When it comes to gaming, it pays to be picky about motherboards. Shortcomings that otherwise go unnoticed in office applications can crash the party in action or racing games, and keep you off leaderboards like a case of shaky hands. Make sure those pricey drives, graphics cards and overclocked CPUs live up to their potential by giving them a loving home with a good motherboard. We've looked into dozens of them to find the best at a variety of prices and form-factors.
New Broadwell-E CPUs were launched last month, but did not bring along a new platform chipset from Intel. Instead, they're fully compatible with existing X99 motherboards. Our tests also determined that if you're gaming on X99, going with Haswell-E is still the better choice for gaming.
Skylake CPUs demand a new family of chipsets, which finally pave the lanes wide for serious I/O performance. We've put together a separate guide on the best Z170 motherboard for enthusiasts, while this guide covered all the bases. The 170 chipset blurs the lines between Intel’s extreme and standard platforms with plenty of positive results for gamers and enthusiasts, although X99’s higher prices have rubbed off a little, too.
The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
- Excellent overall performance
- Solid BIOS
- No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
- Few gaming-specific features
If you’re tired of waiting while ASUS sorts out the Pro Gaming series or gun-shy about going with MSI, ASUS offers the Z170-Pro. This non-gaming focused alternative features better VRM hardware than either of those midrange boards along with ALC 1150 audio, Intel v219 Ethernet, subdued white/silver looks, and ASUS’s signature-series BIOS, a package that provides the best overall experience on LGA1151 today.
Skipping past the beta-board waiting line will cost you a bit though, as the Z170-Pro is only available at its hefty initial list price of $195, making it costly for a general recommendation but the best fit for the vast $200 gap in between Z170 mid-range and newfound $300+ high-end frontier. These are early days for Skylake however, so expect $150-170 street prices before long, once the new-car aroma wears off and the discounts begin.
Looks are sharp for a mainstream motherboard. The white plastic shroud and silver heat spreaders that ASUS signature boards share appear sedate at first but match all components equally. In a nod towards MSI’s Mystic Light, a miniature color and pulse adjustable LED light show lives under the chipset logo shield, adding some flash right where the side window on most cases resides and providing a welcome touch of character, one of the Z170-Pro’s few deficiencies.
The best mid-range Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
- Budget price for mid-range features
- Overclocks well
- Smart component list, solid construction
- BIOS a bit thin
MSI continues its winning streak in a shocking upset victory over ASUS with the Z170A Gaming Pro, a just-right mix of style, features, and price that resets expectations for motherboards under $150. Matching the more expensive ASUS Pro Gaming in features but beating it handily in price and current firmware stability, MSI seems to have a better grip on Intel’s new chipset than the competition, at least in this segment.
With a $130 street price, the Z170A Gaming Pro almost qualifies as budget hardware but delivers an experience well beyond the modest asking price, with full-speed M.2, 14 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.
Memory support tops off at a lofty 3600 MHz, but more relevant are stable, standard XMP profiles, a feat ASUS is still having trouble implementing, many BIOS revisions after the release of its competing Z170 Pro Gaming board.
The best budget Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
- Amazing value
- Full speed M.2
- Multiplier locked
- Memory caped at 2,133MHz
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 takes the budget crown with the better BIOS and lower price, rounding out a smooth package that cloaks cost compromises well.
The goodness starts with a box and accessories package worthy of a midrange motherboard; there’s a padded connector backplate, adhesive labels for cable ends, the expected manual, CD, and assortment of drive cables along with a novelty door-hanger usually seen with specialty hardware.
The best mini-ITX Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
- Great feature set for the money
- Full-speed M.2 slot on back
- Quirky BIOS
- Early stability issues
ITX remains a land of limited returns for gamers, although Skylake’s power and heat reductions mean better build scenarios than Haswell could provide. While ASRock’s Fatal1ty series narrowly missed taking the budget pick in the ATX form factor, the Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming-ITX/AC managed to land the overall ITX recommendation for Z170 with a full-sized feature list along with some special tricks that separate it from the rest of the pint-sized pack.
Since a sizable segment of small builds pull double duty as media servers and HTPC’s, ASRock fortifies wireless credentials with full 802.11ac dual antenna Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 and pairs them off with Intel’s latest v219 Ethernet.
Audio gets an upgrade with an enhanced 7.1 channel ALC1150 codec mated to optical connectors. There’s also HDMI 2.0 built in, a long overdue feature and an important one for media center use or if 4K streaming is on the dance card.
The best high-end Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
- Dual Intel LAN
- Excellent overclocking support
- Very expensive
- Early issues with secondary DIMMs
While ASUS may be having problems with a few mid-range boards, there’s no problem at the high end. A perusal of the product catalog shows a bevy of overachievers above $200. There isn’t a loser in the lot, but some are smarter than others, and the Z170 Deluxe is ASUS’s overall valedictorian. A genius in motherboard form, it can do everything other motherboards do, only better.
