Picking the right motherboard for your PC build can get real confusing real fast if you don't know what to look for.
Last Updated: Nov 20, 2018
Learn everything you need to know as a first-time PC builder about choosing the best motherboard for gaming. The motherboard can be one of the trickier components to pick when building your own PC. It's easy to get lost in motherboard research land due to the many various models out there, many of which can be very similar, and many of which have confusing naming conventions that doesn't help.
You'd sometimes think that manufacturers want you to get confused out there, and don't make it all that easy to pick the right board. But fear not as this simplified 2018-updated motherboard buying guide is here to help you avoid getting stuck in the seemingly never-ending vortex of specs, and allow you to easily understand what you need to know as a first-time PC builder to pick the best motherboard for gaming, including coverage of all the most common newbie questions about buying a motherboard that we've seen over the years.
Before discussing how to choose the best motherboard, let's get the basics out of the way for the absolute hardware novices out there (no judging...we've all been there, friend). If you think of your CPU as the brains of your computer, then the motherboard is the heart and central nervous system.
It's the main board of your system and what you connect all the other PC components in your build to, and is responsible for relaying information between all the components. In other words, the motherboard is the central hub of your machine.
Saying that it's an important part to your PC is an understatement, however in terms of actual gaming performance it will have no bearing whatsoever (unless you're overclocking your CPU if you want to get technical but that's only for more experienced builders).
Your graphics card, CPU, and RAM (in that order) have the most effect on your frame-rate and how smooth your games run, but it's still necessary to pick a decent-enough motherboard for your gaming PC build so that you have a nice sturdy and reliable base for all your more-important parts to live.
You could say your PC is only as strong as its weakest link though, and if you pick a low-quality or straight-up dodgy motherboard then it can cause you issues down the road (or immediately). Quality, durability, and reliability is important when choosing the best motherboard, and the first way to almost guarantee all these things with your motherboard selection is to stick with trusted manufacturers and models (we'll get to that later in this guide).
Alright gang, let's take a look at the most important factors and features to consider when choosing the best motherboard for your new gaming computer. Don't let our confused-looking canine above get to you - picking a good motherboard isn't rocket science and once you understand the main specs it'll be a breeze.
First things first, you can't just select any motherboard you like the look of. You've got to match it with your type of CPU. There are basically two over-arching types of motherboards you can get. Intel based motherboards which are only compatible with Intel CPUs, and then you've got AMD boards which, you guessed it, only fit AMD's range of CPUs.
But it's not just a matter of picking any Intel motherboard if you've chosen an Intel processor - you must match up what's called the CPU socket type, also known as the processor interface.
All that means is this. Let's say you've picked the Intel Core i5-8400 processor for your new build (good bang for your buck mid-range choice btw). That particular model has a socket type of LGA 1151, which you'll find listed quite clearly in the specs. You must pick a motherboard that has the exact same socket type as your CPU (in this case LGA 1151). This will also be clearly listed in the motherboard specs.
Then you must ensure that you choose the right chipset for your particular CPU and its generation. Continuing with our example, the trusty and popular i5-8400, this CPU is an 8th generation Intel CPU which is codenamed "Coffee Lake". So, you must also make sure the motherboard you choose supports this generation. In other words, pick a board that mentions 8th generation or Coffee Lake support.
As well as having different socket types which you must match with your CPU choice, motherboards also come in different sizes, technically known as form factors. You need to be aware of the form factor of a motherboard so you can choose a gaming computer case that supports the size of your motherboard, as cases will usually only support one or two sizes/form factors.
The three most common sizes of motherboards in order of size from smallest to largest are mITX (short for Mini ITX), mATX (short for Micro ATX), and ATX.
ATX is considered the standard size, but the smaller form factor sizes of mITX and mATX are quite common as well, especially with more budget-friendly/cheaper builds as they're cheaper.
These smaller sized boards come with less features such as add-on ports and slots, and therefore have less expansion/upgrade options. ATX boards are the most common overall, but there's nothing wrong with getting a mATX board if you're building a small and/or budget-friendly system. mITX boards are perhaps the least common of the 3 main sizes, but they're still a consideration if you're building with a small, compact mITX case.
An ATX motherboard will NOT fit in a mATX case, so if you're getting a standard sized ATX board then you'll need to find an ATX case. However, a mATX motherboard WILL generally fit in a ATX case, although you'll want to double check. So if you're getting a mATX due to a restricted budget or another reason (such as you have no need for many features and/or expansion options), you typically have the choice of choosing either a mATX case or an ATX case.
When choosing the best motherboard for your gaming computer you also need to check compatibility with your RAM. There are 3 things to consider here:
If you'll be making upgrades to your build down the line or are adding some extra cards from the get-go such as a sound card, network card, second graphics card, etc, you will want to check that the motherboard you pick has enough expansion slots such as PCI and/or PCI-E (PCI Express) ports.
