We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
If you’re a DIY person who likes vehicle or home improvement projects, you know that having the right tools on hand is extremely important.
If your DIY bent extends to the world of computing, the right tools remain important. And the key tool to making a computer work the way you want it to is the motherboard.
Think of the motherboard as the nervous system of the computer. Every component in the PC connects to the motherboard, receiving signals.
And the components are able to communicate with each other using the motherboard.
If you’re planning to build a computer or if you want to give your current PC new life, a new motherboard is the place to start.
Our motherboard product matrix above will give you a leg up in your research.
Matthew has led IT departments and tech teams in a variety of industries. Currently, he works in the sports gaming industry. He has written reviews and been involved with electronics procurement decisions for a number of players at the business and individual level for over a decade. In his spare time, you may find Matthew playing frisbee, golf, or reading a good novel.
We’ve looked closely at a number of motherboards, finding those that offer great quality, prices, and components. Because we never accept free samples from manufacturers, you can count on our unbiased selections and information.
Granted, installing a new motherboard isn’t for everyone. But even if you’re hiring a company to build a PC for you, it pays to know what types of motherboards are available.
The information that follows in our motherboards shopping guide can help you understand the technology and features. You’ll then be able to make the build choices to give your new computer all of the power you need.
The BIOS included with your motherboard is the software that boots up the computer. BIOS is short for Basic Input/Output System.
Before you can select a motherboard for purchase, you need to make a few key choices. These choices narrow the model of motherboard you can use, and they play a critical role in determining the size, power, and components in your final edition of the computer.
Both desktop and laptop computers make use of a motherboard. However, if you’re building your own computer, you’re probably going to have to stick to a desktop format. Because laptops are so thin, it can be difficult to fit all of the components into the case with a DIY computer. Most laptop motherboards incorporate customized designs rather than being mass produced. For that reason, most motherboards for sale, such as the ones in our matrix, are aimed at desktop computer builders.
Intel and AMD are the two primary CPU manufacturers for personal computers. But some motherboards use an ARM processor.
Determining which form factor you want to use with your computer will determine the motherboard size. If you already have a case in mind, you’ll need to buy a motherboard that will fit in it. The size of motherboard you select also determines how many expansion slots fit on it. The most common form factor options are as follows, listed from largest to smallest:
EATX: Short for Extended ATX, the EATX form factor is aimed more at the server market. It has seven expansion slots and measures about 12 x 13”.
ATX: The ATX form factor is the most common, offering seven expansion slots. It’s also large, measuring about 12 x 9 ⅝”. The Gigabyte ATX Z170X Gaming 7 board in our matrix is an example of an ATX form factor.
Micro-ATX: You’ll find four expansion slots on the Micro-ATX motherboard, which is a square 9 ⅝” on all four sides.
DTX: The DTX is a form factor that’s wider than it is long. It has two expansion slots and measures 8 x 9 ⅝”.
Flex-ATX: This board is narrower than most options. The Flex-ATX form factor has three expansion slots and measures 9 x 7 ½”.
Mini-ITX: You’ll only receive one expansion slot with this square form factor Mini-ITX motherboard. It measures 6 ¾” on all four sides.
Keep in mind that some of the motherboards in our matrix (above) are offered in multiple form factors.
The processor socket determines the size and type of CPU (Computer Processing Unit) that you can use.
If you’re purchasing a newer, common CPU, it should fit in a variety of motherboard form factors. Intel and AMD brand CPUs would fit this description.
Some motherboards make use of ARM brand CPUs, such as the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, the Best Bang for Your Buck choice in our matrix. But ARM processors, in general, are designed for environments where conserving electrical power is important. CPUs from Intel and AMD tend to offer more features and tend to have more processing power.
Try to select the newest, most powerful CPU you can afford initially. Upgrading a CPU later is a very difficult, if not impossible, process.
The chipset fits on the motherboard and works with a particular CPU. So you’ll want to select a processor and compatible motherboard first and then pick a chipset that goes along with them. A chipset determines the number of memory channels you can use. It offers support for a certain number of PCI-e lanes, SATA ports (through which you connect hard drives), and USB ports, and it also provides support for any overclocking options. In addition, it determines the type of memory you can use.
Different motherboards offer a variety of slots to accommodate memory chips, also called RAM (Random Access Memory) chips. For longevity of your system, it’s helpful to select a motherboard that can use four memory slots versus the two slots smaller boards use. Expanding the amount of RAM the computer has is a good way to improve the performance of the computer after a couple of years. If you need a smaller form factor motherboard, though, you can upgrade the RAM chips in the two memory slots down the road.
