Gamers tend to be choosy about motherboard models. Hardware issues which may not affect a productive application can limit or crash a hardcore game, and ruin your chances of leading in community rankings. Thus enthusiasts try to ensure they pick a reliable board, to host the kind of high- performing drives, discrete graphics, and overclock-friendly CPUs they prefer. In this article, we review quite a few models to discover the best ones in various price ranges and form factors.
We gathered here complete information on all the best motherboards for regular as well as enthusiast buyers. The newest Skylake CPUs require chipsets which can provide wider lanes to match these higher-performing processors. The 170 chipset provides a nice balance in performance and gaming features between regular boards and the Extreme systems built on high-end X99 models, which sell at a slight premium over more budget-friendly Intel lines. Our initial focus is on mid-range Z170 boards as we think they offer gamers the most value for the moment among Skylake-based PCs. Also be sure to other PC hardware and peripherals, such as a gaming monitor and gaming headset to compliment the build. Also be sure that your graphics card and CPU is compatible with the motherboard.
For those unable to wait for ASUS to develop on their Pro series or are wary of MSI, the ASUS Z170-Pro may prove enticing. This may not be marketed specifically to gamers, but it offers better VRM components than most mid-range models as well as ALC 1150 audio, Intel v219 Ethernet, and the reliable ASUS signature BIOS in a restrained white-silver packaging, and brings you generally the finest LGA1151 experience available.
But early release units can be somewhat costly as most examples currently sell at its MSRP of just under $200. It’s a bit pricey to recommend overall, but we think it slots nicely in the middle between middling Z170s and the top Extreme models which sell for $300 or so. Skylake processors have only been introduced recently, so you could expect lower street pricing and further discounts in the sub-$170 range after the newness has worn off.
This Z170-Pro is sharp-looking for a conventional model. Its whitish shrouds and silvery heat-spreaders which ASUS’s signature boards feature may look subdued initially, but the theme matches everything well. The manufacturer put in its own version of the MSI Mystic lighting in the form of an on-board parade of pulsing LED colors which light up the chipset’s emblem. The flashy display is visible through the side windows found in many enclosures, and it’s a welcoming touch which enlivens the stolid appearance of this board.
Other LED lighting modes enable responses to inputs and musical sounds, as well as changes in heat levels in the system. A real numerical display of temperatures and boot codes would have been nice, although it’s plain that ASUS has evolved much from the dated theme found in its previous models. For a traditional motherboard, the Signature series can be quite racy-looking.
While wireless Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other top features such as console overclocks aren’t included, basics like USB 3.1 ports, a full-speed quad-lane M.2 slot, and support for memory specs to 3866 MHz are integrated well. XMP rules worked stably with the many DRAM models we test with.
A second alternative to the Z170-Pro would be another ASUS model, the ROG Maximus VIII Hero. This is a mostly similar package that’s finished in more interesting red and black street looks, and it’s priced at $50 or less at the moment. The updated ROG BIOS is also included, which can be a good thing depending on the board’s revision, as ASUS’s volume models like its Signatures are normally more stable than the equivalent ROG model.
Best Middle-range LGA1151 Motherboard
ASUS Z170A Gaming Pro
Value-for-price feature set
Good components, well-built
MSI’s triumph over its rivals continues with its Z170A Gaming Pro, a board offering a good balance of looks, features, and pricing. It raises our expectations of what boards costing less than $150 should offer. It equals ASUS’s costlier Pro Gaming model in feature set, and then undercuts it by offering better value along with more stable firmware. MSI appears more competent at exploiting the Intel Z170 platform than its rivals when it comes to the gaming audience. This is surely the best gaming motherboard 2017.
Selling for around $130 on the streets, this board is almost at the level budget-friendly models, and yet brings to its game a sophistication which belies its modest costs. It offers full-speed M.2, 14 USB connections which include dual 10-Gbps USB3.1 connectors, advanced ALC1150 audio, and richly programmable Mystic LED-lighting arrays that are mounted sideways on the rightmost edge of the board.
This model supports memory specified up to 3600MHz as well stable operation of standardized XMP profile settings. It’s a feature which ASUS’s engineers are still working to implement stably in their rival Pro Gaming motherboard, several revisions after its initial release.
Networking is managed by Intel v219 gigabit LAN, which includes protective circuits to stop surging voltages from passing through and burning out the Ethernet module. Much of the Gaming Pro’s design is centered on meeting the current quality and reliability criteria of MSI. These include many long-term measures which aren’t all obvious, but the more visibly-identifiable ones such as heavy-duty solders, PCIe slot reinforcement, quality resistors, and titanium-based chokes will bring you confidence that the board should last longer than usual.
On the other hand, the BIOS lacks the highly granular settings of other brands, although it does remain among the easier ones to configure, even when it comes to overclocking settings. Processor speeds were within the normal range of rival boards in its class, and usually stopped just a multiplier bracket short of that the highest-end models. Temperature readings did tend to be marginally warmer during high loads than that of models featuring more advanced VRM designs, as with its sibling Z170 XPOWER-Gaming Titanium.
