What to Look for in a Motherboard

written by jacob tuwiner Jacob Tuwiner

Though we don’t suggest you bank your entire budget on just your motherboard, we’ve seen some crazy configurations using $300 motherboards with $80 processors, which is a big mistake.

Your motherboard doesn’t matter all that much for gaming so don’t spend half of your budget on the best motherboard around!

The same goes in the opposite direction.

Please, for the love of all that is holy, don’t go pairing a Ryzen 7 or 9 with an A320 motherboard to “save some cash.”

In this guide, we’re taking a look at what you should look for in a motherboard so you know how to pick the best motherboard for your build.

Form Factor

motherboard form factors

The form factor of your motherboard is basically how big it is, where the screw holes are placed, and what kinds of PC cases it will ultimately fit inside of.

So, as one would think, it might be a good idea to choose a motherboard with a matching form factor with your case.

Here are the most common form factors to look out for:

Mini ITX

mini itx motherboard

The Mini ITX form factor is the smallest of the mainstream form factors.

These types of motherboards are usually for SFF (small form factor) builds, home entertainment PCs, or in some cases secondary computers inside of your existing system.

These motherboards greatly benefit in the size category, with the Mini ITX standard sitting at only 170x170mm (or 6.7x6.7in) and sporting only 4 mounting screw holes.

This size may save you some space, but you may end up sacrificing performance in some, but not all, cases.

The other blaring problems that plague Mini ITX builds are usually the cooling, as you’ve gotta find a cooling solution that’ll fit perfectly in your case and their cost, which can shoot well past $100USD.

Generally, Mini ITX motherboards only have 2 RAM slots, but sport all of the other usual bells and whistles that come along with whatever chipset and socket combination you opt for.

That means you can even overclock some of these puppies!

Micro ATX

micro atx motherboard

Micro ATX motherboards are probably the most common budget form factor, if not the most common form factor of them all.

The Micro ATX case can provide almost all of the features of a full-sized ATX case, while also providing a size close to that of a Mini ITX board.

The maximum size of a Micro ATX motherboard falls at just 244x244mm (9.6x9.6in) and most cases support both ATX and Micro ATX, so you’ll have a much wider variety of case choices than a Mini ITX board.

Micro ATX boards can be found in both 2 and 4 RAM slot configurations, though there are a few LGA1366 Micro ATX motherboards that have up to 6 RAM slots.

The only real downside to this form factor is the sheer amount of different mATX boards on the market.

With so many choices it can often be difficult to differentiate between what’s good and what isn’t, but generally, you can find a good quality board for around $60+ depending on the chipset.

By the way, we’ve got an awesome guide on the smallest (and the coolest) mATX cases on the market which you can read here.

ATX

atx motherboard

The kingpin of motherboard form factors is the full ATX standard.

These are the types of motherboards you’ll usually see in all of those crazy RGB gaming builds with all the super cool lighting effects, heck even some models have onboard controllers to play with those lights.

ATX boards are about 25% longer than the standard Micro ATX board which usually just gives them room for more PCIE lanes, and with these extra PCIE lanes you have a wide variety of new expansions to choose from.

PCIE storage expansions, ethernet expansions, more graphics cards, you name it.

Full ATX motherboards also tend to have better cooling performance as all of your parts are a bit more spread out and, by extension, better performance and overclocking capabilities all around.

We also have a dope guide covering the smallest ATX cases on the market which you can read here. All of the cases in the guide are slim, compact, stylish, and support full ATX boards.

E-ATX

e-atxx motherboard

It’s rare that you’ll encounter an E-ATX (or Extended ATX) form factor motherboard in any place besides the beefiest of beefcake workstations builds.

These things are absolutely insane and provide some of the best performance numbers that a motherboard can.

The standard E-ATX size is 305x330mm (12x13in), more than three times the size of the average Mini ITX motherboard!

And that size gives way to so much more than any standard Micro ATX user could imagine.

Just as the ATX was with the mATX, the E-ATX provides even more PCIE lanes than a standard ATX, allowing for more and more expansion.

At the same time, the E-ATX form factor is more spread out than an ATX board, usually offering better cooling as long as you even have a big enough case for this monster to fit in.

Another pretty interesting detail about the E-ATX form factor is that many dual-socket (two CPUs) motherboards need to use this form factor due to its size.

