Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers from which to choose, and their offerings have very similar performance and peripheral connectivity at each price point. The main differences between competing boards lie with their Windows software, firmware, and overclocking tools.
- Asus is the biggest of the four main motherboard makers. We think Asus boards have the best Windows software and the most intelligent and reliable auto-overclocking functionality. The company's firmware interface doesn't look as nice as Gigabyte's, but it's otherwise excellent—and it offers the best fan speed controls around. Some Asus motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters that make it much easier to connect finicky front-panel headers. Overall, an Asus board should offer the most polished experience of the lot.
- Gigabyte's 100-series motherboards are also a good choice, even if their auto-overclocking intelligence and Windows software aren't quite up to par with Asus'. The company's firmware fan controls are quite dated, but Gigabyte's latest Windows software largely makes up for that deficit. Some Gigabyte motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters, too.
- MSI's motherboards are solid, as are the company's firmware and software. The retooled fan controls in the firm's 9-series firmware have been carried over to its 100-series boards, though the auto-overclocking intelligence remains fairly conservative and somewhat rudimentary.
- ASRock generally aims its products at more value-conscious buyers. ASRock boards typically offer a great hardware spec for the money. In our experience, however, ASRock's firmware interface isn't terribly refined. Neither is the accompanying utility software. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.
|Gigabyte F2A88XM-D3H||$74.99||AMD Socket FM2+ processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$114.99||Intel LGA1151 processor,
Gigabyte's F2A88XM-D3H is our pick if you're building with an AMD CPU. This compact, straightforward board is based on the A88X chipset, which supports RAID arrays for SATA drives and configurable TDPs for certain processors, including the A8-7600. Gigabyte packs a decent set of features into this board's compact microATX form factor, and the user reviews are largely positive.
Meanwhile, Gigabyte's GA-H170-Gaming 3 is an appealing platform for non-overclocked Skylake builds. It offers dual M.2 slots and a premium Realtek ALC1150 audio codec along with some features borrowed from Gigabyte's fancier Z170 boards like reinforced PCIe slots.
|MSI Z170-A Pro||$119.99||Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case|
|Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$159.99|
For folks who want a basic Z170 board to pair with an unlocked Skylake CPU, we like MSI's Z170-A Pro. This $120 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the Z170-A Pro offers niceties like a full complement of PCIe expansion slots, an M.2 slot positioned out of the way of hot graphics cards, and three system fan headers (although those are for three-pin fans only). For a little more than a Benjamin, this board isn't missing much. SLI support is the only feature we didn't see that some builders might want.
Moving up from MSI's Z170-A Pro, we think Gigabyte's GA-Z170X-UD3 is quite the compelling board. Gigabyte has ticked all the right boxes here: Intel Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.1 controllers, Realtek ALC1150 audio, and dual M.2 slots all make an appearance. A next-gen USB 3.1 Type-C port is ready to connect to compatible peripherals, as well. For $145, this could be all the motherboard most people need for a Skylake system.
Asus has a compelling Z170 lineup of its own, and we think the Z170 Pro Gaming is a good step up for those who want to avail themselves of Asus' superior firmware fan controls and automatic overclocking logic. The Pro Gaming's M.2 slot is well out of the way of its primary PCIe x16 slot, so PCIe drives like Samsung's 950 Pro might run cooler on this board. The Z170 Pro Gaming is pretty similar to the Z170-A that we reviewed and enjoyed, but it adds Realtek ALC1150 audio and a couple more ports to the rear I/O block while shedding legacy PCI slots.
|Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$249.99||Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
Haswell-E processors won't fit into LGA1150 or LGA1151 motherboards like the ones listed above. Instead, Haswell-E requires an LGA2011-v3 socket and quad-channel DDR4 memory slots, features only available in boards powered by Intel's X99 chipset.
Our favorite X99 board is the Asus X99-A/USB 3.1, an updated version of the TR Recommended X99-A. As its name implies, the USB 3.1 variant adds a couple of the next-generation USB ports to the rear I/O cluster. This board's expansion options are plentiful otherwise, and our X99-A sample proved to be a capable overclocking platform for our Haswell-E CPU. We think this board is so good that there's no need to spend hundreds more on fancier X99 options unless they have specific features you require.
With Skylake comes a need for DDR4 memory. We're happy to report that DDR4 prices have come way down since Haswell-E systems first created a need for this next-generation RAM, and they've stayed there since. You won't be paying through the nose for memory if you build with Skylake and 100-series motherboards.
Now that the difference between 4GB and 8GB RAM kits is about $10, we can no longer recommend 4GB in good conscience. Most RAM makers aren't even offering 4GB dual-channel DDR4 kits, anyway, so builders would be further hampering performance by choosing to save money in this area. Buy whatever 8GB kit of DDR4 DIMMs you can afford and thank us later.
Intel's official spec for Skylake-compatible DDR4 RAM is DDR4-2133 running at 1.2V, but we've used significantly faster DIMMs like DDR4-3000 in our CPU and motherboard test rigs without issue. Given the small price premium and potential increases in bandwidth that faster DDR4 offers, we think it's a worthy upgrade to get the speedier RAM if you have room in the budget.
AMD builders will still need DDR3 RAM. We suggest an 8GB kit of DDR3-1600 like these Crucial Ballistix Sport DIMMs.
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$44.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000||$64.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$79.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$104.99|
|HyperX Fury 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133||$189.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3000||$219.99|
For H170, Z170, and X99-based systems, any of the above DDR4 kits should be a good bet, depending on the capacity and speed you can afford. We should note that it's cheaper for X99 builders to double up on any of the above kits rather than buying a single quad-channel kit—it seems like some RAM makers are price-gouging for the privilege of getting four DIMMs in a package rather than two. There's no need to pay extra for that.