New PC builds happen along a common trajectory: You decide on your GPU and CPU in whichever order is important to you. Next, you usually decide on the motherboard based on your budget (and chosen CPU), the case, and then everything else.
Since the CPU and GPU have the most substantial impact on the performance of the PC, it makes sense to start with them. A motherboard, however, can also make a big difference. This can come down to its overall quality as well as the specs you need for your build.
Let’s take a look at some of the key considerations to make when purchasing a motherboard. We won’t cover anything so basic as socket type in detail here—you need a motherboard with a socket type that matches your chosen CPU, of course. But, in short: If you buy an AMD processor, you need an AMD-compatible motherboard. If you buy an Intel CPU, you need an Intel-compatible motherboard. The motherboard not only has to be compatible with either AMD or Intel, but also, with the specific generation of processor that you’re using.
Another important consideration is motherboard size. There are many different motherboard sizes for different uses, but most people will be looking at standard ATX boards for traditional desktop PCs.
With that out of the way, let’s jump in.
Will You Overclock?
If you plan on overclocking your CPU, then you must consider this when buying a motherboard, at least if you’re buying Intel. AMD Ryzen desktop CPUs and motherboards are overclock-friendly, but how much extra you can squeeze out of them varies greatly between generations. That is beyond the scope of this article, so we won’t cover that here.
As for Intel, you can only overclock Intel CPUs that have a specific designation (a “K” or an “F” at the end of the product number), and the same goes for Intel chipsets. For more information, read our primer on what a chipset is. Motherboard model numbers are usually defined by their chipsets. To overclock an Intel processor, you need a Z-series motherboard that’s compatible with your CPU.
In addition, pay some attention to the VRM or voltage regulator module, which converts the voltage being supplied to the CPU. In general, a higher number of VRM phases means cleaner power supplied to the CPU, thereby improving performance. The best way to find out about a motherboard’s VRM is to check out reviews online.
Ports, Wi-Fi, and RAM Slots
Now, let’s dig into the flashier parts of the motherboard. It’s a very good idea to consider the ports that a motherboard is offering. If you can identify the various ports by sight, then it’s as simple as looking at pictures on your favorite online retailer to see what each model offers.
Most people still want a motherboard to have a good amount of standard (Type-A) USB ports—preferably with some ports at USB 3.1 or higher. How many ports you need depends on the devices and peripherals that you use. Keep in mind that at least two of these ports will be taken up by a keyboard and mouse.
It’s also a good idea to get a motherboard with some USB-C ports since that’s where the future is headed. Plus, if you get an external hard drive with a USB-C interface, you’re in for much faster transfer speeds.
When looking at USB-C, you might also find motherboards that support Thunderbolt 3 or 4. Thunderbolt offers blazing fast data transfer speeds, and it also supports USB-C devices as well as DisplayPort for monitors.
If you’re not picking up a graphics card and you’re making do with onboard graphics instead, then the display interfaces on the motherboard will also matter. The most common is HDMI, but you might also need DisplayPort, DVI, or even VGA. The good news is that, if you mess this up, you can get adapters so that a DVI display can talk to your motherboard via an HDMI port. Ideally, however, you’d want the display ports to match on both the display and the motherboard.
Do you need Wi-Fi? Ideally, a PC for gaming or one that’s routinely uploading or downloading large files will have a hard-wired Ethernet connection to the internet. If you need built-in Wi-Fi, however, that will cost you extra. If you don’t get a Wi-Fi-enabled motherboard, you can always pick up a PCIe Wi-Fi expansion card at a later date.
Speaking of which, PCIe slots are crucial for any motherboard. For a gaming GPU, you need a PCIe x16 slot, which is pretty standard. If you plan on adding a sound card or other expansion cards, you’ll need enough slots to accommodate these. It’s also a good idea to be sure that your motherboard has an M.2 slot for NVMe solid-state drives. That’s also pretty standard at this point, which is a great thing, since NVMe drives are so much faster than SATA SSDs and hard drives.
We’re also at the beginning of a transition period for PCIe, where manufacturers are moving from PCIe 3.0 to PCIe 4.0. If you get a motherboard that supports PCIe 4.0, you’ll need a PCIe 4.0-friendly CPU as well. As of May 2021, AMD Ryzen 3000 and 5000 series as well as Intel 11th generation CPUs support the new standard. Without both a PCIe 4.0-friendly CPU and motherboard, the system will default to PCIe 3.0 speeds.
Finally, consider RAM slots. Most motherboards come with a standard four, making it easier (and cheaper) to load up your system with RAM. Smaller size boards, however, often come with just two RAM slots.
If you’re budgeting for a PC, then you already know that pricing is a major consideration. If you get something cheap, you can’t necessarily count on incredible performance for overclocking, for example.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you should buy the most expensive board that you can find. For every type of board out there, you can often find a sweet spot between cost, quality, and performance, especially if you pay attention to reviews.
The motherboard is a foundational element of your PC. Be sure to spend enough time looking for something that fits your needs and budget. That way, you’ll have a solid motherboard that will keep your system running smoothly for years to come.