These days graphics cards, sound cards, and network cards typically come in the PCI-E format, so I wouldn't worry so much about PCI unless you know you'll be needing it.
You should also keep in mind the number of USB ports to make sure your board has enough for your needs. Most modern motherboards will have plenty of USB ports so it'll rarely be an issue. You'll also want to get a board with USB 3.0 support these days, although most modern boards will have that covered.
As well as USB ports, you may have a need for other ports such as FireWire, microphone ports, and so on, so check for that if you need it.
Every modern motherboard will come with LAN (wired cable internet) support so you don't need to worry about that. However, few motherboards, and typically only the more expensive high-end boards, will come with built-in wireless (WiFi) support.
So if you want wireless support in your new gaming desktop, you have two choices. Pick a motherboard that has WiFi, or buy an add-on wireless adaptor. WiFi adaptors come as either a PCI or PCI-E card that will fit into a spare PCI/PCI-E slot on your motherboard, or you have the option of getting a USB dongle adaptor.
Either will work just fine and is how many gamers get by for fast, reliable WiFi should you need it (we do recommend wired internet for the fastest, most reliable online gaming experience though). See our PC Builds FAQ for recommendations on add-on WiFi accessories for gaming PCs.
Note that the quality between built-in motherboard WiFi and an internal/external adaptor is going to be the same, although if you're picking a motherboard with WiFi then I would check around for reviews of that model to confirm that the built-in WiFi has good range and quality, although you should be fine with this because like mentioned most motherboards with a WiFi feature will be a higher-end board and so quality should not be an issue. Always better to check, though.
Also, if you need Bluetooth support for whatever reason - check your motherboard specs. Same goes for any other specific connections you may need such as FireWire etc (if you don't know what that is, you don't need it).
If you're going to be setting up a dual graphics card setup with either NVidia SLI or AMD CrossFire technology either now or down the line then your motherboard will need to support this. Simply check the specs to confirm as usually only higher-end boards will support this, and many will only support one or the other and not both. If you're a crazy one and doing more than 2 way SLI/CrossFire, such as 3 or 4 way, then you'll want to investigate support for that too as only extreme-end motherboards will allow for this.
If you're like most people and won't ever need the beastly, costly (and often overrated and unnecessary) graphics power of multiple graphics cards then just ignore this. If you're wondering, no we don't recommend SLI or CrossFire to PC builders for various reasons (not worth the money IMO, doesn't scale well, not well supported in games, etc). A single, powerful GPU is all you need in 99.999% of cases until you're really going all-out with building the type of machine that most could only dream about.
Modern motherboards will come with decent built-in audio capabilities, so there's no need to get a dedicated sound card unless you have the cash to splurge on one for whatever reason as they're more of a luxury item and not necessary for gaming.
To be honest, you won't notice much of a difference with a dedicated sound card as opposed to your motherboard's built-in sound unless you're dropping a ton of money on top of the range speakers/headset and really want to maximize the quality and volume to the absolute fullest. Or if you're an audio professional doing some sort of production.
Read our gaming sound card buying guide to learn more about sounds cards and gaming PCs, but as a general rule of thumb I'd say 95% of gamers will be totally happy with built-in motherboard audio and as mentioned only really picky gamers with extra money to spend will see value in upgrading to a dedicated sound card for gaming purposes.
Don't get me wrong though, if you're looking to create the absolute highest-quality gaming experience possible, by all means get a quality sound card and hook it up to a high-end headset or speaker system and your gaming audio will be take to another level.
When it comes to choosing the best motherboard for gaming, you definitely want to stick to trusted motherboard manufacturers such as Asus, Gigabyte, MSI or AsRock.
Personally, I would not recommend veering away from these big 4 names in the motherboard game, although it would definitely be hard to do so (good luck trying to find another brand, really).
Although keep in mind that not all models are created equal, and even if a board is created by one of these manufacturers doesn't necessarily mean it's a good buy.
For specific, current recommendations on the best motherboard for gaming right now, check out our continuously updated Recommended PC Builds and take a look at the included boards in each build for a solid example of good 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. To see all the specs of a particular motherboard you're considering for your build, do a Google search for that model to find the manufacturer's official page for it as product listings on Amazon/etc don't show the full specs.
That's really all you need to know about selecting a good motherboard for your first PC build. There are other advanced features and specs, and considerations like the design, LED lighting, overclocking features, etc, if you care about those things, but the above are the most important to know about as a beginner builder.
Now that you've considered how to choose the best motherboard for gaming, learn how to choose the best CPU for gaming which is an even more crucial component for a custom gaming PC.
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