Still stuck on Sandy Bridge? Staying faithful to that fading Phenom II? Don't worry, the cavalry has arrived. After a bumpy early start for Intel's 1151 and AMD's AM4 sockets, the promise of both platforms is starting to be realized with a new generation of processor and chipsets. It's finally time to put that old warhorse out to pasture.
The charge started with a revitalized socket 1151 after Skylake's lackluster launch. The updated Z270 platform gained better overclocking controls, more M.2 slots, better LED implementations, neutral color styles, and widespread adoption of Realtek's new ALC1220 audio codec. Stability is better on Z270 also, with shorter boot times, better memory performance, and lower operating temperatures.
The real excitement however is that Intel is just half the story. AMD's AM4 platform and Ryzen processor line have finally arrived and, after overcoming some launch stumbles of their own, are establishing themselves in Team Red's traditional "bang for the buck" role.
Offering up twice the cores for about the half the price, Ryzen presents a real alternative for gamers who want a workstation that can pull double duty as a gaming rig without breaking the bank. A steady stream of BIOS updates from all the major motherboard manufacturers have quelled the chaos caused by AM4's embryonic release, and it's now possible to enjoy a swift, stable, and trouble-free Ryzen-based project. Just make sure you update the BIOS via USB before you do anything else.
Some of the boards here are winners of previous round-ups, while others are making their first appearance in this edition of the guide. After plenty of requests, a few mATX models have been included for builders thinking small but not ITX tiny, and since prices for components are on the rise, the formula for budget picks now pushes value harder than ever. The cheapest motherboard mentioned here is less than $70 on the street, just one of several that cost less than $100.
How we test gaming motherboards
The motherboards recommended in this guide all received various forms of hands-on evaluation including enclosure installation (full tower, mid-tower, and test bench where applicable), performance benchmarking, stability testing, and a follow up period of real-world break-in usage 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, PCMark 8, Cinebench 15, Crystal Disk Mark, 3DMark’s FireStrike and PCMark 8 tests, DPC Latency Checker, and others. 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, Total War: Attila and Warhammer, Company of Heroes 2, DiRT Rally, Bioshock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Far Cry Primal, Hitman, and others.
Gaming tests are run at 1080p at medium to high settings 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 SLI and Crossfire situations.
Picking a motherboard: What do you want from your system?
Intel Core i7-7700K
Intel Pentium G4560
AMD Ryzen 1700X
Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB
Crucial MX300 1 TB
Samsung SM951 ACHI 128 GB
Samsung 950 Pro NVMe 512 GB
32 GB G.Skill Trident Z RGB DDR4-3600 (4x8GB)
32 GB Corsair Vengeance LED DDR4-2666 (4x8GB)
16 GB G.Skill Trident Z DDR4-3600 (2x8GB)
16 GB Corsair Vengeance LPX 2800 DDR4 (4x4GB)
Single - Nvidia 1080 Ti reference
SLI - 2x MSI 980 Ti reference
Single - Powercolor R9 390X
Crossfire - 2x Powercolor R9 390X
Corsair HX 1200i
Full tower - Corsair 780T
Mid tower - Corsair Crystal Series 570X RGB
Open test bench
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.
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