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 more than 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.
The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151)
Dual M.2 slots
Dual LAN ports
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.
While the BIOS lacks the visual splendor of the Asus or MSI premium offerings, all expected enthusiast features make it onboard, including in-depth CPU, DRAM, and voltage controls. Overclocking tests produced a stable 4.5GHz at 1.35V with the lab’s Skylake sample, just a few clicks short of the test chip’s full 4.7GHz potential.
Both M.2 slots had no problem recognizing a variety of drives, including Samsung’s exotic SM951 NVMe, and they support RAID configurations in case 2.6Gb/s isn’t fast enough for you. While the primary Intel i219-V LAN adaptor can’t be teamed with the second LAN port’s Killer E2400 controller, the extra NIC is handy for routing, VM, VPN, and other networking projects. It’s also nice to have a built-in spare, in case anything happens to one of them down the line.
While the Gaming 6 is well appointed and solidly made, the color scheme and design are a bit bland. This model fares better than most of Gigabyte’s current lineup, however, with a more tasteful race car color mix that avoids the pseudo-bicentennial bunting draped across the rest. Nevertheless, Gigabyte doesn’t provide much by way of bling. As usual, if you’re looking for high fashion you’ll have to open your wallet a bit wider for a proper enthusiast motherboard.
The best all-around Skylake motherboard (LGA 1151) runner up
Plenty of fan headers
No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
Few gaming-specific features
Single M.2 and LAN ports
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.
Looks are sharp for a mainstream motherboard. The ASUS signature white plastic shroud and silver heat spreaders 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 in the side window and providing a welcome touch of character, one of the few deficiencies in Gigabyte’s Gaming 6.
ASUS includes modes that allows the LEDs to react to sound inputs such as music or to change with system heat levels, although a proper numerical temperature display on the boot code readout would be appreciated.
While Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and exotic extras like ROG’s handheld overclocking consoles are absent, bread and butter options such as built-in USB 3.1 connectors, a full-speed 4-lane M.2 slot, and memory support up to 3866 MHz are present and accounted for. XMP modes are stable and worked fine with the various DRAM sticks used for testing in the lab. Fan controls are top notch, and there are plenty of headers to hook them up to.
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.
Memory support tops off at a lofty 3600 MHz, but more relevant are stable, standard XMP profiles. Intel v219 LAN is provided for network connectivity, along with protection circuitry to prevent voltage spikes from travelling along the Ethernet line and frying the port. In fact, much of the board’s construction reflects MSI’s recent commitment to component quality and reliability. Manufacturing improvements such as heavier soldering, reinforced PCI slots, higher-quality caps, and titanium chokes have paid off in fewer problems and an improved reputation.
MSI’s BIOS doesn’t offer the deep granularity found elsewhere but remains one of the easiest to use, and overclocking doesn’t seem to suffer much from this. Top clockspeed results were on par with other mid-range boards and just a single multiplier below many high-end products, although temperatures were slightly warmer at peak load than on motherboards with more sophisticated VRM hardware, for example MSI’s own Z170 XPOWER Gaming Titanium Edition.
Two examples of generational improvement on the mid-cycle Z170 Carbon show MSI has been listening. Gone are the upward facing SATA connectors that sat in line with the second PCI-E slot, causing tangles with longer graphics cards in SLI, especially in tight cases. Now the SATA ports face right, leaving plenty of clearance for cables. Also gone are the red accents from the previous Gaming Pro, replaced with cool but color-neutral carbon fiber-style grey and black, allowing a much wider component pick for slicker style combos. More fan headers would have been nice however; MSI never seems to include enough of them.
RGB lighting and Intel LAN available on H170 Gaming Pro
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.
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 board itself comes padded and the box interior has a treated, matte-black finish that lends an upscale atmosphere. It’s easy to forget this product costs less than $100 on the street. Looks don’t disappoint either, with a classic black and red color scheme that features enough flash, fit, and finish to satisfy without going garish.
Drive support includes a 32-bit 4-lane M.2 connector, supporting exotic SSD hardware such as Samsung’s 951SM, which pushed drive speeds over 2.5 GB/s in non-sequential read tests, matching high-end transfer rates from boards in this guide costing three times as much.
ATX alternatives don’t measure up. MSI’s seven available PCI slots outnumber ASRock Fatal1ty’s 5, supplemented with 6 Gen 1 USB 3.1 ports and Killer E2400 Ethernet handling LAN duties. If the M3’s looks or LAN choice leave you flat, a mere $20 extra nets MSI’s H170A Gaming Pro, a virtually identical board that offers Intel LAN and a simplified Mystic Light LED implementation that are well worth the modest price increase.
Like all H170 boards, the drawbacks revolve mostly around upgrades and potential, meaning CPU multipliers are locked, memory is limited to 2133 MHz, and NVidia SLI isn’t supported, but these are minor issues for gamers who don’t overclock. That makes the Gaming M3 the perfect budget pick for this guide. For the only real alternative, skip below to Skylake ITX and prepare to be surprised.