As the secondary PCIe slot aligns right behind this connector cluster, multi-GPU setups will need to have their bundles of drive cabling routed to allow lengthier cards to fit. Right-angle drive connectors will work wonders here, but a fully populated set of drive cages will still be difficult to manage. An extra fan header or two would have been useful as well, for MSI’s designs normally integrate barely adequate numbers of fans.
Although MSI’s biggest competitor is having trouble with maintaining consistent product quality, this may not last as ASUS’s issues appear to be mainly BIOS-related. And thus while buyers may be complaining at the moment, they can be just a firmware revision away from resolving their boards’ problems, and reversing their market position. The Z170 platform is quite new, and all motherboard makers obviously have much work to do to exploit the new advances and get them to work well.
Best LGA1151 Motherboard for the Money
MSI H170 Gaming M3
Memory specs only reach 2133MHz
Value models aren’t usually designed to be overclocked, and thus Intel H170 chipsets figure heavily in such budget-friendly motherboards. Much of the savings in moving down to a H170 solution are largely due to being able to forego the premium-priced K-line processors, although there are savings which can still be found if you’re careful in selecting appropriate components. Gamers on a budget know well to set aside more for a more powerful graphics AIB if they have good level of quad-core performance at hand.
There has been much competition between value-priced motherboards in the past year, with both MSI’s and ASRock’s well-designed models shining rather brightly. Either brand has great offerings, but the MSI H170 Gaming M3 is in the pole position in the budget race with its solid BIOS, and low pricing, and a well-balanced combination of components.
The quality begins with an unboxing experience which can rival the substance and presentation of mid-range packages. A cushioned back plate is provided along with a variety of cable interconnects, plus some adhesive cabling stickers as well as a useful setup guide and CD. There is also a novel door hanger accessory included which you would normally see packaged with more specialized boards.
The new motherboard is seated in the cushioned insides of the box’s nicely lined, matte-black interior. The package doesn’t look much like the usual $100 item you’ll mostly find in stores. The board itself is finished in a timeless red-black scheme which looks flashy enough without descending into showiness. This is a top contender for the best gaming motherboard.
Among the storage options is a 32-bit quad-lane M.2 port which supports exceptional SSDs like the Samsung 951SM, which is capable of non-sequential read rates of over 2.5 Gbps, equaling that of other models which can cost several times more.
Its 7 PCIe slots outstrip the number found in ASRock’s Fatal1ty 5 model, and its 6 USB3.1 (Gen 1) connections and a Killer E2400 Ethernet gigabit LAN rounds out the impressive specs. If you still need style and Ethernet upgrades, MSI sells their nearly-identical H170A Gaming Pro board with Intel wired LAN onboard and a basic Mystic LED-Lighting setup, for only a slight $15 bump up in pricing.
As with other H170 motherboards, this model’s downsides are found mainly in its lesser upgrade paths, i.e. locked-down multiplier settings, lower-speed memory, and lack of NVidia’s SLI support. These are relatively small hits for gamers who won’t be doing overclocks anyway, and the Gaming M3 should still be an excellent value choice for them.
Best ITX LGA1151 Motherboard
ASRock Z170 Gaming-ITX/AC
Excellent features and value
High-speed M.2 rear connector
Unstable operation in early versions
Mini-ITX casings still offer little to gamers other than size, but the lower power draw of the latest-generation CPUs does enable cooler and smaller systems than was possible previously. Although the ASRock Fatal1ty range did not manage a budget entry in the ATX category, their Z170 Gaming-ITX/AC did get our general thumbs up for an ITX-based Z170 system. It offers a rich number of features and includes certain tricky functions which elevate it above the other small form-factor models we’ve reviewed.
As a large number of small systems serve in dual media server and HTPC roles, this model has been appropriately equipped with a dual-antenna 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless connectivity, along with an Intel v219 wired port.
Audio enhancements include a 7.1 channel ALC1150 codec module with optical-out connections. Integrated HDMI 2.0 output is ready for 4K-level streaming, a long-desired feature in media centers. Also included is an M.2 connector off a riser board which runs at quad-lane 32 Gbps rates, a duo of USB 3.1 A and C (Gen 2) ports, and another 10 USB ports of which 8 are USB 3.0. The space around the processor socket is roomy at each side, for more flexibility with ITX-ready coolers.
Best High-end LGA-1151 Motherboard
ASUS Z170 Deluxe
Intel Dual -LAN
Great provision for overclocks
Initial problems with secondary DIMM modules
ASUS’s mid-range selection of boards may be currently seeing issues, but its higher-end models have been running just fine. The company offers a slew of workhorse models priced above $200. Although all are good, a few do stand out for their intelligent design and rich features, of which the Z170 Deluxe is only the most remarkable. This model excels in every gaming performance metric worth noting, and it equals or exceeds most other designs in its feature set and build quality.
Its long list of features obviously provides a lot of capability beyond the usual intangibles of armor-plating or military-grade circuitry that’s found in other premium-priced boards. These include additional Ethernet connections, tri-band/antenna 1300Mbps wireless, Bluetooth, and six USB 3.1 (10Gbps) connections of which one is a rare type-C port.
The Z170 Deluxe is far from a value board, but its premium design and build shines through its many advanced and high-performance specifications. The ASUS-designed BIOS is the benchmark in the industry with its numerous and flexible controls and optional settings, though newer users may readily stumble over the more esoteric features if they’re not too careful. The variety and depth of its manual options will let enthusiast owners tweak it for the highest performance, while the automated system can determine high-performance settings with little effort on the user’s part. We find this to be a good gaming motherboard.
It’s hard to find real complaints about this model other than its expensive pricing and relatively bland-looking packaging and finish compared to rivals. The cables, antennas, and accessory items are placed in a regular box which doesn’t differ much from that of a value-priced model.
An extra integrated M.2 slot or two would have also been appreciated, although workarounds are provided in the form of a useful Hyper X4-Mini M.2 connector kit.
Best Middle-range Haswell LGA1150 Motherboard
AsusZ97 Pro Gamer
ROG-style muted looks
Lacks wireless connectivity
In the last few years, ASUS has been the dominant supplier of mid-range and high-end motherboards and it maintains that lead with its current line of models. We’ve been recommending its ever-reliable if conventional Z97-A boards for quite a while, but gamers willing to look further into their range of boards will find other noteworthy examples to consider.
One hybrid version which is rarely reviewed against others is the Z97 Pro Gamer, a model which incorporates a few of the nicer features of the Asus’s ROG line along with the solid basics of its main line of Pro boards.
This board is finished in a slightly trendy red-black scheme and sports a 10Gbps m.2 port, 8-phase VRM, numerous controller fan headers, and a suite of overclocking controls. We think this stylish model offers the best-balanced package of features and quality in the mid-range segment, at a street price of $160.
Gamers will appreciate the quality components such as the Realtek ALC1150-based audio with Supreme FX support and a noise-isolating design, upgraded physical connections, and the custom software co-developed with the high-end ROG line. Intel wired Ethernet supports traffic-shaping enhancements which work to prioritize game packet-streams. These advantages may not always be obvious in actual play, but it’s still nice to have them just in case.
The deficiency of the Gamer Pro is its lack of USB 3.1 ports. It isn’t that big of a marketing hit though, given that many Z97-based systems support the newest standard via a PCIe USB 3.1 card bundle. What’s more of an issue for power users is the lack of M.2 3.0 X4 support, which admittedly is uncommon in most Z97- boards. The lack of wireless options is par for the course though; you will have to look at higher-end models in the next part if you want integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. A great gaming monitor, overall.
Beyond the Asus product line there are some runner-up mentions, such as the Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SOC Force. This a very overclocker-friendly board with bright orange styling and a broad feature set which can serve nicely as a heavy-duty gamer’s station.
The board features actual physical switches with which you can set overclock levels, PCIe usage, and a number of other basic firmware settings on demand, enabling an unrivaled level of tweaking. Unique versions designed for bench-top applications which employ LN2 and other esoteric cooler systems are also available, making these ideal for both competitive and homebrew uses.
But with all these slots there is, unfortunately, no PLX support. This may keep latencies low but also means it can only offer a conventional layout for add-in cards, thus users will be constrained to installing two cards in an 8×8 Nvidia SLI configuration. The high $190 retail price puts this board well outside the mid-range territory and most budgets, but if you’re the kind who tinkers and overclocks then the GA-Z97X-SOC should be worthy of your consideration.
Best Haswell LGA1150 Motherboard for the Money
ASRock Fatal1ty Performance
Nice low pricing
Upgraded ALC 1150 audio
Intel Ethernet and M.2 unavailable together
Lower build specifications
The ASRock Fatal1ty wins the value-priced board crown due to its blend of stylish design, numerous mid-range functions and overclock tricks, and easy setup. It’s a bundle unmatched for value given its low cost.
Asus’s H97 Gamer Pro is still a bit better-built with more solid firmware, but this board matches its actual performance in all measures. It even outstrips the Z97 Extreme models in the ASRock range in terms of stable and compatible operation, while still being priced low enough to please budget-sensitive buyers.
Thankfully it employs low-lag Intel Ethernet and Realtek 1150ALC audio enhanced with Crystal Sound, although it does skip on M.2 ports and component quality in order to achieve its amazingly low $80 price tag. But if you’re putting in conventional SSDs like the Samsung 850 EVO, this model would be among the best picks for a budget build.
Its well-thought-out design shines from the point you unbox the board, and gaze on its huge red-metal heat spreaders which are designed with looks to grace a case window. It’s one of the several nice touches which too many mid-range models fail to include, such as durable mice ports and trouble-free drivers, and the XSplit software bundle offers further functions to entice gamers.
This board isn’t built as solidly as the top-end models of course, but ASRock has done much to overcome its reputation for cranky setup procedures of the kind which their old models were known for, and the Fatal1ity’s seriousness as a gaming build is obvious.