Memory Capacity

Depending on the type of workload you place on your computer, having the proper amount of system memory can mean life or death for your work or games.

In this section, we’ll cover exactly what to look for in terms of memory capacity on a motherboard.

RAM Slots

ram slots As we mentioned briefly in our section about form factors, different motherboards will have a different number of RAM slots.

Knowing how many RAM slots your motherboard has is imperative when choosing your RAM. If you have a Mini ITX board that only has 2 slots, a 1x8GB kit is a must so you have the bare minimum to start and can upgrade to 16Gb at a later date.

In an mATX or ATX board, it may be a bit different with 4 slots where you can do combinations of 4x2GB, 4x4GB, 2x4GB, and so on.

Total Capacity

Motherboards tend to have a hard cap on the amount of RAM that your system can feasibly support.

Whether it’s 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB there is a total maximum allowed for each board, so choosing a board that only supports 32GB when you bought a 64GB kit could lose you some dough.

RAM Speed

ram speed

Similarly, motherboards will have a maximum supported memory speed.

When it comes to Intel’s H370 and B360 boards, the maximum supported speed generally caps at 2666MHz, while in their Z370 and Z390 boards can cap upwards of 4000-4133MHz.

For AMD motherboards it’s a bit of a mixed bag so just be sure to check the maximum speed supported before you hit that ‘Buy Now’ button.

Motherboard Chipsets

motherboard-chipset

We’ll cover motherboard socket types later, but first we’ll go ahead and cover motherboard chipsets.

Chipsets on motherboards control the flow of data sets or directions from the CPU to the rest of your computer’s components.

Each chipset can provide a different set of features depending on what the manufacturer has programmed it to handle, and in turn, each chipset is specific to a certain CPU socket.

AMD Consumer Chipsets

amd motherboard-chipset

AMD’s current modern socket is AM4, all of the new Ryzen-based and Athlon processors use this socket.

AMD makes it fairly easy to choose a chipset, being that there are new ones released with every generation, but they’re all backward compatible with all AM4 processors with a BIOS update.

AMD AM4 chipsets:

  • A320
  • B350
  • X370
  • B450
  • X470
  • X570
  • B550 and A520 are rumors at the time of writing.

All you need to know about AMD’s chipsets is that the A320 (and presumably A520) are the only chipsets that lack an overclocking function, but at the same time they tend to be the cheapest of the bunch.

All of the rest are overclockable, but X-designated chipsets generally clock higher than their B-designated counterparts, and the X570 chipset is the only chipset currently on the market that supports PCIE Gen 4.

AMD Prosumer Chipsets

The prosumer (pro-consumer) market has gotten quite a boost in recent years, especially with the release of AMD’s Threadripper line of CPUs.

First and second generation Threadripper processors can only run on AMD’s TR4 socket, while the newer third generation can only run on the new sTR4X, so keep that in mind if you want to grab one.

AMD Prosumer chipsets:

  • X399 (TR4)
  • TRX40 (sTR4X)

These are the only two chipsets currently available for Threadripper CPUs.

The Threadripper line of processors, as with most processors marketed to this kind of market, have a very high core count alongside high core speeds.

These high speeds greatly benefit Photo and Video editing programs like Photoshop or Premiere Pro, and the newer Threadrippers have been even blowing Intel’s prosumer lineup out of the water with their performance.

These chipsets also support overclocking and large numbers of PCIE lanes.

Intel Consumer Chipsets

motherboard-chipset

On Intel’s side, it’s simultaneously easier and more difficult.

While you could say that they make the choice easier in terms of overclocking (if you choose a K-series CPU you should always grab a Z-series motherboard to go with it) but some research might be in order for the rest of us.

Intel’s current socket is the LGA1151 socket for consumer CPUs, and it doesn’t look like that’s gonna change any time soon.

In this part, we’ll only be focusing on LGA1151v2 chipsets that support Intel’s newer 1151 processors.

Intel LGA1151 chipsets:

  • B360
  • H370
  • Z370
  • Z390

If you’re shooting cheap B360 and H370 should be your style as they never come close to the $100USD price point that many of the Z370 and Z390 boards surpass.

Unfortunately, you will have to forgo a couple of features only found in the Z-series boards.

First is overclocking, only Z-series boards can overclock so don’t purchase a K-series chip if you want one of these boards.

Second is the fact that they only support up to 2666MHz memory, so you can take high-speed RAM off of your list too.

The Z370 and Z390 boards, on the other hand, are a sight to behold.

There are very few differences between the Z370 and Z390 chipsets, but depending on what you need in your system the choice could make all the difference.

The first thing to keep in mind if considering a Z370 board is that some of them may require a BIOS update to support even newer Intel processors, Z390 may have this problem in the future but it’s fine for now.

Otherwise, the only main differences between the two are Z390’s onboard Wi-Fi support and USB 3.1 Gen 2 support.

Intel Prosumer Chipsets

Intel’s prosumer offerings in the current generation are some of the most powerful consumer-available chips we’ve seen in history, almost unmatched in power.

Lucky for us, they’ve made it fairly simple to deliberate between the chipsets this time around, taking a page from AMD’s book.

Intel Prosumer chipsets:

  • X99 (LGA2011-3)
  • X299 (LGA2066)

Following a similar path to that of AMD, as we mentioned earlier, there are only two current chipsets for the Intel prosumer market which follow the LGA2011-3 and new LGA2066 sockets, though just like AMD, both chipsets support DDR4 system memory.

As we’ve said, high core counts are good for photo and video editing programs, and the Intel Extreme processors even feature some overclockability.

Though oddly enough, where I personally think that Intel’s prosumer chips shine is in the used market which we’ll talk more about below.

Anyway, to be blatant, prosumer chipsets are generally for supporting high amounts of RAM, PCIE lanes, IO, and extremely high core count CPUs for your workstation needs.

Motherboard Sockets

motherboard socket

Motherboard sockets are extremely closely related to chipsets, and as we just finished covering them you can expect to see similar terms and phrases.

A motherboard socket is the form factor for whatever CPU fits inside the motherboard.

Differing sockets have variations of number of contact points, size, and data transfer speeds from the CPU, along with many other important functions that allow your processor to do its job.

Different sockets allow us to know exactly what CPU works for what motherboard and properly upgrade with generational shifts.

Speaking of generational shifts, processors are bound to whatever socket they were designed for, with a very small exception of older desktop and laptop chips that have available mods to allow them to function inside of different sockets and a couple of older AMD CPUs.

Similarly, processors from different brands only fit inside of their respective sockets due to differing pin layouts.

AMD

AMD has a couple of notable socket types, especially in recent years with their newer lines of processors.

Going back a couple years, their popular sockets were the FM2, FM2+, AM3, and AM3+ sockets which were superseded by their new AM4 socket that supports DDR4 memory as opposed to the older, slower DDR3 memory.

And as previously mentioned, some older AMD sockets are forwards compatible, and those would be the FM2 and AM3 sockets.

FM2 processors can fit and function in FM2+ socket motherboards, and AM3 processors can similarly fit into AM3+ motherboards. However, this does not work the other way around.

AMD also has their workstation sockets in the form of the the TR4 (or sTR4) socket for first and second generation Threadripper processors, and the sTRX4 socket for the newer third generation.

Intel

Intel’s sockets can get confusing so we don’t blame ya if you find yourself a bit baffled by their odd practices.

With the way their LGA1151 sockets are set up, we suggest using something like pcpartpicker.com to check for compatibility issues between processor and motherboard combos.

Intel is well known for their wide array of sockets ranging from LGA775, to LGA1156, LGA1366, etc.

For now, all you’ve got to know is that the most recent consumer socket for Intel CPUs is the LGA1151-v2 socket, though many motherboards don’t specify this designation so be careful.

Their workstation, or prosumer, sockets generally fall under the newer LGA2066 socket or the LGA2011-3 socket.

Don’t confuse the LGA2011 and LGA2011-3 sockets though, because they are not backward compatible at all.

Onboard Connectors

Depending on what case you’ve got in mind, you might want to make sure your motherboard will have all of the proper connectors that you’re gonna need, otherwise you might end up in a situation like mine where you don’t have enough headers for your water cooling fans.

Fan Headers

fan headers

The first thing to look for, of course, is fan headers.

Do you have enough headers for the number of fans you expect to have?

It’s honestly as simple as that.

However, all is not lost if that super cool motherboard you want doesn’t have enough headers for your 9 bajillion case fans, or in a case where your motherboard headers don’t have enough pins.

Some fan headers on motherboards only have 3-pins, although it is less common now as more modern motherboards tend to include only 4-pin fan headers.

That 4th pin just allows you to control fan speed on PWM fans without changing the voltage of the fan.

