How to buy a motherboard (2015 edition)

Well, first guide, so here goes!

 

Why is a guide like this even needed?

 

This guide is mostly meant for enthusiast system builders, the home computer user, and people who are new in this field. I have noticed that when people are building a computer, they often opt to go for the motherboards that are the most heavily marketed (such as the Asus ROG series), or simply “whatever” for a given price point. It often does prove to be an acceptable compromise, unless of course they find out that they need something later on. The issue of course is that the motherboard is like the brain and nervous system of a computer, so it is something that needs to be carefully thought out. Even many enthusiasts do not have their thoughts well thought out.

 

One other thing that I have noticed is that many reviewers seem to have very superficial reviews of motherboards, skipping over some things I would consider very important. They typically go through the marketing and then test a few benchmarks, which show the motherboards to be very similar, as they would be if they had the same CPU, GPU, RAM, and other components. That is unfortunate, but the problem is that it does not give you an idea of which motherboards are outstanding because so many win reviewer’s awards and often they do not go over the finer points of long-term ownership.

 

So far, in looking online, I have found two good sites that I would recommend the most amongst the pack. The first is Steven Bassiri (known at Sin0822), who reviews at Tweaktown. The other is HardOCP, which is pretty stringent in their testing and willing (to the point where they have been blacklisted by some manufacturers) to call out mediocre or under-performing products. There are other websites, but these are the two that I personally recommend the most.

 

 

First Consideration: The Role of the System

 

The role of the system will be the decider in what you use the system for. That will decide your hardware. You should also set aside a budget at this point.

 

That in turn will dictate the CPU. Currently as of 2015, the latest architecture from Intel is Skylake and from AMD is Steamroller. Depending on your budget, you will want either a mainstream CPU (currently LGA 1151 with Intel) or a “high end desktop CPU”  (currently LGA 2011-v3 with Intel). Precisely what CPU will be for another post, but in general, the more threads you need, the more cores you need.

 

At the moment however, Intel is very much ahead of AMD. Let’s compare the two: Anandtech Comparison between Intel 6700K vs FX 8350. Intel is extremely dominant in single threaded performance and floating point performance. The “Module” design that AMD opted for in designing their Bulldozer series seems to be quite inefficient and even though multi-threaded benchmarks are not as bad, the Bulldozer and its successors use a lot of power. I am hopeful that Jim Keller at AMD will design a better CPU with Zen that will be a huge improvement, as he is one of the best engineers in the industry, but it is very much a David vs Goliath situation right now. After choosing the CPU, the other consideration is what features you need or want. That will dictate other feature sets, such as the chipset that you choose for the motherboard.

 

For the purposes of this guide though, let’s assume that you have chosen a platform and a CPU. Next you much choose the size of the motherboard. The size of the computer will dictate other things, such as the form factor. Motherboards for desktop enthusiasts come in sizes of ITX (Small Form Factor systems) to Micro-ATX (typically 4 PCI-E slots) to full-sized ATX systems, and even E-ATX or XL-ATX systems, which require larger cases to accommodate.

 

Keep in mind that budget may not be the only bottleneck. Smaller motherboards in particular tend to have more issues with PCI-E slot spacing. Heat too could be a bottleneck in your system. Choosing a case with good airflow can be very important in that regard.

 

Second Consideration: Choosing the motherboard price point

 

The typical computer enthusiast is best served by buying a computer that has a medium end motherboard. Low end boards are best avoided, and higher end boards are typically a waste of money.

 

To begin with, I would recommend that you avoid the cheapest motherboards. They are typically not well built. Asrock in particular is known for this for their lowest end boards. Asrock’s high end boards, and in particular, the Asrock OC Formula series, is outstanding, but their lower end boards are to be avoided. You may see them sell for a much lower price and think that they are like the “no name” or “in store” brands of grocery products, however, this is not the case. Even on medium end motherboards, the margins these days can be tight (particularly nowadays with the market in decline), and there are very real quality tradeoffs. In particular, for the lower end boards, many manufacturers will use fewer PCB layers (I’ll explain why this important later) and hide the components they use. They hide these components because they know that they are not good quality components. So you are best served by avoiding these boards.

 

On the other hand, high end flagship boards are usually not worth the money. On the higher end boards, what you will get for your money is:

  • A much more robust VRM
  • Some motherboards may carry a PLX 8747 chip
  • Typically a much better IO panel in the rear with more ports
  • Overclocking buttons and more overclocking support (only relevant for computer enthusiasts, as you would not want to overclock for applications that need accuracy, or at least not without very extensive stability testing)
  • Larger motherboard with better spaced out layout and simply “more” features on board
  • Certain “special features” unique to each brand

 

I’ll explain these features later on. However, in the context of the motherboard, you probably don’t need any of these features for a typical enthusiast, certainly not unless you have some very specialized applications that you know you want to use them for.  So in that regard, you are looking at a medium end motherboard.

 

Third Step: Narrowing down the options

 

Once you have a set budget and a role, you need to narrow down the options.

