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.
This revitalized Intel arrives just in time for the first real desktop CPU competition in years. AMD’s Ryzen CPUs are finally here, and there’s a whole new platform and chipset arriving with them. Stay tuned for PCGamer’s AM4 Motherboard guide, coming soon!
How we test gaming motherboards
Testing component list:
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+
Samsung 850 EVO 250 GB
Crucial MX-300 1 TB
Samsung SM951 ACHI 128 GB
Samsung 950 Pro NVMe 512 GB
Single - Nvidia 980 Ti reference
SLI - 2x MSI 980 Ti Gaming
Single – Powercolor 390X
Crossfire - 2x Powercolor 390X
Corsair HX 1200i
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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