If you’ve ever built a PC, you probably know that after the CPU/GPU, the right choice of a motherboard is quintessential. Although a motherboard doesn’t cost as much as a good CPU or GPU, it doesn’t mean that you can go all stingy on it. A decent motherboard makes sure that your PC doesn’t run into any technical issues like a faulty PCIe bus or malfunctioning ports, etc in the long run. The motherboard you buy directly affects the cost and components of your PC. Its form factor decides the size of your build, its socket size decides which CPUs you can spring for, and so on.
Motherboards cost all the way from $60, for budget builds to more than $500 for premium flagship boards for high-end builds. As you climb the price ladder, a hoard of different features make it more and more confusing and you may end up paying a lot more than you should.
We will help you select the right motherboard that’s perfect for your needs and doesn’t disturb the budget of your PC build.
Well this is a long guide and if you’re too lazy to read it all or maybe just don’t have enough time right now, here’s a summary of the whole guide :
Choosing The Right Motherboard:
- CPU Socket Size: Intel and AMD both offer a wide range of powerful CPUs. It’s important to make sure that whichever CPU you choose, you also go with the correct motherboard for it. The latest AMD chips work on AM4 sockets while the latest Intel 8th Generation CPU use an LGA 1151v2 socket.
- Board Size: Motherboards are available in three main sizes, ATX, Micro-ATX and Mini-ITX with ATX being the largest and Mini-ITX being the smallest. All the sizes have their own merits. A smaller motherboard will make your chassis smaller and more compact but you’ll lose some PCIe slots, extra RAM slots, and other ports.
- Pricing: Motherboards are not always hard on your budget and wallet. You can buy a decent motherboard for less than $100. Such a board won’t have many ports and you’ll lose the overclocking capabilities. You can get a board with an ample amount of ports and overclocking capabilities at around $150. Although the enthusiast CPUs like Intel’s Extreme Edition Core i processors require separate motherboards that may cost you more than $200.
- Pay only for what you need: Many times people end up paying for features that they aren’t ever going to use. Be clear with what your needs are and pay only for the features you require and will actually use. If you are going to game, then you are going to need boards with the better audio chipsets—e.g., Asus’ Supreme FX.
It’s important to keep in mind that multi-GPU configs like SLI and X-Fire are more or less obsolete, so its a sheer waste of money to pay extra for a board just for that. If you are building for office work, then you probably won’t even need a PCIe slot, unless your work involves GPU intensive simulations. Although paying more for high-end ports like USB 3.1 Generation 2, Thunderbolt 3 etc. can future proof your PC.
Let’s start off shall we..
How much should your motherboard cost?
Price of a motherboard ranges from around $50 for the low-end boards to more than$500 for enthusiast offerings. These premium boards are compatible with HEDT (High-end Desktop) chips like the Threadripper and Core X. Let’s take a look at all the different price ranges and what can you expect from them:
- Up to $100: These boards are the cheapest and provide the most basic features. You can still get an overclockable board for AMD chips even at this price range. Although the Intel Chips won’t be overclockable on these boards, some basic features in this price range include onboard Wi-Fi.
- $100 to $150: These boards are equipped with overclocking capabilities for both AMD and Intel chips. Some other features include RGB lighting and Wi-Fi.
- $150 to $200: As we increase the price, the boards become suitable for more aggressive overclocking. This is due to bigger heatsinks, better power phases, and voltage regulation modules. These motherboards feature even more RGB lighting. Other than that, you will find a wider variety of ports, with high-end ports like USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 2 port.
- $200+: This is the range where you’ll find the best boards with the most premium features. These boards are generally not required by your average customers and are generally suitable for the absolute high-end processors. CPUs with a high core count like Intel Core X and AMD Threadripper require these motherboards. They have huge heatsinks, a premium design and durable components. The highlights include the extreme overclocking features that an average customer doesn’t need.
