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Picking a motherboard can get real confusing real fast if you don't know what to look for
Last Updated: Sep 25, 2019
In this guide we'll explain how to choose a motherboard for your gaming PC build by breaking down the features that matter in our typical beginner-friendly fashion. The motherboard can indeed be one of the trickier components to select when building your own computer, as what makes a good motherboard may not be immediately apparent as a newbie.
It's all too easy to get lost in motherboard research land of doom thanks to the seemingly endless different models out there, many of which are quite similar, not to mention the fairly randomly confusing naming conventions and long spec sheets that can easily appear like straight-up gibberish to the untrained eye.
On your quest to pick a motherboard you'd be forgiven to think thoughts that manufacturers want you to stay a little confused, but conspiracies aside this buyer's guide is here to hopefully simplify the process for you and help you understand all the different motherboard spec and whether or not they apply to your PC build.
Before discussing how to choose a motherboard, let's get the bare basics out the way. If you think of your CPU as the brains, the motherboard is the heart and central nervous system of your computer. It's the main board of your system where you connect other PC components in your build to, and is responsible for relaying information between all your parts. In terms of actual gaming performance, generally speaking your motherboard won't affect it, but it's an important component selection overall because it's essentially the hub to your new PC build.
Choosing a low-quality or straight-up dodgy motherboard can cause issues down the road (or immediately), and picking one with decent reliability and durability is important if you want your computer to last. For enthusiasts who are pushing their system via overclocking, choosing a good motherboard becomes even more important (and sometimes absolutely crucial), as the effectiveness of a motherboard's VRM (Voltage Regulator Module, essentially a converter that's part of a motherboard and supplies voltage to the CPU) is closely tied with how cool and stable your system can/will run when under load from an overclock.
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. You also have eATX, the largest motherboard form factor, but it's rarely going to come in play for typical gaming PCs as a good standard-sized ATX is more than enough room and expansion for the majority of builders.
While ATX is considered the standard size, smaller form factor sizes of mITX and mATX are quite common and popular as well, especially for more budget-friendly builds because for a standard gaming PC build you likely won't even need that many upgrade and expansion options (which larger boards like standard ATX ones provide).
Just remember though that 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. On the flip-side though, 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 the memory modules you select for your gaming PC. 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 want to check the motherboard you pick has enough PCIe slots to accommodate everything you're installing. You should also keep in mind the number of USB ports to make sure your board has enough for your needs, though most modern motherboards will have plenty. As well as USB ports, you may want to also check your motherboard has enough front panel USB headers (fancy word for connectors) to match the amount of front panel USB ports on the case you choose for your PC. Most builds will be fine, but it does happen that older or cheaper motherboards don't have enough front panel USB connectors for a more modern case.
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 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.
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 a motherboard, 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 a challenge to do so (good luck trying to find another brand). Although keep in mind that not all models are created equal, and even if a board is created by one of these manufacturers, it doesn't necessarily mean it's a good buy. Always do your research.
For specific, current recommendations on the best motherboard for gaming 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 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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