Setup was smooth and the fastest of many models reviewed, and its BIOS revision supports current Haswell CPUs. It should be noted that the lack of packaged software bloat contributed a lot to the quick installation of drivers, and the overall polish adds remarkably to the value you’ll feel you get for such low pricing.
The board overclocked at a stable frequency just below that of an i7 4790K running at its highest 4.8 GHz speed, but ran a bit hotter with certain BIOS tweaks in operation, while Windows booted quickly from a high-end SSD. Mounted in a nice case, this model may seem like a higher-end board in a gamer’s rig, for it looks far more expensive than it actually is.
Its nearest rivals here are the other models in the Fatal1ity line-up such as the H97 Killer, a board which features 10Gbps M.2 connections and substitutes the Intel networking with Killer’s gaming-oriented version. But once you’re spending over $100, other alternatives will begin to look more impressive.
Every one of Fatalit1ty’s models reviewed here would at times show average and even poor network latencies using DTC’s Latency Checker. Apparently, the results were dependent on which combinations of drivers were installed. This is actually a common situation among low-priced motherboards, although it hardly impacted gaming quality in serious use.
The runner-up Asus H97 Gamer Pro offers a similar feature set and design touches along with a slightly higher level of quality, but it comes with a price that’s a third more than the most inexpensive Fatal1ty board. Thus it may make more sense to move a little further up and go for the superior Z97 model, a well-featured board which we already list as our middle-of-the-pack recommendation.
If H97, why not the Z97?
The market for boards priced lot less than a $100 can be quite iffy in some cases. Regular-vanilla models may be good enough for an essential gaming experience, but going for the high road in this lowly terrain can require a bit more attention to costs and a lot more sensible thinking. Many cheap Z97s are shorn of features in order to reach the marketers’ target pricing. But wise buyers will note that other options are available if you’re willing to flex on a few functions, particularly systems built on Intel’s H97 platform.
Gaming on an H97-based PC doesn’t require much in the way of big compromises in either performance or style. These models have less flexibility but can also offer a lot of potential savings due to their lower specifications and pricing. Regular 1600 MHz DRAM is pretty much the standard here, and SLI is an exotic only found in other jungles. There are still enough high-speed data lanes to enable an AMD-Crossfire setup if necessary, but the resulting performances won’t be the very best. Anyway, it’s mostly online hardware reviewers who think of trying out budget multi-GPU rigs for fun.
A more serious compromise would be the lack of overclocking settings. You may still succeed in upping frequencies in a basic manner with one of the few overclock-friendly processors, using the convenient Non-Z settings. But you can save a lot of money if you hew to the chipset’s default clocks, and choose a regular, locked-down i5- or i7-series processor. Doing so will contribute much towards affording you the next-higher level of GPU, which will arguably gain you a much bigger return in gaming experience for the investment.
Best Higher-end Haswell LGA1150 Motherboard
Asus Z97 Pro Wi-Fi/USB 3.1
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
High overclocking potential
Slower-speed M.2 connection
The best Z97-based boards don’t have it easy, positioned as they are between good mid-range picks and advanced X99 Extreme models with rich feature sets. Even though the abandoned-driver/BIOS issues which beset the ghetto board scene in the early days are just about over, it’s not easy to recommended paying more than $200 for a board, with so many other options available across various ranges.
Smarter buyers will strategize their buys of higher-end Z97 products by concentrating on practical function over fashionable form. Many have recognized the Asus Z97 Pro Wi-Fi as the sensible top-end pick. It’s among the few which integrate on-board fast USB 3.1 and wireless connections seamlessly, and this model meets the majority of gaming needs by default, leaving other slots and connections ready for further upgrades as desired.
Among this board’s strengths are stable driver and firmware levels, Intel Ethernet, 12-phase processor voltage regulation, consistent low-lag operations, and best-in-class LGA 1150 overclocking, including that of an i7-4790K stable at 4.8 GHz.
Auto-overclocking BIOS functions established stable clock speeds almost as high as that accomplished with expert manual tweaking. Several 4-pin PWM fan headers were laid out to help support cooler and quieter overclocking. If not for the lack of a 4-lane M.2 connection, this model would have been almost ideal for demanding gamers.
There are other good options available, such as Asus’s Z97 higher-end variants. These worthies feature quad-SLI support through lane-multiplying PLX chips, and enable X99-style slot expansion using regular i7- and i5-series processors, and all for almost similar prices. Asus’s Z97 Pro Deluxe, in particular, has a thoroughly over-specified 16-phase VRM and a duo of Intel Ethernet ports, in addition to 3T3R 802.11ac Wi-Fi module, and includes even a wireless charging mat for your mobiles. But the best mix of practical features and easy setup for the price is still found in the Z97 Pro Wi-Fi/USB 3.1.
If you’re intent on setting up a flashier high-end rig then you might want to consider the similarly-priced Maximus VII Hero. This is an ASUS ROG runner-up that’s nicely finished in red-black in place of the brand’s traditional gold theme, which features noise-isolating audio circuitry as well as an enhanced software and driver package. We do think the implementation of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth could have used more enhancement, and more fine-tuned CPU-voltage settings would have been welcome.