It starts with feature list that leans towards the tangible. While other high-end boards tout fairly abstract upgrades such as armor plating or level-up electronics, ASUS gives you extra LAN ports, triple antenna 1300 Mb/s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and half a dozen 10 Gb/s USB 3.1 ports, including an elusive built-in type C connector.
This motherboard isn’t cheap, but you’ll never wonder where the money went. There’s a shelf full of extra components spilling out of every aperture.
The best mid-range Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
- Restrained ROG style
- Great performance
- No USB 3.1
- No Bluetooth or Wi-Fi
Asus has dominated the mid- to high-end motherboard market in recent years, and the current generation is no exception. The generic but reliable (and out of stock) Z97-A works well as a baseline recommendation, but if you’re willing to drill down a bit into the product lineup, the situation get more interesting.
Not listed in most Asus comparisons is a hybrid board that combines some of the better Republic Of Gamers brand features along with the robust simplicity of the main Pro series, a product line Asus dubbed the Z97 Pro Gamer.
Sporting a fashionable but restrained black and red color scheme, a 10Gbs M.2 socket, 8-phase VRM, a bevy of controller-enabled fan headers and plenty of overclocking tricks, it’s the best mix of features and fashion in the midrange market, running $160 on the street.
The best budget Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
- Great price
- Enhanced ALC 1150 audio
- Cant get Intel Ethernet and M.2 on the same model
- Budget board construction
ASRock’s Fatal1ty takes the budget motherboard pick by combining a boatload of midrange features with high style, easy installation and trick overclocking for an overall package that’s hard to beat for the price.
While not as robust as Asus’s low-budget runner up, the H97 Gamer Pro, the Fatal1ty matched Asus’s raw performance and outdistanced ASRock’s own Z97 Extreme boards on cost, stability and compatibility in this price-sensitive segment. Not bad for less than a Benjamin.
Utilizing Iow-latency Intel gigabit Ethernet and Crystal Sound-enhanced Realtek 1150ALC audio, the H97 Fatal1ty Performance forgoes M.2 support to reach a fantastic $80 street price, and represents the best choice in budget gaming if you’re sticking with standard SSD drives, such as Samsung’s 850 EVO.
The best high-end Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
- Restrained and classy style
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- Great overclocking
- Slow M.2 slot
Stuck between the excellence of the Z97 midrange and the opulence of X99 extreme platforms, high-end Z97 boards have a hard time standing out. While the driver and BIOS abandonment issues that plagued the early gaming-ghetto motherboard brand era are mostly gone, it’s hard to justify spending over $200 when better choices exist both up and down the ladder.
The smart strategy for high-end Z97 shoppers focuses on useful features over seasonal fashions, which puts Asus’s Z97 Pro Wi-Fi/USB 3.1 at the top of the list. One of the few products that include USB 3.1, Bluetooth and high-speed Wi-Fi integrated on the motherboard, the Z97 Pro satisfies most computing needs out of the box and leaves the slots and ports free to configure as you like.
Mature drivers, Intel-based gigabit Ethernet and 12-phase CPU power control add up to stable, low-latency operation and the highest LGA 1150 overclock scores in this evaluation - a stable 4.8 GHz from the lab’s Intel i7 4790K.
The best mini-ITX Haswell motherboard (LGA 1150)
- Healthy overclocks
- M.2 slot
- Great value
- Only 2 DRAM slots
The number of valid ITX gaming system scenarios are nearly as small as the motherboards themselves, so there’s just a pair of recommendations for motherboards in this class, the Asus Z97I Plus and the Maximus VII Impact. Why aren't we crazy about ITX for gaming? Well, you're paying a lot more for the miniature form-factor and getting less in return. Tiny boards only have room for so many features, so some ATX niceties get cut, and cooling is tougher in a smaller case, too.
But if you do want to build a tiny ITX rig that can sit in your living room or on top of your desk, you might as well get a great one. Despite a limited 6 phase VRM and just two DRAM slots, this little Asus Z97I Plus proved a competent overclocker in testing and is more likely to be limited by the realities of ITX enclosure cooling than any motherboard design limits.
You’ll find fewer ports than larger offering but 2T2R Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both standard, along with a 10 Gb/s M.2 slot situated on the back of the motherboard, options that are likely to get plenty of use for media center duty. At $155 on the street, the Asus Z97I Plus delivers all you need from an HTPC box at midrange motherboard prices. Too bad Asus didn’t include ALC1150 audio.
The best Intel Extreme motherboard (LGA 2011 v3)
- Great looking
- Plenty of PCI lanes
- USB 3.1 via bundled PCI card
Nice as high-end Z97 is, it’s the Haswell-E and Broadwell-E builds that represent the end of the rainbow for Intel gamers, and the Asus Rampage V Extreme is the best board I've tested in this high-end dreamland. As Jarred pointed out in his review of Broadwell-E however, Hasewll-E CPUs still represent the better buy for actual gaming duties.
Asus has a new version of its X99 flagship called the Rampage V Edition 10, which it released in June to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its ROG brand. The new board brings along several new features:
- Onboard U.2
- Auto detection of PWM/DC fans on each header
- High amperage fan headers, capable of supplying 3 amps
- SpremeFX HiFi audio chipset
- RGB lighting galore with 5 zones
- Reinforced PCIe slots
The Rampage V Edition 10 cost's $130 more than the Rampage V Extreme, so for most X99 users, we still reckon that the Extreme is still the best buy.