Selection of the correct motherboard for your CPU:
For example, if you’re planning on using an Intel 8th Generation Core processor, it’ll work on a board with LGA 1151 socket which is specifically designed for 8th generation processors. Although the older boards for 7th generation chips use the same socket, they aren’t compatible with the 8th gen chips.
On the other hand, AMD uses the same AM4 socket for all its current-generation chips. And it’s expected that they won’t be changing that at least till 2020.
If you are looking for a board to power your high-end chips like Intel’s Core X or AMD Threadripper, you’ll need a socket that can work with the larger size and power draw of these chips. For Intel, you can use LGA 2066 socket while for AMD, TR4 socket is used.
Size of your Motherboard
- ATX: This is the largest and the most common size. It provides the most number of plugs and slots.
- Micro-ATX: This design is about 2.4 inches shorter than the ATX. This smaller size obviously translates to less room for slots and ports.
- Mini-ATX: These are the smallest sized boards and used for small, compact builds. Generally, there’s room for just one add-in card and even lesser number of connectors.
I/O ports for your motherboard
One core section of the mobo where you have to be careful is the I/O. This is where you can make some strategic choices and save a little money as well make sure that all your needs are fulfilled. It’d be a waste to be stuck with ports and slots that you’re not going to ever use.
Here are some of the common ports,
- USB 3 / USB 3.1 Gen1: This is a port that works with almost every peripheral and you should have as many as possible of these.
- USB 2: It’s similar to the USB 3/3.1 but is a bit slower. It’s more suitable for USB keyboards, mice, and other devices.
- USB 3.1 Gen2: This port is not very common and is still not supported by most devices. It provides 10 Gbps of bandwidth, twice of what USB 3.1 Gen1/ USB 3.0 can manage.
- USB Type-C: These ports are either compatible with USB 3.1 Gen1 or USB 3.1 Gen2 and are designed for phones.
- HDMI / DisplayPort Video Out: If you are planning to use integrated graphics, these ports are required for audio-video transmission. Discrete GPUs have their own ports.
- Audio Ports: They are required to connect analog speakers or headphones.
- PS/2 Ports: These ports are very outdated and are used for old keyboards and mice.
- Thunderbolt 3: These are quite uncommon built-in into a motherboard, but some high-end boards support it through dedicated add-on cards. These have the fastest possible connection speed of up to 40 Gbps.
Latest ports like the USB 3.1 Gen 2 or USB Type-C ports costs extra and may not be required right now. You can save some money by omitting these but having them will future proof your PC.
No. of RAM slots
Most of the current mainstream boards have four RAM slots. The smaller Mini-ITX models often have just two. The high-end HEDT boards have eight slots. The number of slots dictates the amount of RAM you can install.
For the average gamer, anywhere between 16GB to 32GB of RAM is more than enough. You can get 32GB RAM with just two slots also but there’s a catch with it. It will cost you more to get 32GB of RAM with two 16GB sticks than 32GB memory system consisting of four 8GB sticks. Furthermore, having more DIMMs lets you leverage dual channel memory for increased bandwidth.
Mainly two types of expansion slots are usual: the PCIe x1 slot which is shorter and used for USB and SATA expansion, and the PCIe x16 slot which is longer and used for graphics cards, RAID cards, and fast PCIe storage. If your build includes a single graphics card, two SATA/M.2 drives and a video capture or sound card, an ATX or Micro-ATX board will be enough. These offer at least one x16 slot and one or two x1 slots.
The tricky part is figuring out how many drives and cards to install, that’s because you can have any number of physical slots but the number of HSIO (High-speed input/output) lanes and PCIe lanes that all the components must share is limited. Basically, most of the mainstream motherboards compensate for bandwidth limitations by switching some connections off when you install hardware in some specific slot.
For example, If you install a card in a third PCIe slot, the motherboard may disable a second(or third) M.2 slot, or if you add a PCIe M.2 drive, the motherboard may disable some of its SATA ports, etc.
