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Choosing a Compatible Motherboard With the Right Features (Buyer’s Guide + FAQ)
Last Updated: July 10, 2020
Motherboards are notoriously confusing pieces of work, and might just be the trickiest component to select when building your own computer. But fear not, as in our typical beginner-friendly fashion we’ll leave the complex jargon aside and break down exactly how to choose a motherboard for your gaming PC build to ensure it’s compatible with your other parts.
We’ll cover what features to look for as of 2020, and answer a bunch of common beginner questions like how much you should spend on a motherboard, which brands are the most reliable, and everything else you might want to know when shopping for your first motherboard.
See Also: The Best Cheap AMD Motherboards
If you’ve never built a PC before, what makes a good motherboard isn’t immediately apparent, and there’s a seemingly endless amount of different models out there, many of which being very similar in price and features. Throw in the confusing naming conventions (typical in the hardware space) and long spec sheets that can easily appear like straight-up gibberish to the untrained eye, and it’s easy to get lost in motherboard research land of doom.
But the good thing is, it’s generally hard to go too wrong when choosing a motherboard if you stay with one of the big 4 trusted manufacturers (we’ll get to that). That said, not all boards are created equal, and they have varying features and pros/cons. And yep; there’s definitely some straight-up bad buys that should avoided by doing a little research into which models is right for your particular budget and needs (we’ll get to that).
See Also: How to Choose a CPU (FAQ)
What Is a Motherboard? (& Anatomy Diagram)
As always, we’ll start at ground zero so no newbie gets left behind. If you think of your CPU as the brains of your computer that’s responsible for all the real-time calculations needed to run applications and games, the motherboard is the heart and central nervous system of your PC. Your motherboard (sometimes also called a mainboard) is where all the other parts of your computer connects to and interconnects/communicates with one another.
For example, motherboards have a CPU socket where the CPU connects , PCIe slots (also called expansion slots) where add-on cards like video, network, or sound cards connect, and memory slots (technically DIMM slots) where RAM modules are connected. Motherboards also contain all the various ports and other features of your system such as USB, video output (for integrated graphics), storage connections, and the list goes on. Put simply, when installing any PC component, it will need to either connect directly on or to the motherboard.
Let’s quickly look at the main locations on a motherboard to be familiar with. Motherboards are most definitely too cool for biology school, but here’s the “anatomy” of a motherboard if you will:
If you’re building your first PC and perhaps a little overwhelmed by the references above to various stages of the installation process, don’t worry as when you follow a complete step by step tutorial on building a PC, you’ll be gradually taken through each step one at a time in the correct order (so that you won’t get lost). Anyway, let’s get back to choosing the right motherboard for your PC.
Is the Motherboard Important for a Gaming PC?
Do motherboards affect performance? No, motherboards don’t have a direct impact on the performance of your computer. However, the importance of a computer component doesn’t depend solely on how it affects system or gaming performance. Motherboards play a crucial role in any PC, and the type you buy will determine the overall functionality and reliability of your new computer, among other things.
As you can see from the diagram earlier, every component in your system connects to your motherboard in some way, so it’s not hard to imagine that it plays a key role. Your choice of motherboard will dictate the features you have access to, which parts you can connect (and how many), what types of future upgrades you can make, and other particulars such as what speed certain parts can run at (such as your RAM, M.2 SSDs, and even your graphics card).
Skimping on your motherboard purchase by simply selecting the cheapest board you can find may come back to bite you later, as it could have missing features that you needed for your PC build (or for a future upgrade if you are planning to do one in a few months or years). However, while the motherboard is important, that doesn’t mean you need to (nor should) spend too much of your overall budget on the motherboard.
How Much Should You Spend on a Motherboard?
As mentioned, the motherboard won’t directly change what frame rate you get while gaming, but it does determine the features of your PC, which other parts you can use, and the overall reliability of your PC. There is such a thing as overkill when buying a motherboard though, so don’t think you need an expensive board to do a good job. A common newbie mistake when building a PC is actually overspending on the motherboard, and consequently cutting yourself a little short on your other parts.