X99 is a strange, expensive land where the law of diminishing returns is an accepted fact of life. X99 and Haswell-E make more sense for desktop performance junkies like videographers than they do for gamers, as the core count performance advantages over high-end Z97 systems don’t translate into framerate increases or added features beyond ultra-rare triple- or quad-GPU setups, but gaming systems based on X99 motherboards still have some tricks up their sleeves.
Currently, Haswell-E is the home of the fastest 4-lane gen 3 M.2 slots. While Z97 technically supports this type of M.2 slot, so few manufacturers implement it that it’s easier to simply shoot for X99 or bite the bullet and go NVMe via an Intel 750 PCI card. If you’re having doubts this single feature makes a difference, think again. These drives transfer data at rates three times the speed of the fastest SATA SSDs; it’s an increase you’ll notice immediately.
The best AMD motherboards (AM3+)
- Solid construction
- Good overclocking
- Antiquated BIOS
With AMD motherboards always on sale these days there’s little reason to skimp if you’ve decided to build an AM3+ or FM2+ based system. Gigabyte’s GA-970A-UD3P is the best place to start for a budget AM3+ build; around 90 bucks gets you a generic but well-made board with an 8+2 phase VRM and a solid collection of SATA drive controllers and USB connectors.
You also get a few modern touches like BIOS backups and quick-charge USB connectors, but there’s a distinctly vintage feel to the proceedings since AM3+ is getting on a bit in years
You won’t get SLI support on the GA-970A-UD3P’s cut-down AMD 970 chipset but Crossfire remains an option if you feel like filling expansion slots. If you can foot the bill, stepping up to the full FX chipset is recommended as the flexibility well worth the price and some of the options are surprising.
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 more modern and bit less expensive since it’s still an actively developed platform 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 go 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.
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 mobos
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.
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.
Intel’s current chipset, the 9 series, plays home to the fifth generation Haswell-based processor. The Z97 chipset, which supports overclocking and SLI, is the most popular with enthusiasts although the mainstream H97 and high-end X99 chipsets help round out the gamer’s corner of Intel’s lineup.
Z97 and H97 support socket LGA 1150 with X99 using the larger LGA 2011v3 socket whose greater pin count accommodates the extra cores and other features found in Haswell-E. The 9 series has precious few improvements over earlier Intel chipsets, but the main attraction, native M.2 SSD support, is a sweet fruit indeed, delivering over 2 GB/s transfer rates under ideal conditions.
Intel motherboards featuring the new 170 series are just around the corner, but stability, price and the new product pecking order are yet to be established. They utilize a new socket, LGA 1151, which means plenty of additional investment along with the motherboard including a new CPU and DDR 4 RAM.
While Intel’s Skylake CPU and the 170-chipset motherboards that support it are scheduled for introduction between August and October, don’t expect full availability or all the quirks to be ironed out until early next year. This keeps Haswell competitive through the holiday season, especially as sales and other discounts sweeten the deal. If you need a new system today, don’t wait for Skylake. The line is longer than it looks, and much of Skylake’s goodness can be purchased today via X99 and Haswell-E if you really need it.
Speaking of X99, for the first time in years, the extreme platform has relevance beyond bragging rights for Intel. Haswell-E sports up to 8 cores/16 threads, next-generation DDR4 RAM support and I/O lanes aplenty for multi-GPU gamers. Four-lane, gen 3 M.2 support, which more than triples performance over SATA SSDs, is commonplace on X99, a stark contrast to the Z97 marketplace where anything beyond the standard 10 Gb/s M.2 is almost impossible to find.
You’ll also get all the bling you can handle. From LED light shows to remote-control overclocking panels, you’ll find the best crazy ideas in Intel’s computing world. The X99 isn’t cheap, but it delivers tomorrow’s tech today.
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. While the AM3+ and FM2+ sockets have been around for a while, development remains active, especially for the latter.
The upcoming Zen architecture promises to change AMD’s landscape quite a bit, but it won’t hit the market for a while. 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
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. Where Intel doles out miserly, 16 lane portions of I/O to top-shelf customers buying i7 4790K CPUS, AMD serves up a generous 40 lane helping via the 990FX chipset.
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 trump performance claims.
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 8 provided by the chipset. This seems like plenty until you remember one graphics card uses up to 16 lanes by itself. This is why standard Intel Z97 motherboards can’t run two video cards at full speed: 16 +16 = 32 lanes. Instead, Z97 boards run the cards at 8x, which nips performance imperceptibly but allows for some flexibility with card arrangements.
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.
AMD 8350K – Socket AM3+
AMD 7850K – Socket FM2+
AMD 7870K – Socket FM2+
How we tested gaming motherboards
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 bottleneck 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, Corsair, Nvidia, GSkill and ASRock for their assistance and cooperation in putting together the guide!
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