Best gaming motherboard

Best gaming motherboard

Buying the best gaming motherboard may not be as exciting as picking a new graphics card, but your choice of board still has a huge impact on the rest of your rig. Gaming motherboards aren't always the sexiest bits of kit, but they just might be one of the most important.

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You’re not going to suddenly discover a super speed boost because of your new mobo, but picking the best gaming motherboard for you will determine just what kind of machine you’re going to be able to build around it. Your board dictates how big your final PC build will become, what processors and memory you can jam into it, how many graphics cards you can stretch to and what sort of storage options you’ll have available too.

So yeah, you’re going to need to make sure you pick the right board because the consequences of making the wrong choice will be something you have to live with for a long ol' time.

There are though myriad different options to consider when you’re picking the best motherboard for gaming. Obviously the most important choice is whether you’re opting for an Intel or AMD processor as the beating heart of your rig. AMD have finally launched their Ryzen CPU platform, along with a whole new line of AM4 motherboards which we'll be covering in depth very soon.

We're still putting a host of new AM4 boards through their paces to pick out our favourites, but with Intel chips still mostly offering the best performance in-game we're focusing this 'ere guide on Intel-based motherboards, and most especially those built for the new Kaby Lake platform.

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Best gaming  motherboard

Best gaming motherboard - Asus TUF Z270 Mark 1

Asus TUF Z270 Mark 1

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: ATX | mGPU: 2x SLI, 3x CF

Approx. $200 / £204

There is surprisingly little between the top Z270 motherboards in terms of overall performance, but the Asus TUF Z270 Mark 1 gets the vote as our favourite gaming motherboard around thanks to its mix of powerful overclocking chops and impressive feature set.

Where the TUF does stand out in performance terms though is in its storage speed and thermals. It posted the fastest benchmark results from our Samsung 960 EVO NVMe test drive and is the most adept of the full size mobos at dealing with the toasty Kaby Lake CPUs under load. 

The Asus software, most notably the Asus motherboard BIOS, is the best in the business. The clean, easy-to-navigate BIOS screens make building, testing and tweaking your new machine as simple as possible. It’s got a host of features that will come in handy whether you’re an overclocking n00b or an old hand.

Still, it’s a mighty close run thing up against the MSI Z270 Gaming M5 board. That’s a mobo with a feature set as long as Mr.Tickle’s roving appendages and a bit of hero in the overall performance stakes too, but the TUF’s robust design is something that really stands out. The extra armour around the board - rigid spine on the back and dust cover on top - means the Asus TUF Z270 Mark 1 is a gaming motherboard that’s designed to stand the test of time.

It is though one of the most expensive of the Z270 motherboards we’ve tested so far, but then we haven’t grabbed the ~$500 Maximus IX Formula yet…

The best Asus TUF Z270 Mark 1 prices we’ve found today:

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Best gaming motherboard - runner up

Best gaming motherboard runner-up - MSI Z270 Gaming M5

MSI Z270 Gaming M5

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: ATX | mGPU: 2x SLI, 3x CF

Approx. $170 / £174

The MSI board just about posts the quickest speeds in our CPU benchmarking tests as well as in the Futuremark graphics tests too. But given that there are such small margins between the full-scale Z270 boards we’ve tested that doesn’t really translate into much in the way of a tangible difference. The MSI Z270 Gaming M5 though does have an impressive feature set, but the high temperature and power results compared with the Asus board would have us rather build around the slightly more expensive TUF Z270 Mark 1 if we were putting together a robust, high-end rig.

The best MSI Z270 Gaming M5 prices we’ve found today:

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Best gaming motherboard - runner up

Best gaming motherboard runner-up - Gigabyte Z270X-Ultra Gaming

Gigabyte Z270X-Ultra Gaming

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: ATX | mGPU: 2x SLI, 3x CF

Approx. $160 / £140

This Gigabyte mobo is one of the lower-priced of the Z270 boards we’ve tested and yet still comes with a decent feature set and similar overall performance to the rest of the Z270 crew. It’s also got loads of LEDs strewn across the board which you can tailor to match the rest of your rig’s aesthetic. If that’s your thing. Where it can’t quite hold up against the other Z270 boards is in the power department. It generates the highest operating temperatures and power draw, which would always have us reaching for the Asus instead.