Choosing how much to spend on a motherboard is a balancing act depending on your other parts, and what you’ll be doing with your PC (now and in future). A general rule of thumb to go by is that the more expensive your PC build overall, the more important your motherboard choice becomes. Especially your choice of gaming CPU – the last thing you want to do is pair a powerful high-end CPU with a cheap board that may not be able to handle it. Even if the two are compatible on paper, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good pairing in the real-world.
And if you plan to overclock your CPU (not generally recommend if this is your first build though), the importance of your motherboard selection increases even further, as the hotter a CPU runs the more it relies on not just the CPU cooler but the quality of the motherboard as well (specifically the VRM and heatsink/s of the board; covered in the FAQ at the end if interested).
But for most people building a mid-range type system (or a cheap one on a tight budget), you don’t require too much from a motherboard unless you need certain advanced features for whatever reason. As a real-world example, if you’re say buying the currently uber-popular Ryzen 5 3600 CPU which is well under $200 US, there’s just no need to spend any more than $100 to $140 on your motherboard (generally speaking) unless you want to for things like overclocking, better aesthetics (looks/design), or some other feature (such as PCIe 4.0 support if investing in high-end next-gen SSDs for demanding editing applications etc).
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re building with a super-powerful Intel i9 9900K or 10900K (or Ryzen 9) processor for instance, pairing either with a motherboard around the same price (under $150 etc) is asking for trouble. Yes; even if you’re not overclocking, as motherboard VRMs (explained in our FAQ at the end but essentially refers to the area of a board that delivers power to the CPU) are important even for simply running a CPU at stock speeds. When paired with a powerful processor, a motherboard with a weak VRM can actually throttle (lower) performance of a CPU when under load (or worse, such as overheating the system or straight-up shutting it down).
How to Check Motherboard and CPU Compatibility
Let’s get into choosing a compatible motherboard for your build, starting with CPU and motherboard compatibility. Luckily, to know if your motherboard is compatible with your CPU, all you need to do is make sure the chipset of your motherboard (such as AMD’s “B450” chipset) uses the same socket type as your CPU (such as the “AM4” socket used by almost all modern AMD CPUs). In this example, the B450 chipset uses the AM4 socket, so if your CPU is AM4 then you’re good to know. To check these things, simply look at the product listing of your CPU and motherboard. Read on for more clarification on motherboard and CPU compatibility.
What is the CPU Socket Type?
CPUs are differentiated by their socket type, which is simply their physical makeup/layout. All CPUs within the same family/series use the same socket type. For example, the AMD Ryzen 3000 series uses the AM4 socket type (FYI: so do all the previous Ryzen series). Current Intel socket types are LGA 1151 (for Intel 9th gen) and the newer LGA 1200 (for Intel 10th gen).
When choosing a motherboard, you must choose one that has the same socket type as your CPU. To do that, you look at the motherboard’s chipset type (which in simple terms is basically the type of motherboard). Different chipsets (such as AMD’s B450 or B550 chipsets for instance) support different CPU sockets. If you’re confused, don’t worry, as it’s very simple once you see what I mean.
Matching the Socket Type With a Compatible Chipset
All you have to do is make note of your CPU’s socket type. So for AMD, it’s likely going to be AM4 (as it’s a very flexible socket type that has been used across many different AMD chipsets). You then choose a motherboard that has a chipset that has the AM4 socket type (which could be B450, B550, X570, etc). For Intel, 9th gen CPUs use the LGA 1151 socket, which is used on chipsets like Z390 and B365. For the latest 10th gen Intel CPUs, they use a new socket (LGA 1200), which is used on the Z490 and B460 chipsets (among others).
See Also: B550 vs X570 Chipset Differences
Since multiple motherboard chipsets use the same socket type (CPU socket types only typically change every few years, especially for AMD, whereas new chipsets are released more frequently), that means you can choose between different chipsets (types of motherboards) when picking a board for your CPU. Which chipset you choose will depend on your budget, as they are roughly categorized into different price categories. For example, for AMD CPUs, AMD has their entry-level cheap chipsets with very limited features (A320, A520), then there’s the “mainstream” chipsets like B450 and B550, and then there’s the high-end chipsets like X470 and X570. For Intel it’s the same thing (ie Z490 is their current high-end chipset).
