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Motherboards
Intel's 200-series chipsets arrived alongside its Kaby Lake CPUs. Much as with the 100-series chipsets before them, the new lineup's main interest is the Z270 chipset, which lets users overclock their unlocked CPUs. The H270 chipset is mostly  similar to Z270 except that it doesn't allow for CPU overclocking.

Meanwhile, the Q270, Q250, and B250 are all labeled as "business chipsets," and they share most of their bigger brothers' characteristics, with the only noteworthy omissions being a decrease of chipset-driven USB ports and PCIe storage devices in the Q250 and B250 variants. You won't find SLI or Crossfire on anything but a Q270 board among this trio, either. As far as we're concerned, though, a mobo with any of these chipsets is a perfectly fine choice for a budget or even a mid-range box, as long as you're not looking to overclock an unlocked CPU with them.

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 and firmware than the competition, plus the most intelligent and reliable auto-overclocking functionality. The company's firmware interface offers the best fan speed controls around, too. 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.
  • MSI's motherboards offer solid hardware paired with polished firmware and Windows software. The nicely-retooled fan controls in the firm's 9-series firmware have been carried over to its latest motherboards, though the company's auto-overclocking intelligence remains fairly conservative and somewhat rudimentary.
  • Gigabyte's 200-series motherboards are also a good choice, even if their auto-overclocking intelligence, firmware, and Windows software aren't quite up to par with Asus' or MSI's in this generation. The company's firmware fan controls are now about on par with Asus', but the rest of its firmware and Windows software utilities could still stand some polish. Gigabyte's higher-end boards are currently the only way to get niceties like Thunderbolt 3 built in, and some models ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters, too.
  • 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 and Windows software leave much to be desired. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
MSI B250M Pro-VD $65.99 Intel LGA1151 processor, mATX case recommended

MSI's B250M PRO-VD is an interesting choice for non-overclocked Kaby Lake builds. It's absurdly cheap for a recently-released motherboard from a top-tier manufacturer, and despite its compact dimensions, it still offers an M.2 slot, a full complement of six SATA ports, and a metal-reinforced PCIe x16 slot. If you don't plan to overclock, and you're OK living with DDR4-2400 RAM, the B250M PRO-VD seems like all the motherboard one would need for a budget system.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
MSI Z270 PC Mate $124.99 Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case
Asus Prime Z270-A $159.99

For folks who want a not-so-basic Z270 board to pair with an unlocked Kaby Lake CPU, we like MSI's Z270 PC Mate. This $125 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the MSI Z270 PC Mate offers a full complement of PCIe expansion slots (one of them metal-reinforced), two M.2 slots, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet adapter, and a smattering of USB 3.0 ports alongside Type-A and Type-C USB 3.1 connectors. 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.


MSI Z270 PC Mate

If you've gotta have SLI support, Asus' Prime Z270A lets builders install multiple Nvidia graphics cards. It also adds a few other niceties compared to our budget pick. This board packs two M.2 slots, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller, a fancy Realtek S1220A audio codec with DTS Connect multi-channel encoding, and USB 3.1 Type-C and Type-A ports. Asus also offers an optional Thunderbolt expansion card should you need that kind of connectivity. Considering it's a recently-released model, the $160 asking price doesn't look too bad for this feature set. TR Lord of the BBQ Colton Westrate has one of these boards, and he's really happy with it.


Asus Prime Z270-A

Sweeter spot

Product Price Notable needs
Asus ROG Strix Z270E Gaming $199.99 Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case
Gigabyte GA-Z270X-UD5 $199.99

If you're building with an eye towards a motherboard that's packed to the brim with features, the Asus ROG Strix Z270E Gaming is where you want to be. It carries two metal-reinforced PCIe x16 slots with SLI support, two M.2 sockets, and both Type-A and Type-C USB 3.1 ports. Nothing that fancy so far, but there's more. Asus saw fit to add built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi via a 2x2 adapter with MU-MIMO support. There are also dual headphone amplifiers and a front-panel USB 3.1 connector. Last but not least, the board has a rather tasteful dash of RGB LEDs and a connector for controlling additional strips. Our editor-in-chief Jeff Kampman has this board at TR HQ, and he says you should totally get one.


Asus ROG Strix Z270E Gaming

For a different tack, you may want to consider Gigabyte's GA-Z270X-UD5. This mobo doesn't have lots of LEDs or Wi-Fi. It makes up for those omissions with an Intel Thunderbolt 3 controller capable of pushing data at up to 40Gbps, dual Intel Gigabit Ethernet chips, and a U.2 port. The onboard Type-C port also supports the Power Delivery 2.0 spec, meaning it should be good for pushing up to 36W to compatible devices. Like the Asus board above, the GA-Z270X-UD5 supports both SLI and Crossfire and offers metal-shielded PCIe and DIMM slots.


Gigabyte GA-Z270X-UD5

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI $229.99 Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case
Asus X99-A II $244.99

We think that builders with high-end systems in mind should start weighing Thunderbolt 3 compatibility when picking out new parts. Following that train of thought, our primary option for the higher end 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 below, but the tradeoff could be worth it if you need the X99P-SLI's unique feature set. They're both about the same price, so pick the board most suited to your needs.


Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI

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 a Haswell-E CPU lying around, you might have to borrow one somehow to get the X99P-SLI up to date for Intel's latest.

If you can live without built-in Thunderbolt and would rather not chance Broadwell-E compatibility, we think Asus' X99-A II is a great pick. The 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. Like its predecessor, this board offers everything we'd really want in a high-end desktop and nothing we don't.


Asus X99A-II

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.

Memory

Product Price
G.Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400 $58.99
G.Skill Aegis 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2400 $99.99
G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200 $104.99
G.Skill Aegis 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2400 $189.99
G.Skill TridentZ 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200 $209.99

In the last edition of the Guide, we remarked that prices for RAM were rising sharply. Mercifully, the prices appear to have climbed to a plateau, offering prospective system buyers a little peace of mind.

There's no reason at all to consider anything but 8GB of memory in an entry-level build these days. It also doesn't cost a whole lot extra to step up to 16GB of RAM any longer. 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 or 64GB of RAM might not be outlandish for the heaviest multitaskers.

Intel's official spec for Kaby Lake-compatible DDR4 RAM is DDR4-2400 running at 1.2V, but we've used significantly faster DIMMs like DDR4-3866 in our CPU and motherboard test rigs without issue. In our review of the Core i7-7700K, we found that speedy RAM might offer performance benefits in specific scenarios. With that in mind, and the fact that DDR4-3000 and DDR4-3200 kits can be found for prices close to their DDR-2400 counterparts, we see little reason not to go with a faster kit unless your motherboard isn't based on a Z170 or Z270 chipset.

If you're building an X99 system, be sure to choose (or assemble) a kit with four DIMMs to reach the capacity you want. Broadwell-E CPUs need four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers. Broadwell-E also boosts compatible memory speeds to DDR4-2400 out of the box, too, but we've used DDR4-3200 in our latest high-end test rigs without a hitch.