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.
MSI’s Gaming Pro AC Mini ITX is a sampler menu of everything Z170. You’ll find 32 Gb/s M.2, USB 3.1, 802.11ac wireless, and Intel v219 LAN, just don’t expect large portions. Port numbers are fewer than ATX-based systems and there’s just a single slot that’s destined for your graphics card so upgrade potential is limited. These aren’t problems on a budget rig however, and assembling all that technology without ITX means starting with motherboards twice the MSI Z170I Gaming Pro AC’s price.
Audio is provided via an enhanced ALC1150 codec mated to optical connectors so set-top HTPC duties are fulfilled, and speed proved no problem with Skylake topping out at 4.6 GHz on the overclocking test, a healthy number for such a tiny board.
While ASRock’s Fatal1ty series narrowly missed taking the budget pick in the ATX form factor this round, the Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming-ITX/AC managed to land runner-up ITX recommendation for Z170 with a full-sized feature list similar to MSI’s entry, although with a lower level of fit, finish, and stability.
True 4 card Crossfire/SLI support via PLX hardware
Wi-Fi, Bluetooth included
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.
This motherboard isn’t cheap, but it’s a bargain compared to flashier high end boards and unlike those, you’ll never wonder where the money went. There’s a shelf full of extra components spilling out of every aperture.
ASUS’s BIOS remains a model for other manufacturers in terms of control and options, although new users can quickly get in over their heads if they aren’t careful. Manual tuning options are deep enough to let enthusiasts squeeze every drop of reliable speed out of Skylake, with automatic overclocking controls producing impressive, if voltage-happy, results with minimal user intervention.
Beyond the high price, shortcomings are few and mostly petty in nature. The 170-WS is a bit of a wallflower; even the box and accessory presentation are plain for a board in this class, with the cables, antenna, and other items housed in a mainstream cardboard package that looks little different from a budget special. Blinking lights abound on other ASUS models, if you’re interested.
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.
With a virtually identical BIOS, the Z170 Deluxe performs much like the Z170-WS, making it an overclocking champ and one of the most stable boards in ASUS’s lineup. All that’s keeping it from primary pick is the price, often just $50 less than the Z170-WS, making the latter a better buy overall.
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.
What kills older CPUs isn’t usually performance, it’s the dead-end platform they wind up trapped on. Users move on when they can’t use newer video cards, the latest SSDs, or fast USB ports. There’s no reason those technologies can’t be retrofitted to older chipsets however. It’s usually a matter of cost.
From the slick carbon fiber look to the 10 Gb/s M.2 slot and built-in USB 3.1, this entry-level priced board competes blow for blow with midrange Z170 offerings on features while undercutting on price. A full range of overclocking controls are complemented by 16x PCI slots to accommodate just about any configuration you want to try. Audio is provided by Realtek’s ALC1150, which gets the Crystal Audio treatment to reduce distortion.
ASUS provides an excellent alternative with the 970 Gaming Aura, missing only type-C USB 3.1 ports and neutral coloration for an otherwise identical feature list and price. Pick your flavor, black for MSI or red for ASUS. Both make AM3+ feel like new again and are perfect for cheap weekend system building projects.
There’s little reason to go beyond this point in the AM3+ market now, but if you want to run the high-end FX-9590 chips in style there’s always Asus’s legendary Crosshair Formula-Z or Sabertooth 990FX, excellent but aging runner up AM3+ boards that still charge fully for a piece of their excellent reputations.
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.
You don’t get Intel Ethernet but at least the included generic Realtek gigabit doesn’t get in the way with annoying driver software add-ons. Asus’s UEFI BIOS and tuning software control allow for easy, highly granular control of the CPU, iGPU, and RAM speeds, so you can have fun squeezing the most out of your APU and high-speed DDR3 DRAM. M.2 is also absent, but that’s nothing new as no FM2+ boards are shipping with M.2 slots at this time, nor are any likely soon.
The best high-end AMD motherboard (FM2+)
The high-end FM2+ pick, Asus’s Crossblade Ranger, puts top-shelf ROG hardware in your hands for mid-range money. An extra $50 street price gets you Intel Ethernet, improved audio via the Supreme FX, dual 16X PCIe 3.0 slots and ROG red/black accents instead of standard Asus gold. DPC latency goes down in the process as well, no doubt due to that Intel NIC.
Without M.2 or USB 3.1, the Crossblade Ranger feels slightly behind the curve but you won’t find another ROG product near its price, so if you’re looking for entry into Asus’s exclusive club, this is the cheapest ticket around. Besides, isn’t that what you have all those slots for?
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.
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 - 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.
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.
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.
Single - Nvidia 980 Ti reference
SLI - 2x MSI 980 Ti Gaming
Corsair HX 1200i
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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