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How to Choose a Motherboard, the Most Consequential Component

Written by Liam Tormey
Last updated Jul 9, 2021

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how to choose a motherboard

The motherboard is the heart of your system. The one you choose determines what you can connect, how you can expand, and even the stability and the overclocking potential of your components. To find the motherboard that best fits your priorities, you need to know what to look for. This article aims to teach you how to choose a motherboard in the simplest way we can explain.

First, Pick a CPU

To choose a motherboard, pick a CPU first.

Before you can find the right motherboard, you need to pick a CPU so that the two can be compatible. Having a CPU in mind allows you to identify the type of CPU socket (physical mounting point) you need on a motherboard and narrows down your search to a handful of compatible chipsets.

What’s a chipset? From a consumer standpoint, chipsets are simply how motherboards are categorized based on their compatibility and features. You might recognize them as a combo of letters and numbers in a motherboard’s product name. For example, the B550.

It turns out there is some logic behind chipset naming convention, and understanding it makes you a more informed motherboard shopper.

Chipsets Naming Convention Explained

Intel and AMD both name their chipsets in a similar fashion: a letter followed by two to three numbers (e.g. Z150). But the meaning behind the letters and numbers differ.

Intel

Intel uses the letters B, H, Q, Z and X.

LetterFeaturesExample
B & HB or H represents Intel's budget boards that mostly don’t support overclocking or SLI.Intel B460, Intel H370
QQ is for Intel's enterprise boards with remote management features that will not be relevant to most consumers and gamers. Intel Q470
ZZ represents Intel's popular, high-end consumer boards with overclocking and SLI support.Intel Z490, Intel Z390
XX boards are for Intel's Extreme series CPUs which are currently aimed at prosumers and not gamers because of their lower clock speeds.Intel X299

For Intel boards, the first number that follows the letter is for the chipset generation (higher means newer). The numbers that follow begin to get a bit baroque so for our purposes, higher numbers mean more features.

AMD

AMD essentially copied Intel’s naming convention but made it more straightforward. They use the letters A, B, and X.

LetterFeaturesExample
AThe most budget and barebones of AMD's stack with minimal features.AMD A320
BMid-range motherboards that support overclocking.AMD B550
XHigh-end motherboards with overclocking and SLI support.AMD X570

Most buyers avoid the A series altogether and opt for a B or X series motherboard. Unlike Intel, AMD supports overclocking and Crossfire on both A and B series boards but only X series boards support SLI. Generally, you can expect more connections, PCIe slots, and better VRM’s on an X series boards.

As with Intel, the first number that follows the letter designates the chipset generation. If the last two numbers are 99, the motherboard is only compatible with AMD’s physically larger Threadripper CPUs.

Ensuring motherboard CPU compatibility is merely the first step. To make the most informed decision when choosing a motherboard, you’ll need to be able to decide between individual products within a chipset. This is where a good understanding of motherboard features comes in handy.

What Makes a Good Motherboard?

Your motherboard dictates the rest of your build.

Featured Build: AK Mod’s Workstation

As we mentioned earlier, the motherboard you choose dictates much of the rest of your build and future expansion options. That’s why it’s important to know all the important features today’s motherboards have to offer. Below, we’ve listed out what we believe to be the most relevant features to consider in a motherboard for both general use and overclocking.

Features to Consider for General Use

Click on each feature to expand and learn more.

Motherboard Size

Consumer motherboards come in three main sizes: ATX, Micro ATX, and Mini ITX.

Your choice of motherboard size should be determined by three things:

  1. How much expansion room you need
  2. Size of your computer case
  3. Budget

Generally, smaller boards will be cheaper but they will also have less features, expansion capability, and overclocking capacity. Use the chart below as a reference for the maximum ports and slots you can expect each motherboard size to support.

