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The best Z270 motherboard

Kaby Lake arrives with a new chipset and raised speed limits

Intel is a changing company these days and that’s a good thing. After decades in a grey suit, the tech monolith is learning to loosen up and crack a smile. They’re embossing skulls on products, embracing gaming, and unlocking budget chips for hardware hot-rodding. This isn’t your father’s Intel.

While critics have legitimate claims about the slow pace of processor development on the desktop, advancements in the chipsets and motherboards behind them are another matter. 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.

The first wave of Z270 motherboards usher in multiple 32Gb M.2 slots, lanes a-plenty for SLI or Crossfire builds, subtle or changeable color schemes, commonplace usage of Realtek’s new ALC1220 audio codec, and a host of refinements to over-clocking. 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 seem numbered.

Remarkably, Intel chose to retain socket 1151 and provide backwards compatibility to Skylake. That’s right; Skylake processors will work in Z270 systems and Kaby Lake will work with Z170 motherboards after a BIOS update. Intel is definitely doing things differently.

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Best overall Z270 motherboard

  • Low price
  • Best overclocking and memory scores
  • Mild or wild, depending on how you tune the lights
  • No Wi-Fi or Bluetooth

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’s first wave.

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 $110 for a non-generic 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 M.2 slots, adding more USB 3.1, 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:

CPUs:
Kaby Lake – Intel i7700K – Socket 1151
Skylake – Intel i7 6700K – Socket 1151
Haswell – Intel i7 4790K – Socket LGA 1150
AMD 8350K – Socket AM3+
AMD 7870K – Socket FM2+ 

Coolers:
Corsair H115i

SATA SSDs:
Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB
Crucial MX-300 1 TB

M.2 SSDs:
Samsung SM951 ACHI 128 GB
Samsung 950 Pro NVMe 512 GB

RAM:
Single - Nvidia 980 Ti reference
SLI - 2x MSI 980 Ti Gaming
Single – Powercolor 390X
Crossfire - 2x Powercolor 390X

Power Supplies:
Corsair HX 1200i
EVGA NEX750B

Cases:
Full tower - Corsair 780T
Mid tower - Corsair Crystal Series 570X RGB
ITX – Realan E-MINI series I5
Open test bench

 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 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, 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.

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