The best Gigabyte Z270X-Ultra Gaming prices we’ve found today:

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Best budget gaming motherboard

Best budget gaming motherboard - Asus Prime Z270-P

Asus Prime Z270-P

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: ATX | mGPU: 2x CF

Approx. $145 / £98

It’s no surprise a lot of canny system builders are basing their pre-built Kaby Lake gaming rigs around Asus’ bargain-priced Z270 board. With the limited performance difference between the Z270 boards we’ve tested if you’re trying to maximise the amount of money you can shuffle around to spend on a more performance-impacting piece of tech picking a cheaper motherboard can be a good compromise.

The Asus Prime is a relatively basic, straightforward Z270 board and yet still manages to retain an impressive feature list despite its lower price. You’re still getting a pair of M.2 sockets for PCIe SSD support which is a handy future-proofing feature, preparing for a time when we’ve all forgotten about the existence of those bulky 2.5-inch SSDs. It also happily supports overclocked dual-channel DDR4 memory up to 3,866MHz too.

Asus are offering EM shielding on the onboard audio components as well. That eliminates the electrical interference you will often hear when you jam a pair of headphones into the back of your motherboard’s sound sockets. Those sockets are more limited than standard 7.1 channel onboard sound, and lacking S/PDIF output, but still effective.

The are other inevitable concessions to price, though they have been intelligently picked by the Asus engineering team. There are only four SATA 6Gbps ports on the board and the sparse back panel doesn’t have any USB 3.1 support, Type-C, Type-A or otherwise. You just get four straight USB 3.0 sockets and a pair of USB 2.0 ones. There’s also only support for AMD’s CrossFireX multi-GPU tech, and only then with one of the two x16 PCIe 3.0 slots running in x4 mode.

There are no concessions on overall performance, however, with the Prime offering gaming and CPU prowess easily on par with (and sometimes exceeding) its more expensively-priced competitors.

If you’re looking to spec out a basic, no nonsense gaming rig this well-price Z270 should definitely be on the shopping list.

The best Asus Prime Z270-P prices we’ve found today:

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Best budget gaming motherboard runner-up

Best budget gaming motherboard runner-up - MSI H270 Tomahawk Arctic

MSI H270 Tomahawk Arctic

Chipset: H270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: ATX | mGPU: 2x CF

Approx. $120 / £118

If you’re going to be opting for a straight non-K processor, or just have no interest in overclocking the twangers off your CPU and memory, then it’s worth considering the H270 chipset as a more budget-oriented option for your new rig. Once more, in gaming and graphics terms, there’s not much difference between the H and Z-series chipsets. CPU-wise they are a step down - they don’t have the capability to fully Turbo up to 4.5GHz on all cores and that means they lag behind the Z270 or Z170 boards. You also don’t get the same complement of PCIe lanes, though you do still get the M.2 sockets. This MSI version also comes with a natty arctic fox camo livery to brighten up the inside of your rig.

The best MSI H270 Tomahawk Arctic prices we’ve found today:

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Best compact gaming motherboard

Best compact gaming motherboard - Asus ROG Strix Z270i Gaming

Asus ROG Strix Z270i Gaming

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: Mini ITX | Multi-GPU: N/A

Approx. $179 / £178

The diminutive Asus Republic of Gamers board has ousted the previous ASRock incumbent of the best compact gaming motherboard top-spot, and for good reason. There is zero performance compromise in opting for this mini-ITX iteration of the Z270 chipset, while the Fatal1ty board does suffer from some limited all-core CPU performance.

The Asus Z270i also has a superior feature list, sporting an extra M.2 PCIe SSD socket - one on the top and one underslung below the board - support for higher memory frequencies and more USB connections on the rear I/O panel too.

It’s also a mighty-impressive overclocker given its diminutive stature. To be fair the ASRock board was capable of overclocking to 5GHz with our latest Intel Core i7 7700K CPU sample, but the Asus actually still posts higher benchmark figures at that top speed, if only slightly. This ROG board is also speedier in terms of storage and memory performance too.

With such an impressive feature list and performance numbers it’s probably not surprising the ROG Strix Z270i Gaming is a pricey little board, around the same price as the full-scale MSI or Gigabyte boards above. But the fact that it performs as well - in some cases even slightly quicker - means if you’re looking to build a no-compromise, small form factor gaming PC you’d be hard-pushed to track down a better mini-ITX mobo than this to be its foundation.