 ATXMicro ATXMini ITX
Size (Height x Width)12 x 9.6 inches9.6 x 9.6 inches6.7 x 6.7 inches
PCIe SlotsUp to 4Up to 3Up to 1
Expansion SlotsUp to 7Up to 41
RAM SlotsUp to 8Up to 42
SATA PortsUp to 12Up to 8Up to 6

You may also run into non-standardized “EATX” boards in the consumer space at the extreme high end. These larger boards often offer more PCIe and RAM slots than ATX but chances are you probably don’t need one. Examples of “EATX” boards are the GODLIKE or CREATION series from MSI and the AORUS XTREME from GIGABYTE. You can tell these boards are overkill from their capitalization and price tags.

If you have your heart set on a small form factor PC build, we like the ASUS ROG Strix X570-I.

Our Favorite Mini ITX Motherboard
ASUS ROG Strix X570-I Mini-ITX Motherboard
$259.00

Best for CPU overclocking with the most capable VRM at this board size. 

10/21/2021 12:18 am GMT

Troubleshooting Indicators

Assembling a new PC that won’t boot is one of life’s great tragedies. But you can avoid a lot of grief when your motherboard has either of these helpful troubleshooting indicators.

Troubleshooting LEDs

motherboard troubleshooting LED

Troubleshooting LEDs convey error information by lighting up coded color combinations. These are great.

POST Code LCDs

motherboard post code LCD

A POST code LCD displays a numerical error code that you can quickly look up in your motherboard manual. These are even better.

Without either of these, you would have to connect an internal onboard speaker and decode beeps like you are hunting submarines. It’s comforting knowing you can receive error information at a glance rather than wasting hours troubleshooting.

USB Capabilities

Speed

The USB naming convention is confusing and has been updated and renamed multiple times. There currently exist three new USB standards that vary in data transfer speeds: USB 3.2, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and USB Gen 2×2.

USB 3.2 is capable of 5 GB/s, USB 3.2 gen 2 is capable of 10 GB/s, and USB Gen 2×2 tops out at 20 GB/s.

Form Factor

USB Type-A vs USB Type-C

All of the USB standards mentioned above come in both the USB Type-A form factor we are all familiar with and the USB Type-C that is used with many modern phones and peripherals.

More and more computer cases these days are including front panel USB Type-C headers. If you have a phone or another USB-C device that you’d like to connect, then you will have to look for a motherboard that supports this feature. You will find USB-C support more often on higher-end motherboards and computer cases.

Built-in WiFi

If directly connecting via an ethernet cable isn’t an option for you, make sure your motherboard has built-in WiFi. It’s almost always cheaper and better to get a board with built-in WiFi than to use an external WiFi card. External PCIe WiFi cards will take up one of your PCIe slots and use a PCIe lane.

The current WiFi standard is WiFi 6, otherwise known as 802.11ax which offers improvements in top speeds especially on connections with multiple devices. A motherboard like the MSI MPG Z490 features dual antennas for amplified signal reception.

LAN Ports (Ethernet ports)

Your motherboard’s ethernet ports dictate the maximum bandwidth you can use to connect to the internet and local networks. If you have fiber internet with speeds beyond 1 Gbps OR you have a high-speed NAS (network-attached storage) that has the hardware to saturate a 1G LAN port, then you should get a motherboard that can accommodate those speeds.

Most of us will be fine with a standard 1 gigabit LAN port. Currently, you can find motherboards with either 1, 2.5, 5, or 10 gigabit LAN options. Additionally, there are motherboards with dual LAN port configurations for folks running bonded internet setups or if you want a separate dedicated connection to local hardware.

If you need a 10 gigabit LAN and don’t want to spend a fortune, we suggest going with the X470 Taichi Ultimate.

SLI Support

SLI has become less and less relevant but there are still valid reasons why you might want the second x8 PCIe slot. For example, if you want to run more M.2 NVME drives than your motherboard has slots for, you could connect a PCIe to M.2 adapter card in your second PCIe slot.

This would of course be limited by the platform and chipset you are using as some consumer platforms have fewer PCIe lanes than others. Every device you plug into a PCIe slot uses these lanes to communicate with your CPU. The more lanes you have the more PCIe devices you can have installed, which includes things like PCIe SSD’s, wifi cards, USB 3.2 expansion cards, Capture cards, or even a second graphics card.