Since most people building a new PC overwhelmingly use either the current or previous generation CPUs, let’s get into the latest compatible chipsets for the latest AMD and Intel CPUs. These are not complete lists of ALL compatible chipsets, but the latest ones that we can recommend you consider.
Compatible Motherboard Chipsets for 3rd Gen Ryzen CPUs (Socket AM4)
* Not compatible with Ryzen 3000 APUs (3200G and 3400G)
Compatible Motherboard Chipsets for 2nd Gen Ryzen CPUs (Socket AM4)
Compatible Motherboard Chipsets for Intel 10th Gen CPUs (Socket LGA 1200)
* Doesn’t support overclocking
Compatible Motherboard Chipsets for Intel 9th Gen CPUs (Socket LGA 1151)
* Doesn’t support overclocking
Motherboard Sizes Explained (Compatibility With Case)
To know if your motherboard will be compatible and fit in your PC case, you must check the specs of your case to make sure it supports your motherboard’s size. Technically, the size of a motherboard is referred to as its form factor, and there are 4 main sizes to choose from when building a desktop computer:
ATX (Full/Standard Size)
We’ll start with ATX (2nd from the left in the image above) as it’s the most common motherboard size used in a modern gaming PC build (Micro ATX is likely not far behind though). ATX motherboards fit in any mid tower or full tower case, and can offer a full range of features due to their full size.
Micro ATX (Smaller)
Micro-ATX, commonly referred to simply as mATX, are a little shorter than standard ATX motherboards and are good choices if you’re building in a smaller case and/or if you’re on a tight budget (mATX boards are typically a bit cheaper than ATX ones). The tradeoff is you get a few less features, most notably less expansion (PCIe) slots, but sometimes less RAM slots too (2 instead of the 4 found on any modern ATX board).
However there are plenty of mATX motherboards with 4 RAM slots, and in terms of expansion slots, for most builds you wouldn’t need them anyway as most gaming builds only need to use 1 PCIe slot (for a graphics card) and maybe 2 maximum if you’re throwing in a WiFi card (if your motherboard doesn’t have onboard WiFi but you want WiFi). Just make sure the case you use specifically lists support for mATX motherboards. Oh, and one more thing about mATX motherboards is sometimes they can make your build look a little “emptier” if you have a see-through side window on your case (not a huge issue though but worth mentioning).
Mini ITX (Smallest)
Short for Mini ITX, these are the smallest motherboards but will only fit certain cases that are also of the mITX form factor. Mini ITX computers can be a little trickier to build, so buying a mITX motherboard is not generally recommended for first-time builders (it makes things like cable management and optimizing airflow harder).
Extended ATX (Extra Large)
Rarely used by mere mortals, Extended-ATX (referred to commonly as EATX) motherboards are the largest consumer desktop motherboards you can buy, used in extreme “my CPU costs more than your PC” setups for otherworldly things like dual CPUs or quad GPUs. They’re the same height as ATX boards, but a little wider. Naturally, EATX boards will only fit in large cases that explicitly list support for EATX. For most people, it’s safe to say you can just ignore EATX altogether.
How to Check Motherboard and RAM Compatibility
When choosing a motherboard for your gaming computer you also need to make sure it will be compatible with the RAM modules that you choose. To know if your motherboard and RAM are compatible, simply check the following:
- Motherboard Must Support RAM Type (DDR4) – By this I mean the general type of RAM. The current standard is DDR4, with the previous being DDR3 (and the next being, you guessed it, DDR5, potentially releasing 2021/2022). Motherboards will only support one type of RAM, so if you’re buying the latest DDR4 RAM (as you should), you must choose a motherboard that supports DDR4 (but any modern board will as RAM types like DDR4 last for many, many years).