RAM is the temporary memory area where the computer holds software it’s currently using. This is not like the hard drive, which is a type of permanent storage.
If you’re looking to create a powerful gaming computer, you need to ensure it has support for multiple graphics expansion cards. It will need the proper number of PCI-e x16 expansion slots. And those slots need to be able to support AMD and Nvidia’s protocols for using multiple graphics cards.
Along those same lines, if you want high-end audio capabilities in your gaming computer, make sure the expansion slots can handle the type of audio card you want to use. In our product matrix, the MSI Gaming Intel Skylake B150 motherboard is an excellent choice for gamers.
Expansion slots are areas on the motherboard where you can insert an expansion card. These cards give the computer more features, expanding the capabilities of the motherboard. Sometimes you’ll see expansion slots referred to as PCI-e slots.
If you are going to build a really powerful PC, make sure you plan for a proper cooling system. Excessive heat is dangerous to computer components and to the motherboard itself. So any motherboard layout you pick needs to be able to accommodate the proper placement of cooling fans and strong air flow.
Our Best of the Best pick, the ASUS Z170-A ATX DDR4 motherboard, has a great design for proper cooling.
Once you’ve settled on the options you want in a motherboard purchase, it’s time to compare performance levels. Do some internet research to find the motherboard models with the best benchmarking results. Reviewers commonly measure the speed and performance levels of motherboards in the following areas —
Boot Times: The amount of time required to boot a computer depends, in part, on the motherboard’s components and firmware, including the BIOS.
Memory Bandwidth: This measures the amount of data that can be moved to and from the memory chips. Loading more data in memory faster is better, and the motherboard design plays a role in the available speed.
Power Usage: Look for measurements of the motherboard’s power consumption during regular working and during idle times. Motherboards that use more power will obviously cost you more in electricity. But they will also generate more heat which, over time, could damage computer components.
Benchmarking is the measurement of performance and speed of a computer component. When researching, try to find motherboard benchmarking results from third-party reviewers, as they will be unbiased.
You’ll find motherboards in a variety of price ranges. The units in our product matrix range from about $40 to about $200. But you could certainly find motherboards outside of that price range, too.
Here’s what you can expect to find, feature-wise, at several different price points:
Don’t expect to find a lot of high-end features in these motherboards. Even things like integrated WiFi aren’t found on many of the boards in this price range. You’ll probably end up with fewer expansion slots in these budget boards, too. But if you’re someone who only wants a simple PC for web browsing and e-mail, a low-priced motherboard is perfectly fine.
Thunderbolt 3 is a faster data transfer system than USB, and has been designed to fit in USB ports. It’s compatible with USB Type-C cables.
In this price range, you’ll certainly have more options for integrated components, including WiFi. If you want to use multiple graphics cards, you should be able to do so with these boards. You can find quite a few expansion slots on these motherboards, too. Basic gamers and those who need the flexibility to upgrade their PCs down the road can usually find a suitable motherboard in this price range.
Those who are looking to significantly customize their motherboards are going to want to stay in this price point. You’ll be able to overclock your processors. And you’ll receive the most RAM slots and expansion card slots with these boards. High-end gamers and video editors will need these types of motherboards.
Q: When upgrading a motherboard, what do I need to know?
A: Start by selecting the type of processor you want to use, and make sure the CPU socket on the motherboard is compatible with it. If you need more flexibility in terms of RAM slots and expansion card slots, look for a large form factor. All of the other choices for computing components you need to make can fill out from there.
Q: How do I set a budget for my DIY motherboard project?
A: It can be confusing to set your budget for building a computer from scratch. You will have far more expenses than just purchasing the motherboard. You’ll also need to purchase a processor, a chipset, memory chips, and expansion cards. So before selecting the type of motherboard you want, make sure that all of the components you need will fit inside your total budget. There’s no point in buying a pricey motherboard if you can’t afford enough components to take advantage of it.
Q: How do I know if I can replace a broken motherboard in my current computer?
A: As long as you can still buy the same form factor of motherboard and CPU socket to match the broken one, you can replace it. (By replacing the motherboard in a current PC, we’re assuming that you’re planning to reuse many of the components on the current motherboard.) Just understand that it can be difficult to reseat the old components in the new motherboard. It’s often easier to start from scratch with new components. With some patience and know-how, though, this process can be completed successfully.