They all require varying amounts of PCIe lanes so do make sure you know how many PCIe lanes you require before you commit to a build with multiple add-in cards.

For SLI Support and Plentiful Ports
ASRock X570 Taichi AM4 ATX AMD Motherboard
$299.99

The X570 Taichi has a bevy of SATA ports, M.2 slots, and SLI support.

RGB & Aesthetics

Like every other PC component, motherboards have jumped on the RGB lighting trend and many have them built-in. Beyond onboard LEDs and lighting software, some motherboards also have plentiful RGB headers to support the lights of all your RGB fans and glowing components.

Our two favorite RGB software suites are Gigabytes RGB Fusion 2.0 and ASUS with their Aura sync software. Both support a wide range of lighting modes and popular third-party RGB accessories.

PCIe 4.0

PCIe 4.0 is the new standard and people who like to use words like futureproof recommend you get a PCIe 4.0 capable board. The current reality is that you will hardly lose any GPU performance even with an RTX 3090 if you opt instead to use a PCIe 3.0 slot.

The only real reason to get PCIe 4.0 now is if you plan to buy a PCIe 4.0 SSD. Barring that use case we really wouldn’t worry too much about having a PCIe 4.0 capable board.

BIOS Functionality

All BIOS are not created equal. There are huge variations in quality, features, and ease of use from vendor to vendor and even from chipset to chipset from the same vendor. This can be frustrating as it’s often tough to find out who has the best BIOS on a given chipset as that always changes with updates as features get removed or moved in motherboard manufacturers’ never-ending quest to make overclocking as confusing as possible.

Because of how difficult it is to accurately answer the question of “who has the best BIOS” coupled with the fact that most people will only ever spend a few minutes in their BIOS leads us to one conclusion which is this is not a particularly important consideration. Just make sure your motherboard doesn’t have a bunch of recent complaints about shipping outdated incompatible BIOS if you are buying an older chipset with a newer CPU. If you are buying AMD, Bios Flashback functionality is important, and for everyone else dual BIOS support can be a lifesaver.

Features to Consider for Overclocking

Click on each feature to expand and learn more.

VRMs (Voltage Regulator Modules)

VRMs (Voltage regulator modules) are the second step in the required power conversion that takes place from your wall to your CPU. The first voltage regulation occurs within your power supply and the VRM’s on your motherboard step that voltage down even further. They adjust the flow of power as needed much like a fuel injection system feeds an engine.

For practical purposes, you need only remember that the more phases, the better. More specifically, beefier phase designs are important the higher your CPU power draw is. If you are getting a 60-watt mid-range chip and not overclocking it, the VRM layout shouldn’t be a concern.

If you do care about overclocking then the benefit of more true phases is in lower ripple and slightly lower required voltage to hit certain clock speeds.

Ripple is the range at which the power flowing through your system varies. When your CPU asks for 12 volts it does not always get exactly 12.00 volts, sometimes more sometimes less. The more accurate and consistent this power delivery is the more stable your system will be. This becomes especially important when pushing the performance overclocking components with higher power, pushing them closer toward that edge of instability.

PCB Layers

Underneath a motherboard’s surface are a series of copper PCB (printed circuit board) layers that mechanically and electrically connect its internal components. The amount of layers a motherboard has is important for overclockers because it allows for more components, better power delivery, and often higher memory overclocking headroom.

Modern motherboards generally have anywhere from four to eight layers. You would see significantly higher memory overclocking headroom in a high-end board with six to eight PCB layers especially if you are running four or more sticks of RAM. If you are unsure of a board’s PCB layer count, the overclockers forum maintains a comprehensive user-updated motherboard list that includes total PCB layers.

As of the time of this writing, the best value board for memory overclocking is the Gigabyte B550 Aorus Pro V2.