Best Mini-ITX Haswell LGA1150 Motherboard
Asus Z97I Plus
Limited to two DRAM slots
There aren’t too many ITX-based gaming setups around that can meet the serious demands of diehard users, so we’ve listed only two recommended models in this category, Maximus’s VII Impact, and Asus’s Z97I Plus. Why isn’t there much attention being paid to the ITX form-factor? Well, you’re spending a premium for the miniaturization of components and not gaining more capability in return. These smaller platforms can accommodate only so many modules and ports, and certain ATX features we’ve come to appreciate tend to get left out. It doesn’t help that quiet yet effective cooling solutions are harder to engineer with small enclosures.
That said, if you still need a powerful ITX PC in your entertainment lounge or on your desk, you should know that a few excellent parts are available for the job. Notwithstanding its 6-phase VRM and its two memory slots, this model proved to be as good for overclocking during the tests as many large boards. The effectiveness of an ITX build may be influenced more by its constrained space and cooling conditions than by any particular component considerations.
There are fewer connections than found on bigger models, but then again a full wireless suite comprising 2T2R Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is integrated by default, along with a 10 Gbps M.2 connection located to the rear of its tiny layout. The ALC1150 audio that’s commonly found in higher boards is sadly absent, though. These are the functions likely to see much service in the kind of media-center setups this form factor is most suitable for. Other than the low-end audio features, the Z97I Plus offers nearly all that’s desirable in HTPC hardware, at a midrange street price of about $155.
Best Intel Extreme LGA2011 v3 Motherboard
Asus Rampage V Extreme
Plentiful PCIe lanes
Add-in USB 3.1 card bundle
Higher-end Z97 boards are obviously nice, but it is Intel’s Haswell-E/X99 range of motherboards which are the dream of most hardcore gamers. The Rampage V Extreme represents the best we’ve found yet in this ultra-high-end segment.
The territory where X99 rigs are found is a pricey place where buyers are expected to accept diminishing returns in performance in return for ever-higher spending on the best consumer parts available. The X99/Haswell-E combo is certainly sensible as a desktop station for time-critical big processing tasks like video editing and format conversions. Gamers gain less of a marginal benefit from this advanced platform, as the performance advantages of higher core counts over that of the best Z97 rigs rarely result in corresponding rises in frame rates. And other than for very specialized tri- or quad-GPU rigs, the additional capabilities will largely go unused, although it’s true that X99-based systems do have a few sharp cards to bring to the gaming table.
For one thing, Haswell-E brought to market the fastest gen3 implementation of the 4-lane M.2 standard. Even though Z97-based systems are technically capable of supporting these specifications, not many manufacturers effect it by default. This is why it makes sense to just go for an X99-based system, or else spend even more for a full-on NVMe solution using Intel’s 750 add-in PCIe board. You might be wondering if this one function can make a big difference. Well, just remember that the technology enables fully-compliant drives to attain data-transfer rates triple that of what’s possible with the speediest SATA SSD. This an order of magnitude of increased performance that will quickly grab your attention and make you smile every time you return from using a lesser system. Intel X99 systems can feature either 28- or 40-lane I/O channels direct to the processor, which provides multi-GPU users extra bandwidth headroom for more add-in cards without need for the PLX features of Z97-based systems or the performance hit from the lower IPC of FX cores.
While it’s possible to find some savings in the x99 world, a new build of these powerful systems will stretch most budgets. The component level already leads to higher average costs, and with top-flight parts, the bill of materials will likely top anything you’ve done previously. The evaluations we give here may give you pause as you enter the field, for it is relatively easy to spend too much on an inappropriate configuration. At this esoteric level of computing, the boards are just parts of the performance platform.
The Rampage already includes a typical USB 3.1 AIB Card and a 3T3R wireless module, and other advanced features. But its signature proposition to gamers is the presence of a removable section which houses a LED display known as the OC Panel. This module’s screen provides real-time hardware reporting while enabling on-the-fly modifications in overclocking and cooling profiles and other system functions. The panel is mountable in 5.25-in drive bays and is attached to the board through a braided, customized connector, which has enough length to let it be placed near the casing once detached. This is the best gaming motherboard according to our research.201
Besides the typical cluster of internal and external connections, also included are a small number of on-board switches which users can use to tweak and/or control the system’s functionality. There’s also a tiny two-digit LED which can be quickly accessed to quickly display boot code and other status information. These two accessory modules provide a very tweak-friendly environment for exploring your hardware’s operation, much like that offered by the even more technical Gigabyte SOC Force accessory for LGA1150 systems.
We think its overall package of overclock-friendly settings, polished BIOS developed with ROG, quad-GPU SLI support, and gen3 M.2 storage connection will satisfy even the most demanding user. Just be aware that the farthest of the PCIe slots will be disabled once the M.2 port is occupied.
There’s no way the characterize the $515 list price of the Rampage as anything other than an indulgence unless you’re constantly doing video editing and other IPC-constrained loads, but the uber-cool accessory set does lessen the sting of the expense. There are even some fun labels included indicating where your attention level such as “Do Not Disturb”, although the category runner-up MSI Gaming 9 ACK does even better with this form of extracurricular activity.
MSI has its own exotic entry in its Gaming 9 ACK model, which at $440 delivers the same level of performance as the Rampage V but with a more stylish twist. It also has its own cool accessory, a hardware-assisted AVERmedia streaming module integrated into the system that’s Twitch-ready.
This board proved to be stable and easy to use and features on-board USB 3.1, although MSI firmware tends to be developed less efficiently. A history of previous problems with non-Intel NICs and a few quality-control issues conspire to keep us from recognizing this model as the best-in-class. Just the same, the Gaming 9 ACK represents a major leveling up for MSI, and their newest Godlike X99 ultra-high-end board might yet gain the prize in our next review.
Best AMD AM3+ Motherboard
AMD products are usually discounted nowadays, and there isn’t much reason to cut your budget further if you’re going for an AM3+ gaming rig. This inexpensive ($90) model will suit any new AM3+ -based project, it’s a vanilla AMD board that’s nicely designed with 8+2-phase VRM plus a good set of SATA and USB connections.
The ability to save BIOS settings and to enable USB quick charging are current features, but sadly the rest of the firmware displays a somewhat dated feel and functionality, as the platform hasn’t been progressing much over the years
For instance, multi-GPU SLI isn’t supported by the basic 970 chipsets, although AMD’s Crossfire Multi-GPU mode can be enabled if you somehow have a need for it. It may be better to invest a bit more and move up to FX-based boards. The more advanced chipset is well-regarded for more flexible and up-to-date features. Boards based on it are usually priced at only a slight premium, and the platform comes with a few unexpected tricks as well.
Best Middle-range AMD AM3+ Motherboard
ASRock 990FX Killer/3.1
The 990FX platform was finalized before newer advances like USB 3.1 and M.2 1 could be incorporated into the design. The majority of AM3+ motherboards are designed and built conservatively with AMD’s original set of features locked in and then marketed as such. Still, the newer technologies can always be integrated further on, and fortunately, this is the case with the 990FX Killer/3.1, which comes with the latest goodies.
With its polished red champion finish and bundle including a 10Gbps M.2 and 3.1 USB card, this relatively pricey model ($160) rivals the newest Intel Z97-based boards in terms of feature set and pricing. There’s an overclock-friendly suite of firmware controls which nicely complement the numerous PCIe 16x slots, and almost any combo of settings is available to try out. The integrated Realtek ALC1150 is enhanced with Crystal Audio processing for cleaner, less distorted output.
Like with many of ASRock’s products, its build isn’t the best but its operation is stable and runs well nonetheless. Our attempts at overclocking were close to 5% of the best attainable due to the 8+2-phase VRM and sensibly-designed firmware. Almost anything you might expect from an FX990-based model is there but for the lack of formal support for 220 Watt CPUs such as the FX-9370 or the FX-9590, as its socket design can only accommodate 140W parts.
You’ll likely find little benefit to going further up the FX990 chain with such an excellent board at hand. But if you’re in need of a fancy host for a high-end FX CPU, the well-known Asus Crosshair Formula Z or else Sabertooth’s 990FX are exceptional if slightly dated AM3+ models which can still command premiums due to their standings in the community.
Best AMD FM+2 Motherboard
Lack of M.2 support
AMD’s A88X platform is a newer design that can be inexpensive in many cases as it’s still being evolved and was originally specified to include the value segment of the market. With its integrated GPU you won’t need external graphics for anything but the most intensive games, thus you can set aside more money for some 2400 MHz memory that can make the most of the chipset’s performance. With your savings, you can jump the budget line and go with a mid-range board like Asus’s A88X-Pro, which we recommended for an FM2+ system.
You can find lower-priced versions, but the small amount of money you save won’t justify the usually less stable operation or cut-down feature set. This inexpensive board ($100) already nets you ALC1150 audio, reliable 6+2-phase VRM, and a uniquely styled heat spreader that’s finished in appealing gold. Also included is a neatly-designed heat pipe which twists along the layout to better distribute heat output.
Intel Ethernet isn’t standard but the Realtek LAN drivers at least don’t have the annoyances of the Killer software. The UEFI BIOS has excellent controls to enable easier and more granular settings of the processor, GPU, and DDR3 memory profiles at various speed levels. Like with all FM+2 designs, there is no integrated support for M.2 connections, though.
Best High-end AMD FM+2 Motherboard
Asus Crossblade Ranger
For $150 you can get this top-of-the-line model which includes an Intel NIC, audio processing enhanced with Supreme FX, dual 16X PCIe 3.0 slots, with the board finished in a ROG red-black theme in place of the typical golden Asus look.
The presence of Intel-based Ethernet means lower DPC latencies, which will be a boon to gamers on the AMD platform. However, even with plentiful slots and connectors available the absence of built-in USB3.1 ports or an M.2 connection shows this model to be somewhat dated in its approach. That said, there’s no other board in Asus’s ROG line-up that’s priced anywhere near as inexpensively, and owners angling for entry into the Republic of Gamers community will find this the least expensive way in.
Motherboard Need-to-know and Testing Methods
You might think the coolest internal component of your gaming PC would be its core processor, or perhaps its discrete all-in-one graphics card. But CPUs all have the same boring chip look, and there aren’t many remarkably fast or multi-cored editions out there. And while graphics cards come in a variety of performance packages and stylish fan housings, they’re still outdone in the personality factor by one other, critical part in your system: your motherboard.
The motherboard is the most diverse and customizable internal component of your PC, and it can be the one which presents the most character and style by design. There is a ton of different models in the market to meet a variety of users’ desires in both mainstream and specialized use and across a wide range of prices.
A motherboard by itself may not directly add a lot of processing performance. But in its design and structure, it enables each component to arraign its highest potential performance according to the board’s specifications and quality. An unlocked Intel or AMD CPU can only deliver performance equal to that of a regular processor if its host motherboard has no support for overclocking. Among models which do allow overclocks, there’s still a wide range of experiences that builders can encounter in terms of expansion options, compatible components, and stable operation.
A chipset provides the controlling logic which enables each PC component to interoperate consistently with all the others under OS supervision. These host not just the core CPU and its operations but also the input-output functions of the bridge circuitry. These involve both local and removable storage as well as different numbers and types of methods to connect to users, system expansions and accessories, and other networked systems. Every board is recognized and setup based on the particular chipset it’s built on. These identifying part names are slightly reworded whenever major processor revisions are launched, which is often. So at any time, there will be a few generations’ worth of versions competing in the same market segments, which can be confusing to new buyers.
To help you in sorting out this situation, here are some descriptions of the chipsets currently available and the processor socket types supported by each.
The latest Intel 9-series chipset hosts the fifth-generation Haswell family of processors. The mid-range Z97 version has support for SLI and overclocking, and is presently the most common choice of gamers and other enthusiast users. The more mainstream-focused H97 and the higher-end X99 variants bookend the broad lineup of 9-series gaming boards.
Both Z97 and H97 support socket LGA1150, while the X99 chipset uses the bigger LGA2011v3 socket with its increased pin counts designed for the additional functions found in Haswell-E Core processors. The 9-series offers only a small number of enhancements over earlier-generation parts, but it does deliver native support for M.2 SSDs, which can ideally attain 2GBps data-transfer rates under ideal conditions.
The next generation 170-series chipsets are arriving soon, but their pricing and quality aspects have yet to be determined. Their new LGA1151 socket design means buyers will be adding to their expenses as they’ll have to include a new Intel Skylake CPUs as well as DDR4 memory to complement a 170 board.
The new processor series along with the 170 boards designed for them are planned to launch sometime before October of this year. So don’t expect their rapid introduction in stores or for all technical issues to be attended to until the first few months of the coming year. This situation means that Haswell-based models should remain viable until the end-of-year holidays, after which we anticipate sales promotions to lower prices further. So If you require a new PC soon, we advise you not to wait for the new Skylakes, as most of the new platform’s technical advantages are found in current X99/Haswell-E systems.
Intel’s existing Extreme-series X99 platform is already quite relevant to today’s gamers. as Haswell-E CPUs can offer up to 8 cores with 16 threads and supports the next generation of DDR4 memory and more abundant PCIe lanes for hosting multiple GPUs. Advanced 4-lane gen 3 M.2 connections which can perform more than thrice as fast as SATA are already widespread on these boards, unlike with Z97 boards where connections running faster than the 10Gbps M.2 standard are hardly available.
And all of the best practical and mad stuff are found on the Intel X99 side of things, like LED light-shows and remote-controlled overclock displays. These boards may be pricey but can be well worth the technological advances and stylish flash they bring to the desktop.
AMD is better at designing sockets and data lanes for the long term, and this is one reason their boards are popular with gamers on tight budgets. Although both FM2+ and AM3+ socket types have long been standardized they are still being actively developed, particularly the former.
The next-generation Zen architecture may shake up the market more than usual, although it will be some time before parts become available. But for now, AMD’s processor technology just can’t match that of Intel in the high-end performance. There are still some good reasons to build a gaming rig on their chipsets, though.
The 990FX and A88X are AMD’s mainstream chipsets, and although these don’t feature the latest advances in storage and connectivity, these are still flexible and cost-effective user-focused platforms. Whereas Intel’s marketers might segment their regular boards with a meager 16-lane default layout which undercuts their fastest i7 processors, AMD would lavish fast 40-lane designs on all customers of their standard FX platform.
Their models are mostly compatible across several generations of chipsets, and earlier processors will operate in later-model boards with little issue for either socket type. With an Intel setup you will usually have to shell out the better part of a thousand dollars to migrate to their newest platforms. And with AMD’s higher-end APUs like the A10 7870K, you won’t need to add a discrete GPU to have reasonably good gaming experiences. The integrated unit will even work with a cheap AMD GPU that you can later install in Crossfire configuration, to provide a nice increase in performance.