 

There are 5 major brands (actually more, but 5 that are most common for enthusiasts) and a few smaller brands.

  • Asus: World’s largest motherboard maker – they are very famous for their Republic of Gamers (ROG) line of products in the enthusiast sphere. I think though that their quality has declined as of late and their tech support has never been so good. They do have frequent BIOS updates though and their fan control as of Z170 is number one. They seem to have been plagued by a few issues (their X99 boards were known to fry CPUs due to excess voltages).
  • Gigabyte: One of the largest makers of motherboards. They, like Asus make a huge variety of motherboards.  I generally recommend their SOC Force and SOC line of products. Their weak point is that they often do not supply enough BIOS updates. That said, they have good RMA support, although one drawback for us Canadians is that it is in the US.
  • MSI: A third Taiwanese maker and significantly smaller than the other two. I like their motherboards personally as they generally seem to have top notch build quality. Their weak point is memory overclocking, sometimes CPU voltage offset issues, and their BIOS stability on launch isn’t as good, but tends to get better than pretty much everyone else over time. The XPower Line is what I use and on the GPU side, their Lightning line is very well regarded.
  • Asrock: A spin-off of Asus originally, but they’ve made their own line of products. They are best known for their cheap products, but some of their products are very outstanding, in particular, the “OC Formula” series.
  • EVGA: After X58 and the loss of Shamino (a famous overclocker), along with their design team to Sapphire, EVGA’s motherboards took a huge blow. Their P67 and X79 boards were awful, but they’ve gotten better since Haswell. We will know if they get better or not and reach parity eventually. Their UI is not as good right now and they tend to have more BIOS problems, but EVGA has one of the best support in the industry.

 

A few of the less commonly used brands for enthusiasts

  • ECS: Large manufacturer for OEMs, but not as well regarded in the enthusiast world.
  • SuperMicro: Very strong reputation in the server sector, but they are trying to break into the enthusiast segment as well. You will use their boards a lot for computing.
  • Foxconn: Foxconn makes about 40% of the world’s electronics and is very diversified. Their reputation has fallen though since X58 (the Bloodrage was very good).

 

From my experiences, each of the brands tends to have their up and down moments. Some do very well for a generation and every brand has a generation where their motherboards are problem-plagued.

 

What you should consider:

  1. The company’s history of honoring a warranty
  2. Price versus performance
  3. What models they have this generation and what features do they have
  4. Whether or not everyone else is using that board

 

Number 1 tends to vary nation by nation and manufacturer by manufacturer. Personally, here in Canada, I value an RMA facility here (rather than in the US), good tech support, and a manufacturer that does not try to defraud you as an end customer.

 

Number 4 can be useful because if you are using the same board that other people are using, it is far easier to get support. Most enthusiast forums have specific threads in place for each brand, provided the audience is large enough. Often you can ask your fellow owners for aid in helping resolve any issues you have, which I have found can be often as useful as the motherboard vendor’s own tech support.

 

At your given price, range you should narrow down the boards that each brand offers and then compare between them.

 

You’ll want to pick 1-2 motherboards from each the brand that you want in order to narrow it down. This will be down to price and what special requirements you have.

 

 

What actually matters that is not covered?

I have noted that reviews of most motherboards focus on the features, some benchmarks (which are all very similar), and effectively ends up as marketing for the motherboard makers.

 

Here is what does not get covered.

  • Are there any serious flaws with the motherboard?
  • How stable is the BIOS?
  • The quality of the components.
  • Long term ownership issues.

These are not easy questions to answer. Generally, reviewers will cover any BIOS issues that occurred in the short stint they had the motherboards (sometimes not even that!), but beyond that there isn’t much else. I noted earlier that VRM and other quality of components are only covered by a handful of reviews. Long-term ownership issues simply cannot be covered in a short review.

 

Another thing to take a look at on the motherboard manufacturer’s page is the drivers and the BIOS. How often has the BIOS been updated?

 

One solution is to look at “Owners Clubs”. Forums such as overclock.net tend to have such clubs. The issues that they raise are particularly important as they have typically had the board for lengthier periods of time.

 

Ultimately though you will have to come to terms with the idea that you are taking a risk with the motherboard and that not everything is going to go as planned.

 

Final step: Selecting a motherboard

 

Once you recognize these limitations, you are going to realize something, there is no perfect motherboard. Glowing reviews don’t mean much sadly, even from the websites I’ve recommended as every board will have a favorable review if you look. Sadly that means that looking at what owners have to say is what matters the most.

 

Making the final choice once you’ve narrowed it down comes down to picking the motherboard with the fewest problems. There will not be a motherboard sadly without any issues and you may find quirks over time as you own them.

 

After that there is the matter of just buying the board.

 

Conclusions

The motherboard is the brain and nervous system of a computer. Motherboards from my experience are also some of the more failure prone parts (after the Power Supply Unit and Hard Drive). There is no perfect board as I noted. This guide was meant to pick the best possible option.

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