Gigabyte B550 Aorus Pro ATX AM4 AMD Motherboard
$208.33

The B550 Aorus Pro has a healthy rear I/O selection and also includes a 2.5 gigabit LAN port.

10/21/2021 12:18 am GMT

Memory Compatibility

QVL stands for qualified vendor list which is published by a motherboard manufacturer stating the exact kits of RAM that have been tested and guaranteed to run at their rated speeds on a given motherboard.

This is extremely important when evaluating motherboards that can achieve the best memory overclocking frequencies and especially important in helping you pick the best kit of RAM to pair with your chosen motherboard. We often use this QVL list to identify which motherboards are using higher layer count PCB setups as that info is not always readily available.

Not Sure Which Features Matter?

An easy way to narrow your motherboard search is to decide if you have any specific types or number of I/O, storage, or port requirements.

How many of the following ports/slots do you need?

  • SATA ports (6 GB/s, 3 GB/s)
  • M.2 slots (PCIe 4.0)
  • PCIe slots (Gen 4 – x16 / x8 / x4 / x1)
  • RAM Slots
  • USB-A and USB-C Ports (USB 3.2, USB 3.2 Gen 2 , USB 3.2 Gen 2×2)

If you know you want to have RAM expansion options, make sure your board has at least four memory slots, something that is less common as your form factor shrinks.

Today’s high-end ATX boards will have over six SATA ports and two M.2 slots. If you are setting up a home server or you just like the digital hoarding flexibility that comes with a motherboard with 10 SATA ports, then this metric will help you narrow down your motherboard options.

Be sure to choose a board with enough USB ports at the speed and form factor you need and particularly important is the PCIe layout in Micro ATX and Mini ITX boards as it is already limited and some Micro ATX boards will have their additional PCIe slots blocked when a three-slot GPU is used in the top slot.

Beyond a certain point, you just get more SATA ports and M.2 slots on most modern chipsets. You don’t receive many noteworthy upgrades going from a $200 motherboard to one that costs three times as much.

Our All-Around Motherboard Picks

If you don’t have anything specific in mind, you can’t go wrong with any of the following three motherboards.

Our first suggestion, the B550 Aorus Pro V2, is one of the best boards for overclockers and high-performance gamers. They don’t get much better than this for the price.

Gigabyte B550 Aorus Pro ATX AM4 AMD Motherboard
$208.33

The B550 Aorus Pro has a healthy rear I/O selection and also includes a 2.5 gigabit LAN port.

10/21/2021 12:18 am GMT

If you need a cheaper AM4 motherboard that still has has high-end features like PCIe 4.0 support, we recommend the micro ATX version, the B550M PRO4.

ASRock B550M PRO4 Micro ATX AMD Motherboard
$109.99

An excellent Micro ATX AMD board with many high-end features if you don't mind the smaller form factor and fewer ports/slots.

10/21/2021 12:19 am GMT

We are mainly recommending AMD at this time because they continue to beat Intel on price-to-performance ratios. But if you’re set on Intel because of a CPU choice or brand preference, we like the MSI MAG Z490 Tomahawk.

MSI MAG Z490 Tomahawk ATX Intel Motherboard
$205.00

The MSI Z490 Tomahawk has a beefy VRM 16-phase layout that allows it to trade blows in terms of overclocking with boards twice the price.

10/21/2021 12:20 am GMT

It is by no means a cheap board, but if you’re going Intel, we’re assuming you are doing so with a top of the stack gaming CPU in mind.

TLDR: How to Choose a Motherboard

The wand chooses the wizard and the CPU damn near chooses the motherboard. If you have a low-core CPU that you plan to run at stock speeds, find a budget motherboard with a chipset that would start with A or B for AMD and B or H for intel. If you plan to overclock or want the option to, look for an X-series motherboard for AMD and Z-series board for Intel.

The next step is to identify any unique feature requirements you have such as two or more M.2 slots, WiFi 6E, multi-GPU support, etc. Plug those requirements into a site like PCPartPicker to narrow down your options and close in on the motherboard that best meets your budget and aesthetic preferences.

Good luck!

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