- Motherboard Must Support RAM Speed – Also check your motherboard will support your RAM speed. Buying 3200MHz modules? Check that 3200MHz is officially stated in the motherboard’s list of supported RAM speeds. If you see “OC” listed after the speed, it simply means you need to manually set the speed in the motherboard BIOS (software) in order to run the module at that speed (dead easy to do as explained in our BIOS setup guide).
- RAM Must Not Exceed Motherboard’s Maximum RAM Capacity – It’s also good to know the maximum amount of memory your board can take on, particularly if you’re building an extreme system with a ton of memory, or if you’re planning on upgrading later. This shouldn’t be a problem for most builds as it’s rare to utilize the upper limits of what a board supports (any decent modern board will support a healthy amount of 32, 64 or 128 GB etc).
- Motherboard Must Have Enough RAM Slots – Full-sized ATX motherboards will have 4 RAM slots, but Micro ATX and/or Mini ITX motherboards might only have 2. Obviously, if you get a board with only 2 slots, don’t buy 4 RAM modules. But you always want to get 2 modules and never 1, as with 2 modules installed your RAM will run in what’s called “dual channel” mode that will increase performance slightly (not much, but it definitely makes a difference).
If you check the above things, you will be good to go 9 times out of 10. But it’s worth mentioning there are certain instances (if you get unlucky) where a particular set of RAM sticks will not be compatible with a certain motherboard, even if all of the above specs match up. Why? It just happens unfortunately, and is why motherboard manufacturers provide what’s called a QVL (Qualified Vendor List) for their motherboards, which lists the RAM modules they’ve officially tested to work with that board.
But the thing is, it’s impossible for manufacturers to test and list every single model of RAM out there for all their boards, so many modules will still work fine even if they’re not on the QVL list. Modern hardware is good like that; it usually just works. So in general, due to the low potential for compatibility issues when it comes to motherboard and RAM (especially if you stick to more common RAM brands), the general consensus within the DIY community is that it’s safe to ignore the QVL and just buy whichever RAM you want.
Advanced: What is the QVL? Does it Matter?
Does Motherboard Brand Matter? (Best Manufacturers)
When it comes to choosing a motherboard, there are only so many manufacturers (brands) out there. To ensure maximum reliability and quality, you want to stick to the big 4 names in the motherboard game which are Asus, Gigabyte, MSI and ASRock (in no particular order).
There are other companies out there who produce some motherboards (like Biostar and EVGA), but unless you have a good reason and you know exactly what you’re doing, we don’t recommend veering away from the big 4. But of course, not all specific models are created equal, so just because a board is created by one of these manufacturers, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good buy.
Always do your research. As for which motherboard manufacturer is the best between Asus, MSI, Gigabyte, and ASRock – there is no clear single winner who stands above the rest. As mentioned, it comes down to comparing specific models, and also personal preference as once you start using a bunch of different boards over your DIY life you may find a certain manufacturer’s boards and/or software (like the BIOS) to be easier and/or more fun to use.
For specific, current recommendations on the best motherboards for gaming PCs right now, check out our continuously updated Recommended Gaming PC Builds and take a look at the included boards in each build for a solid example of good value motherboards to consider buying in various price tiers. Don’t just take our word for it though and don’t blindly pick the first motherboard you see; always do your homework to make sure the particular model you go with has all the features that you want, especially if you have extra requirements compared to the average PC user.
Motherboard Features FAQ
Here we’ll cover certain other specific aspects of choosing a motherboard. Not all of these things apply to everyone, but some of them may be important to know depending on your build.
What Are Motherboard Fan Headers? How Many Do You Need for a Gaming PC?
Fan headers (also called system fan headers or chassis fan headers) are the connections on a motherboard where you connect any case fans that you have installed inside your computer case (whether they are stock fans or extra aftermarket fans). Motherboards come with varying amounts of fan headers, with the cheapest motherboards coming with only 1 and the most high-end of boards having up to 6 or more.
Most decent motherboards will have at least 2 fan headers, and ideally 3 to 4, which is enough to connect most fan setups as gaming PC builds don’t usually need more than 2-4 fans. If your motherboard doesn’t have enough fan headers for the amount of fans you want to install in your case, you can buy a splitter/adapter cable to be able to connect more than 1 fan into a single motherboard fan header.