However, users will have to search for things like USB 3.1 and M.2 expansion cards and many other new technologies available to Intel’s customers by default, for even the higher-end FM2+/FX systems can seem a bit stale in comparison. Smart buyers will make up for this by choosing boards with lots of expansion slots and ports to enable big upgrades. One aspect of the AMD processors’ lagging IPC performance is that these won’t be very good at single- or lightly-threaded tasks, which would include a number of big game titles. Thus a buyer has to make up for this by choosing the most powerful integrated GPU option and find ways to cope with lowly frame rates in the more CPU-constrained games.
Still, if you’re not looking for the fastest cores and storage to uplift your enthusiast outlook, then you’ll find that these systems can deliver a pleasant experience with more upgrade flexibility and at less cost over the long run.
Choosing a Motherboard To Meet Your Needs – Finding The Best Motherboard for Gaming
You should first figure out what you want to your system before you start sorting out the market, beginning with physical sizing. Do you need the smallest possible case to hide or schlepp around, or do you need a tower to house many components? With motherboards, size does matter. A full-sized ATX model can mount a larger number of expansions and upgrades than smaller form factors, and it’s generally wise to install the largest your enclosure can fit in. Tiny ITX boards can be cool-looking, but don’t let their novel shapes influence your decision unless usage in tight quarters or showy settings is the point.
You should only consider an ITX model for gaming if you have a particular need for their compactness, for these usually cost more while offering fewer features, and can be less stable in operation. Larger ATX models normally offer higher-grade voltage regulators and have more space to accommodate long cards or multiple GPUs, as well as extra PCIe, M.2, and memory slots.
A big board can be also much easier to setup. For instance, ITX board designs normally have M.2 connectors located at the rear. Thus most of the system may have to be disassembled before the slot can be accessed, else you’ll want a case with a specific cutout for it.
The big=better rule does break down when you consider the very high prices of biggest E-ATX or ATX-XL sizes and the casing which accommodate these. A fancy full-ATX tower can cost more than twice that of a regular mid-size, so don’t forget to account for these non-obvious costs when you’re thinking beyond a regular ATX build.
After you’re done with the platform and CPU/motherboard decisions, you’ll want to list the required peripherals, like the types of drives, wired and wireless connections, an additional GPU or two, or a tall CPU cooler upgrade. You’ll need to ensure that the slot layout and port arrangements can fit everything nicely in their own spaces and channels, including the internal cabling. It’s quite a learning experience to spend for a pricey model, only to discover that the memory modules must be positioned too near the CPU, or that a PCI x16 slot into which you’ll slip a fat GPU housing partly overlaps the critical one you’ve reserved for a USB3.1 card. With motherboards, remember that feature set, stable operation, and practical layout can be more vital than absolute performance.
All high-speed input and output paths in a motherboard are constrained by the numbers of PCI Express lanes which the chipset and processor modules can access. Intel’s regular desktop-class CPUs provide for 16 “lane” channels, along with 8 more by the chipset. This may seem plentiful, but then again a single discrete GPU will control as many as 16 lanes for its own use. It’s for this reason that conventional Z97 designs are incapable of operating dual GPUS at their highest 16x configurations since the combined 2×16 lanes would exceed the available channels. In most cases, the GPUs would each be configured for lesser 8x operation, which leads to unnoticeable performance decreases but in the end, gains the flexible expansion options required by the owner.
Bear in mind that certain parts must operate in at least an 8x slot, like NVidia’s GPUs. As a result, some models will be unable to support simultaneous SLI and 4-lane M.2 operation, if no PLX mode is available to simulate additional lanes by multiplexing existing physical channels. If you must overcome these limitations to gain full performance, your system may incur added data latencies, and you will likely be paying more for a choice that’s limited to the few models which currently offer these things.
Motherboard Testing Methods
Each motherboard we selected for this guide was subject to a variety of formal evaluations as well as hands-on testing. This involved installations in enclosures, benchmarks of unit performances, and stability observations, followed by a break-in period wherein each board’s contribution to application performance and quality was assessed in terms of gaming, entertainment, and media experiences. Every test was conducted with the same set of component and OS specifications wherever feasible so that we could factor out every other variable. After researching the entire motherboard market, we managed to narrow the field to only the most competitive models available, before making our test selections.
Benchmarks were conducted with AIDA-64 Extreme, Crystal Disk Mark, Cinebench 15, Unigine Heaven, Valley, 3DMark FireStrike and Skydiver, and DPC Latency Checker. The break-in phase involved productivity and creative tasks, media consumption, and various casual and hardcore games such as Bioshock Infinite, GTA-V, Far Cry 4, Metro Last Light, and other titles. Game sessions were run at 1080P to factor out bottlenecks due to graphical performance issues. Where feasible, single- as well as multi-GPU configurations were configured for stable operation during high-bandwidth transfers.