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The best gaming motherboards

The motherboard is the foundation upon which your rig is built. So it's worth your while to find the best.

It seems hard to believe but Skylake has been with us for over a year now. During that time, multiple waves of Z170 motherboards have arrived, each upping the ante in stability, features, and style. The earliest Skylake systems sported buggy, barely-out-of-beta BIOS code that rated monthly revision. USB 3.1 implementations were uneven, M.2 support was shaky, and fans of Intel’s U.2 drives had few options. Decorative LEDs were only just starting to make an impact.

Fast forward to late 2016 and the landscape has changed dramatically. Slick, disco-lit, metal-trimmed motherboards with enough high-speed ports to fully utilize Z170’s generous resources are commonplace and all those updates have worked the big bugs out of drivers and firmware. 

Newly in vogue neutral color schemes mean less fashion clash with cases, video cards, and cooling fans while behind-the-scenes manufacturing improvements have reduced the plague of early RMA activity that almost every manufacturer faced when Z170 was new.

All good things come to an end however and so it is with Skylake. These board picks are the last stop on the Z170 line, and as such represent the most stable and feature-rich implementations you’re likely to see from this chipset generation. If you’re the type who prefers polished performance over bleeding-edge bragging rights, the golden moment is now. 

If hardcore rig builders find the picks here too tame, take a look at our Z170 enthusiast’s motherboard guide for the best boutique picks or hang on tight for the upcoming Broadwell-E refresh X99 motherboard guide extra edition due out soon. 

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The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)

  • Great price
  • Dual M.2 slots
  • Dual LAN ports
  • Crude-looking BIOS
  • No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth

With all the blinking lights and crazy flash of the Z170 era, it was a surprise to find the bare-knuckled Gigabyte Gaming 6 the last one standing in the all-around motherboard category. It’s not the flashiest or the fastest Skylake motherboard, but it delivers features and stability that can’t be found elsewhere in its price class while remaining the simplest high-feature motherboard to set-up since Skylake’s arrival. 

The Gaming 6 packs dual 32 Gb/s M.2 ports, dual LAN controllers, and upgradable op-amp audio in a budget package that cloaks its superhero status in pedestrian black and red. While you don’t get much by way of armor cladding, LED lights, or other fashion statements, that’s not a problem for every user. Gigabyte has a long history of products that appeal based on features rather than flash, a no-nonsense tradition the Gaming 6 wears on its sleeve. 

Components are clearly laid out, slots are simple to access, and driver packages are well organized, complete, and install cleanly. That may not sound as impressive as some of the other features listed in this guide, but well-engineered, thoughtful design is appreciated every day and doesn’t get dusty on a shelf, a fate that awaits many motherboard extras.

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The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151) runner up

  • Excellent overclocking
  • Solid BIOS
  • Plenty of fan headers
  • No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
  • Few gaming-specific features
  • Single M.2 and LAN ports
  • Expensive

While ASUS’s Z170-Pro is edged out of former first-pick status by a trifecta of Gigabyte advantages, it remains an excellent alternative that merits strong consideration for performance junkies. The Z170-Pro overclocks better, has native U.2 support, and a much slicker BIOS. These don’t counter Gigabyte’s lower price, dual LAN controllers, or dual M.2 connectors but ASUS’s Z170-Pro may represent a better mix of features if your hobbies include hardware tuning as well as gaming. The Z170-Pro managed a full 4.7 Ghz on the overclock test, for example. 

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The best mid-range Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)

  • Overclocks well
  • Intel LAN controller
  • RGB lights
  • Upgraded neutral color scheme
  • BIOS a bit thin

MSI’s Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon almost qualifies as budget hardware but delivers far beyond its modest asking price, with full-speed M.2, 16 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.

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The best budget Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)

  • Amazing value
  • Full speed M.2
  • RGB lighting and Intel LAN available on H170 Gaming Pro
  • Multiplier locked
  • Memory caped at 2,133MHz
  • ITX Z170 boards a better value

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 took the budget crown early on with the better BIOS and lower price, rounding out a smooth package that cloaks cost compromises well. 

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The best mini-ITX Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)

  • Great feature set for the money
  • Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
  • Full-speed M.2 slot on back
  • No Type C USB 3.1
  • Red color may clash with some builds

Budget motherboard picks for Skylake keep coming up ITX, which works out well for system builders who enjoy novelty rigs. While larger motherboards are usually better for all-around use, budget 170 chipset products in the ATX class leave out important features. ITX counterparts are feature-rich by comparison, and their tiny size opens all kinds of interesting possibilities if you don’t mind scratched knuckles. 

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The best high-end Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)

  • Teamable dual Intel Ethernet LAN
  • Excellent overclocking support
  • Dual M.2 slots support RAID
  • True 4 card Crossfire/SLI support via PLX hardware
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth included
  • Expensive
  • Reserved styling

While ASUS lost some ground in the budget market, it’s a different story at the high end. A perusal on the posh side of the product catalog reveals a bevy of overachievers above $200. There isn’t a loser in the lot, but some are smarter than others, and the Z170-WS is ASUS’s overall class valedictorian. A genius in motherboard form, it can do everything other motherboards do, only better. 