Alternatively, you can plug case fans directly into your power supply if your PSU has molex power connectors, though doing this means you won’t be able to control the fan speed (not a big deal sometimes). Plus, if your fan cable is a 3 pin one you will need a 3 to 4 pin adapter to be able to connect to molex (molex is 4 pin). Some aftermarket case fans come with this adapter.
Lastly, if you’re connecting lots of fans you can buy a fan hub/controller, or an RGB fan hub/controller if you have RGB fans.
How Many PCIe Slots Do Gaming PCs Need?
As explained earlier, PCIe slots (also called expansion slots) are where your graphics card and other add-on cards like wireless network cards are installed. Most gaming computers will only need one PCIe slot for a graphics card, and maybe 2 to include a network card too, but any modern motherboard will have at least 2 minimum (even smaller motherboards). Factoring in how many PCIe slots a motherboard has is really only important if doing something out of the ordinary like installing multiple graphics cards (as you need to make sure you have 2 full-length PCIe slots, as PCIe slots come in difference sizes as explained in our PCIe FAQ).
How Many USB Ports Do Gaming PCs Need?
If you plan to use a lot of USB devices, you may want to check the motherboard specs for the number of rear USB ports to make sure you’ll have enough, though most modern motherboards will have plenty. Plus, you can always buy a USB hub if you run out.
Keep in mind that motherboards don’t just have rear USB ports, but internal USB headers as well, which are connectors for any front-panel USB ports that your computer case has. If you’re choosing a computer case with more than 1 USB 3.0 port on the front, you want to check your motherboard has enough (internal) front panel USB headers to be able to connect both of those front ports. Any half-decent modern board (even budget ones) will be just fine for that though.
Do All Motherboards Have USB Type-C?
No, many cheaper motherboards do not have USB Type-C ports (neither as an internal header for the front panel of a case, nor as a standard rear motherboard port). If your case does have a front USB Type-C port (rare but some do like the NZXT H510), to actually use that port check that the motherboard specs does list an internal USB Type-C header.
What Are Motherboard VRMs?
The VRM, short for Voltage Regulator Module, is the part of a motherboard that supplies voltage to the CPU. It’s technically a buck converter, which takes the 12V from the power supply and converts it to a lower voltage for the CPU (but also for the chipset and/or integrated graphics). The better the VRM of a motherboard, the more capable it is to deliver stable power and remain cool under load, which means it can better handle powerful CPUs and/or overclocking.
Is the VRM Important if Not Overclocking?
The quality of a motherboard’s VRM is crucial if overclocking (especially powerful CPUs), but the VRM is also important if running a powerful CPU at stock speeds (not overclocked). If you plan to use a high-end CPU like an Intel i9 or Ryzen 9, you want to ensure you choose a motherboard that has a good enough VRM for that CPU, otherwise your motherboard may overheat, crash, or become damaged. That’s why, as explained early on in this guide, you don’t want to pair a strong CPU with a weak motherboard.
How to Know a Motherboard’s VRM Quality?
Motherboard manufacturers don’t often explicitly state the quality of a certain board’s VRM, so in order to gauge how good a particular board’s VRM is you must rely on third-party reviews and benchmarks. You can get a general idea by looking at the board and counting the amount of chokes on the actual board (as well as seeing if it has a VRM heatsink), but real-world reviews are the best way to compare boards.
Do All Motherboards Support Overclocking?
No, not all motherboards support CPU overclocking. Overclocking support is based on the chipset of the motherboard. All modern AMD chipsets support overclocking (like B450, B550, and X570), but not all modern Intel motherboards support overclocking. Intel chipsets ending with a ‘Z’ do support overclocking (such as Z390 and Z490). Just remember that to overclock a CPU, that CPU needs to be an “unlocked” model. Intel CPU models with a ‘K’ on the end (such as 10600K) are unlocked, meaning they can be overclocked, but other models without the ‘K’ (such as the 10400) are locked and cannot be overclocked.