So if you want lots of drives and cards in your PC, you should go for the high-end HEDT platforms, as they provide more PCIe lanes. Intel Core X platform has 44 lanes, depending on the CPU, and up to 24 more from the chipset, while AMD’s Threadripper CPU has 64 lanes out of which 60 are from the CPU and 4 are from the chipset. These higher end motherboards are ideal if you’re planning on using multiple graphics cards and a RAID array of PCIe/NVMe storage or anything that use up a lot of bandwidth.
Selecting the Chipset
Chipset options are dependent on the CPU you choose for your system. If you are using the flagship chips from Intel and AMD i.e. Core X and Threadripper respectively, there are basically not a whole lot of options as you only have one choice for each. X299 for Intel Core X and X399 for AMD Threadripper. But for an average user, who’ll use a single graphics card and some drives, any chipset below Z370 for Intel or X370/X470 for AMD will get the job done.
Choosing an H370 or Q370 board with Intel won’t give you overclocking features and you’ll be stuck with stock speeds. Although these chipsets being relatively newer have features like integrated USB 3.1 Gen2 support that the older chipsets lack.
For AMD, choosing the B350 and B300 chipsets will still give you overclocking ability, but you will lose the fast USB and SATA ports over the X370 chipset. It’s always smart to upgrade to an X370 chipset for a mere $20-$30 more than what you will pay for a B350 if you need more ports and drives.
If you are planning to overclock your Intel chip, you should go with a Z370 chipset and a CPU with a “K” in its model name. You can always just go with a higher end platform like the X299 and a Skylake X chip.
For AMD, overclocking is supported by all current-generation Ryzen chips. Even every chipset supports overclocking except the lowest-end models A320 and A300.
Still, overclocking your processor is advisable for most users. Instead of spending extra on a better cooling system and a high-end motherboard to achieve high clock speeds, it’s better to spend that money on a better processor that comes with a better clock speed out of the box.
The onboard audio on most of the mainstream boards will fulfill all your needs. Although the situation is different if you’re a proper audiophile, or if you go for the lowest-end motherboard possible. If that’s the case, expectations should be realistic and sound quality should be judged accordingly.
Audio Quality of a motherboard is defined by the audio codec which that board uses. So if you are someone who really cares about the sound quality your PC provides, it’s better to check the codec a given board uses before buying it. You can also invest on a dedicated sound card, or USB speakers that move the digital to analog conversion (DAC) hardware completely outside the PC.
These are some of the features you will find on the higher-end motherboards.
- Onboard on/off switches: If your system is placed in an open case for benchmarking/component testing, these switches may come into use. Other than that, these switches may also come in handy during the initial build process. It’s more of an enthusiast feature and not practical for other users.
- LED diagnostic readouts: Motherboards have a small speaker that provide diagnostic beeps when something malfunctions. Instead of this speaker, many mid to high-end boards now feature a two or three digit display. These displays give out an alpha-numeric code when something goes wrong. It’s of real use when you’re building a PC or when you’re upgrading, as it helps in troubleshooting.
- Wi-Fi Card: This is required if you’re going to use wireless internet on your computer. In the unlikely scenario that you use Ethernet, you can omit a Wi-Fi card and save some money, but it’s always wise to spend some extra bucks for better connectivity.
- Dual Ethernet Ports: A single Gigabit Ethernet port provides enough bandwidth for the Internet traffic for every average user. But if you’re planning to use your PC as a server and your board allows you to aggregate two different connections into one, then only you should go for it.
This is something that doesn’t affect the performance of your motherboard in any way. It all depends on what you want from your system as a whole and whether you have the extra budget required for it or not. If you are using a normal case with an opaque side panel and the internals aren’t visible at all, there’s no point in spending money on RGB lighting or flashy I/O ports and heat sinks. But if you are building your system in a case that has a window, all the aforementioned extras would be totally worth it.
Other than that, a dark motherboard with no lighting is harder to deal with as on-board labels are not easily visible. So if you’re a beginner, and if you have some extra cash to spend, a board with lights may actually be better for you.