It starts with a feature list that leans towards the tangible. While other high-end boards tout abstract upgrades such as armor plating or level-up electronics, ASUS gives you extra LAN ports, dual built-in M.2 slots, triple antenna 1300 Mb/s 801.11 ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and half a dozen 10 Gb/s USB 3.1 ports, including an elusive built-in type C connector. 

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The best high-end Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151) runner up

  • Add-in card for second M.2 slot included
  • Teamable dual Intel Ethernet LAN
  • Excellent overclocking support
  • Wi-Fi, Bluetooth included
  • Z170-WS is a better deal
  • Occasional issues with secondary DIMM slots
  • Few gaming-focused features

If the price for the Z170-WS seems high, there’s always ASUS’s Z170 Deluxe. This less expensive but very similar motherboard features a single onboard M.2 slot and eliminates the crossfire-crazy PLX hardware but keeps Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and dual Intel LAN controllers along with adding Aura-style subtle RGB lighting behind the chipset shield. 

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The best late-cycle AM3+ motherboard

  • Great price
  • M.2 and USB 3.1 on AM3+
  • LED lighting and slick style
  • Dead-end socket
  • New hardware coming soon

With Zen’s release around the corner, it makes sense to hold off investing in AMD motherboards and CPUs unless you need to keep older hardware alive or want to cash in on clearance sales. Nevertheless, there’s been some interesting action on AM3+, so don’t consign your trusty FX8350 to the parts drawer yet. There’s plenty of life left in those cores if you know where to look. 

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The best AMD motherboards (FM2+)

  • Unique appearance
  • ALC1150 audio
  • Quality construction
  • No M.2 support on FM2+

Life with the A88X chipset is a bit less expensive since it’s 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 going 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. 

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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 motherboards

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. 

Chipset Primer

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 - Z170 and Skylake 

Z170 motherboards debuted with a healthy price hike over Z97-based counterparts and the generation ends with that hike largely intact. Products are still around $50 more than their Haswell era predecessors, with most downward adjustments applied to older stock to help move inventory. 

Nothing brings out the best like worthy competition, and a torrent of products from all comers has resulted in the most colorful – literally – motherboard generation ever. This chipset era saw a shakeup in the motherboard hierarchy, with MSI rising to battle ASUS and GIGABYTE as a first-tier supplier. ASRock remained true to its roots as budget hardware pioneers and revived AMD’s AM3+ motherboard market with flash and new features that had the big manufacturers playing catch up.

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.

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.

AMD - Zen is (almost) now

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. The AM3+ and FM2+ sockets have been around a long time however, so the eyes of the AMD faithful are focused on the next generation Zen-based CPUs, due out early 2017. 

Zen and the Summit Point platform means new sockets, chipsets, and motherboards are coming by springtime. 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 especially as prices plummet in preparation for new products.

The 970, 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. While Intel doled out miserly 24-lane portions of I/O to top-shelf customers buying 4790K i7 CPUS, AMD served up a generous 40-lane helping via the 990FX chipset back when they both shared the marketplace. 

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 are more important than performance claims. 

PCISlots

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 16 provided by the Z170 chipset. This seems like plenty until you remember one graphics card uses up to 16 lanes by itself. This is the reason standard Intel motherboards can’t run two video cards at full speed: 16 +16 = 32 lanes, leaving nothing for the rest of the system. Instead, Intel boards run one or both cards at 8x, which nips performance imperceptibly but allows for some flexibility with card arrangements. If you think this is tight, Z97 boards running Haswell had only 24 lanes to offer, and 8 those were half-speed PCIe gen 2. 

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 also offers lanes aplenty on the X99 enthusiast platform, but the price is steep. Expect to pay roughly double for socket 2011v3 motherboards and Broadwell-E CPUs over Z170 and Skylake counterparts. 

How we tested gaming motherboards

Component List

CPUs:
Skylake – Intel i7 6700K – Socket 1151
Haswell – Intel i7 4790K – Socket LGA 1150
AMD 8350K – Socket AM3+
AMD 7850K – Socket FM2+
AMD 7870K – Socket FM2+ 

Coolers:
Corsair H100i GTX
Corsair H115i

SATA SSDs:
Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB               
M.2 SSDs:
Samsung SM951 ACHI 128 GB
Intel 600p 128 GB               
Crucial MX-300 1 TB

RAM:
16 GB G.SKILL Trident X DDR3-2400 (4x4GB)
16 GB G.SKILL TridentZ DDR4-3600 (2x8GB)
16 GB Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-2800 (4x4GB) 

GPUs:
Single - Nvidia 980 Ti reference
SLI - 2x MSI 980 Ti Gaming

Power Supply:
Corsair HX 1200i

Case:
Corsair 760T
Corsair 780T

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 bottlenecks 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, Gigabyte, Corsair, NVidia, G.Skill, and ASRock for their assistance and cooperation in putting together this guide!

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