How to choose a motherboard for a PC
The motherboard is the foundation of your build
The choice of motherboard (mobo) is critical because it determines which components you can or cannot install in your build. The mobo also determines how upgradeable and expandable your computer is in the future.
AMD or Intel platform
Before you even start you need to decide whether you want to use an Intel CPU or an AMD CPU. You can't install an Intel CPU on an AMD platform mobo and vice versa.
Motherboard chipset is key
Next you need to decide which chipset you want on your mobo. A chipset is a bundle of chips on the mobo that gives it different features. The more features in the chipset the more expensive the mobo. Chipsets in the past were two chips, a north bridge chip and a south bridge chip, now it's a single chip.
The Intel H110 Chipset for Intel 6th generation CPUs has all the features you might need for a mainstream performance computer.
For a power or gaming PC use an Intel H170 Chipset for Intel 6th gen CPUs. For extreme gaming builds we recommend the Intel Z170 Chipset, again for Intel 6th gen CPUs.
For an ultra gaming build with three or four graphics cards, or for a workstation or server for heavy work loads, consider the Intel X99 Chipset, which with a BIOS upgrade supports Intel Core i7 Extreme CPUs for Haswell-E and the upcoming Broadwell-E CPU architectures. The Intel X99 Chipset also supports certain Xeon CPUs for the Haswell-EP and Broadwell-EP CPU architectures.
From the Intel Skylake architecture onwards, Xeon CPUs now need their own chipset motherboards, that would be the Intel C232 Chipset and Intel C236 Chipset of which we recommend the Intel C236 Chipset.
For AMD Athlon X4 CPUs and AMD A-Series APUs the motherboard chipset to get is the A78 Chipset or A88X Chipset for gaming. For AMD FX CPUs get the AMD 990X Chipset or AMD 990FX Chipset for extreme gaming builds.
A short list of features we think a mobo should support include:
- A CPU socket that allows for an upgrade to a better CPU when prices fall. The socket LGA 1151 for Intel CPUs or the socket FM2+ for AMD CPUs are good options. Or better still for AMD, wait for the socket AM4 for their upcoming in late 2016 Zen CPU and APU architecture.
- A PCI Express x16 slot for adding a separate video card now or later.
- Dual channel DDR4 2133 MHz memory or DDR3 1600 MHz memory.
- USB 3.0 header to connect to the front panel of your PC case (your case also needs two USB 3.0 front panel inputs).
- The case rear USB ports can be USB 2.0 ports, but it's nice to have rear USB 3.0 port(s) as well in addition to the front 2.
- 4 or more SATA 6 Gbps ports for your storage and DVD drives. For a mini PC at least 2 ports.
- Gigabit LAN for your internet connection.
- 5.1 channel HD Audio, though all you really need is HD 2.1 channels or even just HD 2 channels. The 0.1 is for the sub-woofer.
- At least one open PCI Express x1 or x4 slot, preferably Gen 3.0.
- Optionally a S/PDIF digital audio output jack for digital audio output.
- Optionally a PCI Express x4 speed M.2 slot for a M.2 form factor Solid State Drive (SSD) to run in the new NVMe protocol as opposed to the AHCI protocol.
For computer enthusiasts it is important that the motherboard provides access to advanced BIOS settings to overclock our PC. Enthusiasts love to tinker to improve the performance of their PC and they can convert a great computer into an even better one through overclocking without spending more cash. You also need an overclockable CPU.
Upgrading and Expanding
The motherboard should also allow upgrading and expanding. For example if one chooses integrated graphics now, the motherboard should include a spare PCI Express x16 slot to add a video card at a later date, when prices have fallen. It should also allow for the expanding of the number of hard drives and other devices.
Motherboard form factor or size
Micro ATX form factor is our recommended motherboard size for a performance PC. An ATX motherboard is recommended for an extreme gaming PC, to potentially accommodate multiple video cards.
Smaller is usually better in tech. Mini ITX form factor, smaller than micro ATX, is also very appealing but strangely enough these ultra small motherboards are still more expensive relatively in some cases. When prices fall in proportionate to size this would be a good option for a performance PC or HTPC (home theater PC). Mini-ITX is the recommended form factor for a mini PC.