Anyways, for those who need fans out the wazoo, companies like Corsair and NZXT make fan hubs that adapt your fans to a USB header instead.

This also often allows you to control RGB fans with programs on your computer.

USB Headers

motherboard usb headers

One problem you might run into if you’re buying a respectable case with a cheap or old motherboard, is having the proper USB headers.

Some older boards lack onboard USB 3.0 headers, and because of that you wouldn’t be able to use any front panel USB 3.0 on your case without an adapter, and even with getting full USB h the adapter you won’t achieve full 3.0 speeds.

Similarly, you may not have enough USB headers, but the likelihood of encountering this issue is almost zero.

SATA Ports

motherboard-sata-ports

One thing people often overlook when choosing a motherboard is the number of SATA ports.

If you’re just planning on running a simple 1-2 hard drive/SSD gaming rig this shouldn’t be a problem, but many content creators have encountered the issue of running out of SATA ports for new hard drives.

Make sure you have the number you want right of the bat or get ready to set up some external storage.

M.2 Slots

motherboard-m2-slot

M.2 storage isn’t mandatory but it sure is useful. Making sure you have enough, if any, M.2 ports on your new motherboard is important.

Luckily, even some budget motherboards are starting to ship with M.2 ports included, so unless you’re going full cheap-o mode, you should be good to go.

The Used Market

While we advertise going for used parts quite often, it’s not for everyone and we urge you to take even more care in purchasing used parts as you’ll receive no warranty or assurance of longevity.

However, the cost saving that the used market can provide may sway you towards it anyways.

Used Gaming Hardware

Buying a used motherboard for a gaming build is a much trickier bag than most other parts.

You don’t know what kind of beating it may have been subjected to, you don’t know how long it’s been run, and if it’s a motherboard marketed for gaming you may not even find a very good price for one.

If you decide to buy a used motherboard for gaming, you may want to steer away from motherboards that were advertised for their overclocking capabilities as it’s very possible they’ve had the life sucked out of them from high overclocks.

Definitely read descriptions and look for “only used for gaming” type descriptions for the best results.

You can even go back a generation and still get very good performance as long as you stick to Intel.

AMD’s older chips don’t hold up in a modern market, but Intel chips from the LGA1150, LGA1156, and LGA775 can hold up quite well in even modern games.

These older boards tend to be much cheaper and you get to save a bit of cash on slower DDR3 memory.

Although, DDR4 memory has become incredibly cheap these days, so I’d say it’s a smarter choice to shell out a tiny bit of extra cash for a motherboard that supports DDR4 RAM and a newer CPU.

Used Server and Workstation Hardware

The used market is probably one of the best places to find discounted workstation and server hardware, as prices will continue to drop as developers push out more and more new hardware to take over as years progress.

The motherboards, however, are one of the most expensive parts.

One of the better things about it though, is that many old workstations can be adapted to small scale home servers and they’ll cost you a fraction of the cost of a real one.

Sockets like the LGA2011 socket boast cheap high core count CPUs, and you can find relatively cheap workstation boards with that socket.

Also, with websites like AliExpress, you can find functional dual socket LGA2011 motherboards from China to even further boost your server performance on the cheap and, as with many older sockets, these support low cost DDR3 RAM.

Even some LGA2011-3 workstation motherboards can be found fairly cheap, and their processors are dwindling in price by the day.

You can get a 6 core, 12 thread, overclockable beast similar in performance to a second gen Ryzen for little over $100 and a board for under $100. Plus this socket runs on newer and faster DDR4 memory.

Motherboard Comparison

If you’re unsure of what motherboard to choose after your research, you may want to make use of a motherboard comparison site to directly compare your top picks and single out the exact motherboard for you.

  • Versus.com: In the motherboard section of Versus.com you’re given access to a wide variety of filters to match whatever criteria you’d like to set for your motherboard so you can find your idea of the perfect motherboard.
  • Newegg.com: Newegg has a pretty useful feature when browsing that allows you to select up to 3 separate products to compare side by side to give you a good view of where your chosen motherboards differ in their respective fields.
  • Techspot.com

Best Motherboards for Your CPU

The motherboard you choose for your build depends on several factors, as outlined above.

However, the CPU you’re using is probably going to have the biggest impact on which motherboard is best for your build.

We’re curating a list of the best motherboards for different CPUs, which you can find here: