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The best Z270 motherboard

Intel's mainstream LGA1151 platform is the best place to start for most gamers.

This year has been crazy with new processor launches from AMD and Intel. Intel got things started with a refresh of its existing Skylake architecture, codenamed Kaby Lake, which brings higher clockspeeds and a few new features to the existing LGA1151 platform. AMD countered with its Ryzen processors and the AM4 platform, and then Intel launched its enthusiast Skylake-X/Kaby Lake-X parts with LGA2066 and AMD countered with Threadripper and socket TR4.

With all the new processors, it can be difficult to know what motherboards are the best for each platform.  Looking forward, we also know that Intel will launch 8th Gen Coffee lake processors this fall, and while they'll use the same LGA1151 socket as Kaby Lake, the processors will require new 300-series chipsets. But if you're looking to build a new mainstream gaming system with an Intel processor, where the Core i7-7700K and Core i5-7600K remain the fastest gaming chips and also have the most reasonable prices, you'll want to start with a Z270 motherboard.

The jump in features, style, and performance from Z97 to Z270 has been dramatic and useful to enthusiasts of all stripes, far outstripping CPU advancements since Haswell. Most Z270 motherboards support multiple x4 PCIe Gen3 M.2 slots, sufficient PCIe lanes dual-GPU configurations, subtle or changeable color schemes, Realtek’s new ALC1220 audio codec is commonplace, and there are a host of refinements for overclocking. Mounts for 3D-printed add-ons are even starting to appear. 

Meanwhile, legacy ports are starting to disappear. USB 2.0 headers and back-panel connectors are getting swapped for 3.0 and 3.1 counterparts. SATA port counts are getting shaved to free resources and space for M.2 and U.2 storage. All the boards here feature at least a pair of M.2 slots, and all are full-speed, 32 Gb/s implementations. The days of SATA may be numbered (at least if they can get prices on M.2 SSDs down to more reasonable levels).

The new Z270 chipset (and other 200-series parts) remain backwards compatible with 6th Gen Skylake CPUs, and 100-series chipsets will also work with 7th Gen Kaby Lake processors. However, Z270 provides four additional PCIe lanes, which is why we're seeing more M.2 slots this round, and you'll also need a 200-series chipset if you want to use Intel's Optimus Memory technology.

While most motherboards will work well, enthusiasts will often want more than the base level of performance and features. After extensive research and testing, these are the best Z270 motherboards.

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Best overall Z270 motherboard

  • Good price
  • Best overclocking and memory scores
  • Mild or wild, depending on how you tune the lights
  • No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
  • More board than you need for a typical PC

The midrange Maximus Hero IX lived up to its name during testing, taking on motherboards costing almost twice as much and frequently pulling ahead on performance or features, making it best overall pick for Z270.

Gunmetal grey heatsink shapes and relatively restrained styling clothe this otherwise hardcore gaming product in upscale attire. Leave off the Aura lighting and you might assume it’s a workstation board. This neutral color scheme works well for extravagant rig builders too; just turn on the lights, match your colors, and you’re good to go, no matter what neon-colored components or cases you have in mind.

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Best budget Z270 motherboard

  • Excellent price
  • Stylish design with built-in I/O cover and LED backlighting
  • Intel Ethernet
  • Ancient Realtek ALC892 audio
  • Poor overclocking results

While there’s plenty to like about Z270, the extra dollars required for buy-in are a drawback. Component manufacturers haven’t been shy about hiking prices for the last few chipset generations, although the hit isn’t as big as it was from Z97 to Z170. A quick scan at Newegg yields a cost basement around $105 for an entry-level Z270 board.

MSI’s Tomahawk series retails just a few bucks above this price floor but delivers a credible midrange set of features and build quality nonetheless. The dark grey and red color scheme includes red backlighting, a screened pattern on the PCB, and a built-in I/O shroud with illuminated logo. The result is handsome, and if potential component color choice clashes worry you, there’s an arctic white version available that looks even better and will match any style you have in mind.

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Best midrange Z270 motherboard

  • Great CPU overclocking
  • Slick looks and RGB system
  • Board layout improvements
  • No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
  • Few legacy ports

MSI’s Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon adds to the winning recipe that made it a top pick for Z170, with the new version doubling the M.2 slots, adding more USB 3.1 ports, boosting audio in the form of Realtek’s ALC 1220 codec, and improving the board layout.

A restrained restyle retains the neutral colors of the Carbon series and includes new heatsinks, a refreshed chipset shield, reinforced DRAM slots, and a built-in I/O shroud that integrates into the updated, more balanced, LED Mystic Light implementation. There’s also an M.2 shield of questionable value, which you can read more about here.

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Best high-end Z270 motherboard

  • Top-shelf performance
  • Armor and Aura RGB look impressive
  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
  • Armor impedes access to some ports and connectors
  • Where's the 3T3R Wi-Fi, third M.2 slot, or teamable Ethernet?

No segment of the motherboard market shows the upward surge in pricing better than Z270’s high-end products. This is clearly where all the manufacturers want to play, and fierce competition for enthusiast dollars at this level is one of the reasons the gaming hardware market is booming.

ASUS traditionally does very well here, but that gap has closed with each generation since Sandy Bridge. Profitable markets mean everyone is stepping up their game for a piece of the action, and the result is the near-tie photo finish victory for ASUS’s Maximus IX Formula. ASUS keeps its crown for another cycle, but it’s anybody’s game from here on out.

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Best ITX Z270 motherboard

  • Well-made and stylish
  • Dual M.2, with one easy-access topside slot
  • Inexpensive
  • No USB 2.0 headers on motherboard
  • Others have Thunderbolt 3
  • Sharp corners bite during tight installs

Micro motherboards are back in business again thanks to the success of Intel’s NUC initiative and the evolution of game streaming, with ITX sized systems enjoying a renewed relevance for DIY gamers. These smaller boards often provide features that far outstrip similarly priced ATX boards, perfect for budget builders who don’t mind limited expansion options down the road.

ASUS’s new Strix products are the entry level for the Republic of Gamers lineup, but the Z270I feels as premium as the Maximus motherboards at the top of the stack. Sharing the same dark grey, brushed metal heatsinks and thick PCB as the big boards, it feels like a bargain at list price. 

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How we test gaming motherboards

Testing component list:

The motherboards recommended in this guide all received various forms of hands-on evaluation including enclosure installation (full tower, mid-tower, and ITX 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 Z270 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, CrystalDiskMark, 3DMark FireStrike, PCMark 8, 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 GTAV, Total War: Warhammer, DiRT Rally, 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.

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