Do All Motherboards Have an Ethernet Port?
Yes, every modern motherboard comes with a LAN port for connecting an Ethernet cable (for wired networking/internet). These days, the port will be at least a 1G port, allowing for up to Gigabit speeds.
What Are 2.5G LAN Ports? Are They Important?
Gigabit LAN is more than enough for most people, as it’s unlikely you have a fast enough ISP plan and router to get close to maxing out Gigabit speeds. Faster LAN ports like 2.5G (up to 2.5 Gigabit speeds) exist on more expensive motherboards, and high-end boards may have 5G or even 10G ports, but all of these are unlikely to be necessary for most people. Once again, 1G ports are fine for most gaming PC builds.
Do All Motherboards Have WiFi?
No, not all motherboards have built-in wireless functionality, so if you want to connect to the internet using WiFi, you will need to choose a motherboard that clearly states wireless capability in the model name or in its spec sheet. Historically, it’s typically been the more high-end expensive motherboards that have WiFi, but these days there are quite a few affordable models with WiFi. If you want wireless, you don’t need to buy a WiFi-ready motherboard though, as it’s easy and affordable to buy an add-on wireless adapter.
Is Motherboard WiFi Good?
Yes, the built-in wireless adapter on modern WiFi-ready motherboards typically has the same quality as a good-quality dedicated/discrete PCIe wireless card. If you want to be absolutely sure of how good a certain motherboard’s WiFi capability is, check reviews, but any high-end WiFi-ready motherboard will undoubtedly have an excellent wireless adapter.
Do All Motherboards Have Bluetooth?
No, not all motherboards have bluetooth capability. If you need Bluetooth support for whatever reason, check the motherboard specs, or you can buy a either a PCIe WiFi adapter that also has Bluetooth, or a separate USB bluetooth adapter:
How to Know if a Motherboard Supports Multiple Graphics Cards? (SLI/CrossFire)
If you’re going to be setting up a dual graphics card setup with NVidia SLI or AMD CrossFire technology either now or down the line (not recommended to the majority of gamers as it’s just not cost-effective) then your motherboard will need to list official support for either (it’ll say in the specs). Usually only higher-end boards will support both SLI and CrossFire, but CrossFire support is quite common on mid-range motherboards.
If you’re a crazy one and doing more than the typical 2 way SLI/CrossFire, such as 3 or 4-Way for some extreme GPU power, you’ll also want to investigate support for that too as only certain high-end motherboards will allow for this and have the necessary amount of PCIe slots and space for such beastly configurations.
Do Motherboards Come With SATA Cables?
Yes, any modern motherboard should come shipped with at least 1, and likely 2, SATA data cables for connecting SATA hard drives to the motherboard (2.5″ SSDs or 3.5″ HDDs).
Do Motherboards Come With Standoff Screws?
No, motherboards don’t ship with standoff screws. Standoffs come included with the computer case (usually in their own separate bag found in the case box or taped to the inside of the case).
Related: How to Install a Motherboard
Do Motherboards Have Onboard Graphics?
A long time ago, some motherboards had onboard graphics, but these days onboard graphics is integrated into CPUs. So, modern motherboards don’t have onboard graphics, however they do (or do not) have the support for CPUs that have integrated graphics. In other words, if you’re buying a CPU with integrated graphics such as the popular Ryzen 3 2200G/3200G or Ryzen 5 3400G/2400G (technically called APUs), your motherboard chipset must state support for the APU series you choose. You also want to check the motherboard video output ports (such as HDMI or Displayport) to ensure your monitor has the right connection and cable.
Is Onboard Motherboard Audio Good for Gaming?
All modern motherboards come with built-in onboard audio (referred to as the audio codec), and it’s almost always quite good so there’s no need to get a dedicated sound card for gaming unless you’re an audiophile (sound enthusiast) wanting to take full advantage of very expensive premium speakers or professional studio headphones (or if you’re really into audio production). For most good PC gaming headsets though, onboard motherboard audio is just fine.