Motherboards are often described as the central nervous system of your computer, and as such, they are the simultaneously the most complicated and most important component of your gaming PC build. They may not be as exciting as other parts of a PC, but no fancy CPU or GPU will matter if they can’t communicate with each other.
Trying to sort through all the jargon and feature sets can be confusing for new PC builders. It doesn’t help that there are a plethora of options from tiny, monochrome, budget-oriented solutions to monstrously RGB-lit slabs.
Motherboards vary wildly in price, and it can be hard to figure out what benefits are to be had by spending more. But before looking at the differences, it’s good to know what all motherboards have in common.
First are expansion or PCIe slots: These are used for installing anything from graphics cards (GPUs), to wireless cards, or solid state hard drives. The size of the motherboard (more on that later) will dictate how many expansion slots you’ll have to work with and how they are laid out. Keep in mind how many slots you plan to use and that if the slots are too close together, you may not physically have room for every component you plan to install, especially bigger graphics cards that use two or more slots. Some motherboards are marketed with reinforced PCIe slots which doesn’t do much besides protecting the slot from the inattentive who might try removing the GPU without unlocking the PCI slot first. Unless you plan on moving your rig around a lot, say for a good old-fashioned LAN party, there is not much of an advantage to be had with reinforced PCI, making it more of a marketing gimmick than a useful feature.
RAM slots are pretty standard across most consumer motherboards. For most, 8GB or 16GB of DDR4 RAM will be adequate for gaming.
Inputs and outputs (I/O): will be pretty standard except for certain additions made in higher end boards. This includes USB, video outputs, sound, and networking. USB 3.0 is typical, but more expensive motherboards may include USB 3.1 or USB type C. Thunderbolt is another high-end port that can be used for displays and super high-speed external storage. If your gaming PC is going to be hardwired into an internet connection, ethernet ports are included on the board but if you want wireless to be sure to find a motherboard with it built in or leave room for an additional WIFI card inside the case.
How much room do you have inside your case?
The first question to address is how much room do you have inside your case? Generally, the standard Advanced Technology Extended (ATX) layout from Intel measures 30.5 x 24.4 cm, is suitable for most gaming PC builds. There are plenty of other options available if you want your custom PC to be more compact or are working with a massive build that you’re going to mount on your wall like a trophy. Each size has it’s own limitations as far as the number of RAM and PCI slots available, so only the ATX, the smaller Micro-ATX (24.4 x 24.4 cm) or, the larger Extended-ATX (30.5 x 33 cm) sizes are suitable for most gaming-oriented PC builds.
Micro-ATX boards have four expansion slots and two to four RAM slots, while ATX boards are equipped with seven expansion slots and four to eight RAM slots. Extended-ATX boards usually have the same number of slots as standard ATX boards but with additional bells and whistles like expanded I/O capabilities or more room for bigger PCI cards.
Mini-ITX motherboards is a smaller form factor options that have become viable for gaming in recent years. Mini-ITX boards measure 17 x 17 cm meaning you can use a much smaller case to suit your needs. This form factor is really great for builders who are tight on space, intend on moving their PC around a bit, or want a powerful gaming PC in a console form factor. Obviously, there are some drawbacks when using these motherboards. Planning the build and mapping out how every piece will be arranged inside the case is crucial. Cable management is also going to be crucial as you won’t have a lot of room for loose wires. Mini-ITX boards typical only have two RAM slots and one PCIe slot.
Motherboard CPU sockets
The most important thing to take into consideration after choosing a size for your gaming PC is what CPU you’ve picked out. Motherboard CPU sockets are not one size fits all, so it is very important to know exactly what socket you’re looking to plug into.
Intel chips have an easy to remember designation, such as Socket H or B, alongside a technical but more commonly used name like LGA 1151, which stands for Land Grid Array and tells you how many pins the socket uses. Most modern mainstream parts use the LGA 1151 or 1150 pin setup while 2011 -v3 is for specific processors at the highest end of the spectrum for the most demanding of PC gaming enthusiasts. Matching these designations up with your processor of choice should be pretty straightforward as both the board and processor should be clearly labeled.
Physically plugging the processor in can be scary, what with more than a thousand tiny pins, that can be very hard to straighten if accidentally bent. However, a reasonable amount of care when placing the CPU should keep anything from getting bent.
AMD, on the other hand, reverses the setup by having the pins on the CPU instead of the socket. This can make things a little more tricky when lining up the CPU’s pins with the socket’s holes. The pins on AMD chips are harder to bend but are more likely to break if they do. Unlike Intel, AMD only updates its sockets every few years meaning fewer options, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their AM3+ and FM2+ sockets will support just about any chip you can buy right now. AMD is revamping their offerings very soon with their eagerly anticipated Ryzen CPUs and corresponding AM4 sockets.
This can be confusing, but as long as you have the proper information from the manufacturer, you shouldn’t have any problems. In any case, it makes sense to pick out a processor first and choose a compatible motherboard that meets your needs
It wasn’t too long ago that the motherboard contributed significantly to the overall performance of your build. Nowadays, however, they tend to be viewed as nothing more than a rack to stick all your flashy components that actually matter. It is true that more and more of what used to make motherboards so important has been offloaded onto CPUs, but there are still several features native to motherboards that need considering. You may be tempted to “sort by price” and buy the cheapest board that fits your CPU, but this may lead to some serious disappointment when it comes time to upgrade, or even during the build itself, as you find a feature you had your heart set on isn’t built into the motherboards second most important part, the chipset.
The chipset is the method through which all the components of your PC communicate. This communication is divided into Northbridge, which controls communication between the CPU, PCI Express slots, and RAM, and Southbridge which handles everything else including USB inputs. Virtually all CPUs from both companies have the Northbridge integrated onto the CPU itself. This leaves the motherboard’s chipset to handle the Southbridge. This may seem inconsequential but if you’re interested in using RAID, surround sound, and future proofing, you’ll want to pay attention to what features are supported by the motherboard natively. The market is so vast, and updates come out so quickly that it would be impossible to list every option, but if you pay attention and know what you’re looking it should be pretty easy to find what you need.
The letter designations on Intel motherboards give you an idea of its capabilities at a quick glance. Motherboards designated with a B tend to be the cheapest options. Usually reserved for basic home or business use, some B motherboards are suitable for single-GPU gamers who have little to no interest in upgrading or are looking to save money over performance. H series motherboards tend to be budget friendly, middle of the road boards that are good for single GPU gaming with plenty of I/O, fast storage options, and plenty of upgradability.
Z motherboards are for those enthusiasts who are looking to maximize the potential of their build. This tier is where you start to see things like overclocking, multiple graphics cards, and other gaming-focused features are all here. Z boards also utilize the latest and greatest in connections like USB type C and 3.1, and Thunderbolt. Other fancy features you tend to see on Z-series motherboards include support for water cooling, RGB lighting, advanced built-in audio, and other features that don’t necessarily impact the performance of the system. At the very top of the motherboard totem pole are the X series boards adding on to all that makes the Z series’ so darn great but require LGA 2011v3 high-end Intel processors.
If you plan on tweaking the performance of your gaming PC via overclocking or extended its lifespan without physically upgrading you may also want to take into account the capabilities of the motherboards BIOS. The number of voltage regulator modules (VRMs) on the board are another crucial factor to take into consideration if you plan on overclocking. The more VRMs, a board, has, the more power it will be able to handle when overclocking.
The Looks of your Motherboard
Besides the nuts and bolts of the motherboard, you may also want to consider how the motherboard looks. In this day and age, the aesthetics of your motherboard and the overall PC are just as important to some as its frames per second. If you’re the type to show off the inside of your case online, a cohesive color scheme or the ability to synchronize your case’s RGB lighting with that of your motherboard’s might be important to you. Shifting through the sheer variety of motherboard paint jobs might be the hardest part of the selection process.
When it comes to brands of motherboards, it usually depends on what tier you’re shopping for. Asus is seen as reliable and offers boards at each price point including high-end AsusROG gaming motherboards, but each brand is capable of making winners and losers, so it is always best to check out consumer reviews and what users are saying on forums.
The process of choosing a motherboard is one of the most daunting parts of preparing to build a PC. The sheer variety of models and capabilities is enough to make even the most enthusiastic builder’s eyes glaze over. Things don’t have to be this way, though, and with a little research and patience, you can get a motherboard that’s not only adequate but even enhances your overall build. Don’t be afraid to ask questions either by reaching out to those in your gaming PC community or favorite forum for advice or to help compare and contrast specific models.