’s BIOS configuration tool to increase clock speeds and voltages.
If you want to overclock, both the motherboard and CPU must support it and there is usually a price premium on hardware that supports overclocking.
Benchmarks let you compare performance across multiple SKUs, giving you an idea how multiple products compare to each other based on the compared metric. Video cards and processors benchmarks often get tons of attention, but motherboards can also be compared.
Important motherboard benchmarks to look out for include power usage during idle, boot times, file transfer speeds, memory bandwidth, and Deferred Procedure Call (DPC) latency. Product pages typically won’t include performance benchmarks, but you can usually find them in motherboard reviews.
Budget Motherboards (Under $100)
Mobos in this category typically lack advanced features such as multi-GPU support, overclocking capabilities, and onboard Wi-Fi. For day-to-day office tasks such as checking e-mail and web browsing, motherboards in this category should serve well.
Mainstream Motherboards ($100 – $200)
Mainstream motherboards often support overclocking abilities along with plenty of additional features such as M.2 slots and multi-GPU support. Mobos in this category cater more for users that customize their computers or need plenty of video processing power.
Enthusiast Motherboards ($200+)
Motherboards in this price bracket often have tons of advanced features such as built-in Wi-Fi, overclocking functions, plenty of USB slots, faster networking capabilities, and support for up to 4 graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire. Serious power for crunching numbers and video editing.
If you plan to build a new computer, keep in mind that your choice of motherboard is intertwined with many other components. Once you’ve picked the processor you want to use, the motherboard should be your second decision. Whether you choose an Intel motherboard or AMD motherboard, be sure to pick one that fits your performance and budget needs.