The Skylake range of CPUs is Intel's latest and the Z170 chipset the absolute top-end of its motherboard tech tree.
What is an enthusiast motherboard exactly? It’s a fair question to ask when discussing which ones are the best. Is it a contest of speed and features or more a case of style and stability? Maybe it’s about attitude and intent. How about reputation and price? Don’t worry, this isn’t an existential dilemma. The answer is a short and simple “all of the above.”
The introduction of the Z170 chipset upped the ante further, bringing X99 chipset features to the mainstream and muddying the waters between the mid- and high-end of the marketplace. While this is a win for consumers in terms of features and speed, there’s been a bit of rub-off in price too. Z170 products cost more than their Z97 predecessors, a pinch especially noticeable in the midrange where enthusiast boards tend to pop up.
Presented here are the best of the current crop of Z170 motherboards, along with an alternative for each in case the primary pick doesn’t fit your fancy. We’ll also explain why each of these motherboards are special in some way, representing their manufacturers’ best efforts to go above and beyond the mainstream.
Note that if you're looking for something other than Z170 boards for Skylake, take a gander over at our Best gaming motherboards guide, where we've previously covered some of the other options.
Best Z170 motherboard -
Packed with features
Flexible and fast
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
ASRock dominates the budget motherboard market, and products like the Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming-ITX/ac are a case-study in why. While the other boards here strive to justify their lofty prices, the Fatal1ty delivers features and performance that feel like a steal with sale prices frequently hitting the $150 low water mark.
This makes the Fatal1ty not only a great pick for Skylake ITX builds, but also the best choice for budget-conscious enthusiasts looking for a little bit of everything Z170.
Rendered in gaming-gear red and black, the Fatality sits atop ASRock’s current Z170 ITX line-up. High speed I/O is this tiny motherboard’s forte, with a 32Gb/s M.2 slot, USB 3.1 C-style port, Intel gigabit LAN, Atheros Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth to compliment the array of normal USB and SATA connectors jammed onboard the micro-sized silicon island.
Like many other boards, audio is provided by Realtek’s ALC1150 DAC, in this instance fortified by ASRock’s Purity Audio 3 implementation. ASRock’s custom audio software stack is less extensive than its competition, which is a plus as these add-on packages are hit and miss. Room for two sticks of DDR4 up to 3400 MHz is present, although anything over 3200 MHz requires a cooperative CPU or some adjusted timings.
One feature not found elsewhere is built-in HDMI 2.0 support for video output, finally opening up proper, 60Hz 4K video support for the HTPC roles popular with set-top systems. Backing this up is full S/PDIF 5.1 Dolby digital gaming surround output, easy to find in ATX sized boards but a rarity in Z170 ITX.
Performance is surprisingly on par with ATX Z170 offerings, despite the slot and connector count reductions required to squeeze everything into an ITX-friendly form factor. Multiplier tests ran up to 45x at the 1.35V test voltage, and with further tweaking reached a stable 4.6GHz daily overclock. Fit and finish isn’t bad for the price either, although ASRock tends to have more QC issues than most, so check any board thoroughly before the return period is over. Small size is both a pro and a con for the Fatal1ty. Smaller boards fit in all kinds of quirky cases and spaces, but they are a pain to install and offer less upgrade potential.
Z170 ITX alternative:
Asus Maximus Impact VIII
There’s not a lot of need to go beyond this board for ITX rigs, but if you have a special project, want something with more flash, or are just partial to spending money, then the is a solid choice at $250/£176 that offers a little extra on all fronts for a lot more cash up front.
Gigabyte’s new Z170X-Gaming 6 is the most practical enthusiast motherboard here. For a modest price bump over basic Z170 boards, the Gaming 6 provides dual 32Gb/s M.2 slots, dual LAN controllers, customizable ALC1150 audio, and rock solid stability in a sporty red, black, and white-accented design.
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 on the basis of features rather than flash, a no-nonsense tradition the Gaming 6 wears on its sleeve.
The packaging and box contents follow suit. You won’t find too many extras here. A few cables, a thin manual, the I/O connector backplate, and a handful of other items round out a Spartan package, but Gigabyte hasn’t cut any corners where it counts.
This simplicity makes the Gaming 6 a stable and swift partner when getting a system up and running from scratch, proving easier to install than the more complicated boards in this guide. 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 ASRock premium offerings, all expected enthusiast features are present and accounted for, including in-depth CPU, DRAM, and voltage controls. Overclocking tests produced a stable 4.5GHz at 1.35V with the Skylake sample on hand, just a few clicks short of the test chip’s full potential of 4.7GHz at that voltage level.
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 schemes and design are a bit bland. This particular model fares better than most of Gigabyte’s current lineup, however, with a more tasteful 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.
