Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers to choose from, 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 better Windows software than the competition, plus 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 company's 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 GA-H170-Gaming 3||$84.99||Intel LGA1151 processor,
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 metal-reinforced PCIe slots. If you don't plan to overclock, and you're OK living with DDR4-2133 RAM only, the H170-Gaming 3 seems like all the motherboard one would need for a budget system.
|MSI Z170-A Pro||$114.99||Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case|
|MSI Z170A SLI Plus||$139.99|
|Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
|Gigabyte Z170X-Ultra Gaming||$170.00|
For folks who want a basic Z170 board to pair with an unlocked Skylake CPU, we like MSI's Z170-A Pro. This $115 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the Z170-A Pro offers 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.
If you've gotta have SLI support, MSI's Z170A SLI Plus lets builders install multiple Nvidia graphics cards. It also adds a few other niceties compared to our budget pick. This board comes with three four-pin fan headers, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller, a fancier Realtek ALC1150 audio codec, and reinforced PCIe slots. MSI also includes a USB 3.1 Type-C port on the Z170A SLI, another little touch that's missing from the Z170-A Pro.
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.
If you anticipate building with an eye toward the future, Gigabyte's Z170X-Ultra Gaming looks like a great value. This board has a USB Type-C port that carries both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 Gen2 signals, and it's also certified for the USB Power Delivery 2.0 spec. That means compatible devices can get as much as 100W of charging power through the same port. Gigabyte also throws in a U.2 connector for 2.5" NVMe SSDs and extensive LED accents.
|Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI||$249.99||Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
|Asus X99-A II||$229.99|
Asus' X99-A was our favorite motherboard for Haswell-E CPUs when they were the hot new thing, so we're happy to see that the company has updated the board for Broadwell-E in the form of the X99-A II. Like its predecessor, this board offers everything we'd really want in a high-end desktop and nothing we don't.
This refreshed board has USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, a U.2 connector for 2.5" NVMe SSDs, an M.2 slot, Realtek ALC1150 audio, and the all-important RGB LED lighting. Like its predecessor, we think the X99-A II is all the X99 motherboard one might ever need unless it doesn't satisfy some strange corner case.
Thunderbolt 3 support is just such a corner case. The only X99 board we can find on the market with Thunderbolt 3 support right now is Gigabyte's GA-X99P-SLI. This board uses Intel's Alpine Ridge controller to provide both high-speed USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 connections through its single USB 3.1 Type-C port. This Gigabyte board is down a couple ports in its rear cluster compared to the X99-A II, but the tradeoff could be worth it if you need the X99P-SLI's unique feature set. It doesn't cost any more than the X99-A II, so pick the board most suited to your needs.
Keep in mind that the X99P-SLI may need a BIOS update to function properly with Broadwell-E chips. This board doesn't include Gigabyte's handy Q-Flash Plus feature, which lets builders update the motherboard's firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply. If you don't already have one of those babies lying around, you might have to borrow one somehow to get the X99P-SLI up to date for Intel's latest.
|HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$39.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3200||$43.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$66.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200||$77.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133||$112.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200||$169.99|
Skylake and Broadwell-E CPUs need DDR4 RAM. We're happy to report that DDR4 prices have come way down since Haswell-E systems first created a need for this next-generation memory, and they've stayed there since. You won't be paying through the nose for memory if you build with either of those CPU families or platforms.
RAM is so affordable now that there's no reason at all to consider anything but 8GB in an entry-level build. It also doesn't cost a whole lot extra to step up to 16GB of RAM these days, either. If you use Photoshop or other creative applications in tandem with a lot of open browser tabs, 16GB of RAM is starting to become a baseline, not an upgrade. Even 32GB of RAM might not be outlandish for the heaviest multitaskers.
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.
If you're building an X99 system, be sure to double up on any of the RAM kits above to reach the capacity you want. Haswell-E CPUs need four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers.