You finally decided to build a new PC. Being aware that there is a hardware “hierarchy”, you decided to start your “journey” by choosing the right CPU, the brain of the system. Once that’s done, though, it is now time to find the right motherboard, the “nervous system” of your entire build.
Here is where things become more complicated and this is the reason for this guide. Here you will find out the basic characteristics to consider when choosing a new motherboard.
Before listing the best motherboards on the market, let me list the most important characteristics that you need to know and search for:
The first aspect is the form factor, i.e. the physical size of the card. PC cases have different size and shape, thus you need to make sure that the motherboard fits comfortably inside it. Currently, the most popular form factors are as follows:
- ATX (or Advanced Technology eXtended) – these motherboards, measuring 305×244mm, are still the most popular since they have enough room to include all the necessary slots and ports.
- Micro-ATX – these motherboards measure 244×244mm. Although slightly smaller in height than the previous ones, they allow you to build a more compact PC without sacrificing any important ports and slots.
- Mini-ITX – these are small motherboards measuring 170×170mm. They are mostly used for the construction of mini PCs, used as small office PCs, HTPCs, and console replacements. Mini-ITX cards have just the bare minimum number of slots and ports (usually only two RAM slots and only one PCI-E slot).
Although there are other less common form factors, unless you know exactly what you are doing my advice is to choose one of the most common ones.
Another thing to know is that typically, ATX cases also support Micro ATX and Mini-ITX motherboards, but it is best to always check the size of the case and that of the motherboard so as to make sure that the two are mutually compatible.
The socket is the CPU housing. It is paramount that your motherboard’s socket is compatible with the processor. At the time of writing, the most popular sockets are as follows:
- LGA 1151 – this socket is compatible with Intel Core’s Skylake, Kaby Lake and Coffee Lake (6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th generation) processors.
- AM4 – this socket is compatible with all AMD Ryzen processors.
- FCBGA 1526 – this socket is compatible with Intel Core’s Ice Lake (10th generation) processors.
Another important component is the chipset, that is, the series of connectors, physical paths and, in general, integrated circuits that handle every operation, coordinating the data transit between CPU, RAM, SSD/HDD, and other peripherals.
A cheap chipset could result in a slower communication speed between the CPU and RAM; moreover, it may not support all the ports and slots required for your other components. On the contrary, a high-end chipset will give you full speed and support for all your other hardware parts.
On larger motherboards (ATX and micro-ATX), you will usually find 4 slots for the installation of memory modules; on mini-ITX cards, on the other hand, there are only two.
Always use RAM modules in pairs, thus taking advantage of the dual-channel technology that improves memory performance.
Slots and ports
A good motherboard is always equipped with a good number of ports and slots to connect to internal and external components. Here is a list of slots and ports that every motherboard should have.
SATA – this is where you connect hard drives, SSDs, and optical drives. You will need at least 4 SATA III ports, but more are always a welcome addition.
PCI-Express x16 – this is the slot for the graphics card. On mini-ITX motherboards there is only one, while bigger motherboards have at least two (so you can use two of them in parallel in an SLI/Crossfire configuration).
PCI-Express x1 – this is a shorter PCI slot located that can accommodate other internal modules, such as Wi-Fi/Ethernet cards or dedicated sound cards. Most mini-ITX motherboards lack this slot.
M.2 – this is where you can connect compatible M.2 SSDs with a data transfer rate significantly higher than SATA.
USB – you will need at least 6 rear USB ports, two of which should be USB 3.0 or, better yet, USB 3.1. Some motherboards also sport a USB Type-C port.
Ethernet – it connects your PC to your router.
Audio – motherboards with an integrated audio module have a number of audio ports (3.5mm jacks) depending on the quality of the audio chip.
Digital audio – the integrated audio module can also have a coaxial or optical output (Toslink) for better audio.
Video – motherboards with an integrated video module have video outputs that connect to a monitor. Currently, the most popular port is HDMI, however, it is common to find a DVI port or even an old VGA port.
Some motherboards include a Wi-Fi and/or a Bluetooth module.
Which motherboard to buy
Now that you know what to look for it’s time to learn which are the best motherboards on the market.