Alternatives in this bracket are numerous but either offer fewer features or less stability. Asus’s excellent Signature series Z170-Pro is available for a few more bucks and overclocks slightly better but only offers a single LAN connector and a single M.2 slot (U.2 is also offered).
sits at the other end of this spectrum, offering an amazing triple 32Gb/s M.2 slot implementation and 2 LAN connectors topped off with a front-bay mounted USB 3.1 controller that converts otherwise neglected SATA express ports to productive use. Sadly, all three samples I looked at had manufacturing defects, including a board so badly warped that one corner sat almost an inch higher than the others when placed on a flat surface.
MSI’s Z170A XPower Titanium packs serious CPU support silicon in a slick silver package that’s perfect for overclocking enthusiasts. The least expensive board to reach the sample CPU’s top stable 47x multiplier, the XPower also happily pushed past 4.8GHz with minor voltage and BCLK tuning. Moreover, temperatures stayed low both at idle and under load, keeping cool no matter the processor pressure, giving it the best thermal headroom of the bunch.
Thankfully, this performance doesn’t come with the bleeding edges common in boutique boards. Drivers and BIOS were stable from the start, and the clean design pays off during installs, especially in tighter cases. This is a thoughtful touch since the XPower’s standard ATX form factor opens up plenty of enclosure options denied to its premium EATX competitors. Take care with DRAM installation however: DIMMs can appear seated but not be fully clicked into place, so press firmly.
Speaking of enclosures, you’ll want a window for this one. MSI’s silver paint special looks smashing, with a restrained appearance that still manages to look limited edition. Neutral silver and grey tones make component coordination easy, although you won’t find MSI’s adjustable Mystic Light LED arrangements here, which is a pity since they would reflect nicely on the motherboard’s fancy finish.
Sharp-eyed readers may notice the board’s sleek futuristic looks go beyond smart-looking paint. Gone is the can-style VRM hardware you see surrounding other CPU sockets, replaced here with tiny, high-quality tantalum packages that last longer and handle extreme temperatures more easily. This same level of detail extends to the VCORE phases and other areas.
On the storage side, the XPower’s dual 32Gb/s M.2 slots support RAID configurations and can be used for system boot-up. Standard SATA drives have a half-dozen motherboard connections to choose from, backed by the usual Intel and ASMedia controllers.
To help users take advantage of the XPower’s overclocking prowess, MSI includes several extra hardware features that put the speed squeeze on Skylake. The first is a removable overclock daughterboard with a set of hardware buttons that allows performance tuning without software or entry into the BIOS, a feature generally reserved for more expensive motherboards or socket 2011v3 hardware.
Next is a knob with a series of overclock presets that can be cranked, Spinal Tap-style, all the way up to 11. Note that you’ll need a stout Skylake sample to peg that dial; full overclock is 4.7GHz so make sure system cooling is up to the task. MSI helps out here by providing an incredibly useful temperature readout via the motherboard’s error code display after system boot up. Why other manufacturers don’t do this is a mystery.
As befits a flagship product, the Xpower comes bundled with plenty of extras. Along with a manual, connector backplate, SLI bridge, and assorted cabling, MSI adds testing leads, cable labels, a metallic adhesive badge for the case exterior, and the requisite novelty door hanger. The OC daughtercard is bundled with the motherboard in a sturdy padded box for a substantial, tidy package that feels well worth the price.
Z170 midrange alternative:
The battle for this guide entry was close, with just a hairsbreadth from victory over MSI. The Deluxe is Asus’s step-up model from the Pro, and a world-class motherboard in its own right. Offering a more conventional design with a single built-in M.2 slot, the Deluxe features dual Intel LAN controllers and a U.2 connector perfect for Intel 750 series SSDs, in case you prefer them to Samsung’s M.2 offerings. While the Deluxe feels a little less special and enthusiast-oriented than the XPower, it’s a worthy alternative for an extra $30.
Although the Maximus Formula VIII isn’t the most exclusive product in Asus’s line-up, it’s the definitive wayward child. While the signature series and even the Maximus Extreme get by with subtle colors and restrained styling, the Formula flaunts its LED-enhanced style and gunmetal grey panels like it’s always time to party.
In addition to several lights mounted behind openings in the motherboard’s protective paneling, an RGB lead and bundled 2-foot long lighting strip allow builders to go LED crazy. Asus’s aura light control lets these strobe, flash, fade, or even pulse in time with music or react to system temperature and doesn’t need to stay resident after changes are made.
Careful attention to detail means no wayward colors ruin the effect either – the only distractions are the amber hard disk access light and the motherboard’s surface mounted reset and power buttons, rendered in an unobtrusive pale white.
While this board’s specialty is high style, the component list is impressive too. Networking is provided via Intel i219-V LAN and backed by 2x2:2 Wi-Fi. Both M.2 and U.2 drives are supported and ALC1150 audio is fortified with an ESS ES9023P DAC and other dedicated hardware. The M.2 slot is hidden behind a panel in the board’s lower right corner, accessible after removing a screw. The custom EK co-designed waterblock support includes tube connectors for VRM liquid cooling and thermal pads that conduct heat away from the motherboard using the Formula 8’s armor panels for increased dissipation.
Overclocking Skylake proved no challenge to the Formula VIII, with the sample CPU reaching the target 47x multiplier at voltages even lower than the multiplier test’s standard 1.35V. Results eventually crested at 4.8GHz with further BCLK, voltage, and memory tuning, pulling equal with the best overclock results in the guide.
The Formula VIII’s focus on style does leave some features on the table, however. Since just a single M.2 slot is included, those looking for a RAID setup will either need to get an add-in M.2 card or look elsewhere. Also, while the TUF style armor looks great and protects components from accidental damage, it also limits access to components and makes for a bulky build experience.
Z170 high-end alternative:
The main alternative near this price point is . A wallflower compared to the Formula VIII, the Z170-WS is nevertheless one of the hidden gems of the Asus lineup. In exchange for the Formula’s LED emphasis, CrossChill cooling, and grey armor, the Z170-WS gives you two Intel LAN controllers, Asus’s only built-in dual M.2 implementation, PLX support for SLI/Crossfire beyond two cards, and about $50 in change. Not bad if you don’t mind daily driving a well-appointed stealthy sleeper over the flashy Formula VIII.
Asus’ mighty Maximus VIII Extreme is an impressive board in its own right, but Skylake speedsters looking for something special have another option available, the limited Extreme Assembly edition.
The Assembly edition makes a series of significant changes to the . Color schemes are dialed back from now-generic gamer black and red to a subtle copper-accented dark grey, a neutral combo that recalls the Z97 signature series, fits better in professional environments, and makes component color coordination easier.
Like the signature series, an adjustable RGB light now lives under the chipset logo heatsink, adding a little cheek to an otherwise serious look.
Bundled board add-ins get a massive makeover, with a high-quality front panel headphone amplifier and 10G Express Ethernet adaptor card both included in the package, along with an extra fan controller and a stack of cables and other goodies. The SupremeFX amp is mounted in a 5.25" drive bay box that connects via internal USB cable and sports an ESS ES9018K2M DAC, dual Texas Instruments LM4562 op-amps, and a TPA6120A2 amp supporting headphones up to 600 ohms.
While not as whimsical as the transformable OC panel found in the standard Maximus Extreme, these additions are a practical update and provide plenty of flexibility and futureproofing for your rig. The 10G card, an Aquantia/ design, also supports the 2.5G and 5G speeds next-generation consumer routers will adopt down the road, while the headphone amp is useful immediately, producing some of the best sound bundled in a motherboard box today.
Plenty of goodness is built into the board as well, with 3x3:3 Wi-Fi, Intel i219-V LAN, enhanced motherboard ALC1150 Realtek audio, and USB 3.1 Type-C, along with 32Gb/s M.2 and U.2 connectors. Overclocking tests matched the best results here, producing a stable 47x multiplier with impressively low core temperatures, and other benchmarks followed suit. No features included with the Extreme Assembly disappoint.
Drawbacks mostly involve what hasn’t been included for the moonshot money Asus is asking. There’s just a single M.2 slot; two or even three would have been nice at this price, and the CrossChill hybrid cooling system found on the Maximus Formula VIII is absent here. Another problem is software: Drivers and utilities for the motherboard are scattered between the page for this model and the standard Maximus VIII Extreme’s download page, making preparation more complex.
Alternatives at this level are few. There’s Asus’s standard version of the Extreme, but even at its higher price the Assembly edition represents a better value since the add-in items are worth far more than the $100 premium charged for them. Soon to arrive at the lab is , however, which promises more bread-and-butter features, such as multiple M.2 slots, at a price over $100 below the Maximus Extreme Assembly, so stay tuned for the next round.
The motherboards recommended in this guide all undergo various forms of hands-on evaluation, including multiple enclosure installations, performance benchmarking, stability testing, and a follow up real-world break-in period that focuses on gaming, content creation, entertainment, and media playback. When possible, all tests are performed with identical components installed to remove any variables except the motherboard itself.
Benchmarks include AIDA64 Extreme, Cinebench 15, CrystalDiskMark, Unigine Heaven 4.0, RightMark Audio Analyzer, 7zip’s compression test, LAN Speed and Wi-Fi Test, Dolphin Emulator, 3DMark’s FireStrike and Skydiver tests, and Latency Monitor, while the real-world break-in period encompasses office and creative work, media streaming, and gaming with a variety of demanding titles such as GTAV, Bioshock Infinite, Metro: Last Light, DIRT: Rally, Fallout 4, Witcher 3, and others.
Overclocking benchmarks include a uniform CPU multiplier test at 1.35V as well as auto overclocking software (where applicable) and fully tuned manual overclock results. Stability tests are performed with AIDA64’s stress utility and extended runs of the gaming software suite at varying levels of detail.
Gaming tests are run multiple times at 1080p with medium-to-high graphics options to identify any outliers and remove bottlenecks caused by video card performance. When possible, both single and dual card configurations are tested from multiple vendors to ensure motherboard stability in high bandwidth situations.
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