Best compact gaming motherboard runner-up

Best compact gaming motherboard - ASRock Z270 Gaming-ITX

ASRock Fatal1ty Z270 Gaming-ITX/ac

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: Mini ITX | Multi-GPU: N/A

Approx. $159 / £190

You might think ASRock’s ‘Fatal1ty’ branding is just another motherboard manufacturer making up words again, but Fatal1ty was one of the original superstars of pro-gaming back when PCs were still powered by steam and/or gerbils. 

Depsite its high-performance leanings the CPU performance of the Gaming-ITX/ac is the slowest of all the Z270 boards I’ve tested, only running at a maximum of 4.4GHz across all cores while the others are mostly capable of hitting 4.5GHz. That can, however, be quickly remedied with a K-series chip thanks to the board’s impressive overclocking capabilities. I was able to hit a stable 5GHz with our Intel stock 7700K sample using the board’s own setting in the BIOS. 

Because of its scale though you do only get single PCIe 3.0 and underslung M.2 sockets, and the lack of overall performance makes a bit of a compromise while the Asus mini-ITX board isn't.

Best ASRock Fatal1ty Z270 Gaming-ITX/ac prices we’ve found today:

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Best compact gaming motherboard runner-up

Best compact gaming motherboard runner-up - Asus ROG STRIX Z270G Gaming

Asus ROG STRIX Z270G Gaming

Chipset: Z270 | Socket: LGA 1151 | Form factor: Micro ATX | mGPU: 2x SLI, 2x CF

Approx. $217 / £173

Not quite as svelte as the mini-ITX ASRock the Asus STRIX board retains just a little more of the functionality you’d get from a full-size Z270. It’s also able to run the processor at the same speeds as its ATX brethren, and overclocks like them too. You also get two way SLI and CrossFireX support because the extra space on the PCB allows for both multiple x16 PCIe 3.0 slots and four DIMM slots too. The ASRock ITX wins in terms of scale, making it the best choice for a micro gaming machine, but this Asus offers less of a compromise on the feature-set.

Best Asus ROG STRIX Z270G Gaming prices we’ve found today:

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Gaming motherboard benchmarks

Gaming motherboard benchmarks

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How to buy a gaming motherboard

How to buy a gaming motherboard

The PC is the most versatile gaming machine on the planet. That’s why the gaming hardware market is worth over $30bn every year, and that figure is only growing. 

The fact you can tailor your PC exactly to your needs and tastes is what makes it such a powerful ecosystem. You can build a gaming machine that’s capable of outshining a modern console for the same cost, or a super-computer class machine with a cost of tens of thousands. But that complete customisation pretty much has to start with your choice of motherboard. 

Intel or AMD motherboard

AMD or Intel motherboard for gaming?

Right this second that’s the easiest question of the lot. It’s Intel every single time. If you want the best performance from your graphics card, and therefore the best performance in games, then you need to drop your lot with the Intel in crowd.

But there is the potentially for that to change with this year's launch of the AMD Ryzen platform and its AM4 chipsets. The first processors born of AMD’s Zen microarchitecture, the eight-core, 16-thread Ryzen 7 chips, perform as well as, if not better than, Intel's high-end desktop CPUs in productivity/computational tasks. Gaming? Not so much.

That said the cheaper Ryzen 5 gaming chip, the excellent six-core R5 1600X,  manages to mostly keep pace with the competing Core i5 CPU making the choice far tougher in the mainstream segment.

Motherboard chipsets

Motherboard chipsets

Which chipset should you choose for your motherboard? That all depends on how much you’re willing to spend on a processor, exactly how likely you are to be messing around with its operating frequency and how many graphics cards and PCIe-based SSDs you’re going to want to plumb into it.

On the Intel side, if you’re aiming your sights high then you want to take a look at the X99 platform. That’s Intel’s current high-end desktop (HEDT) chipset of choice ,at least until the X299 platform arrives with Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X later this year. It’s only in the HEDT world where you can find Intel chips with more than just four CPU cores. The X99 board is capable of housing up to the glorious 10-core i7 6950X. That’s the $1,600 (£1,500) 10-core, 20-thread processing monster.

The extra thread count and massively increased memory bandwidth play more to the productivity crowd than PC gamers, but as more gamers become interested in the world of streaming and video editing for their own channels having those extra CPU threads can come in handy. Pricey though they are…

For more reasonable builds the more mainstream, though still high-end, Z270 chipset is the next one down. It’s essentially a rehash of the Z170 chipset which was introduced with Skylake, but updated for the Kaby Lake CPU launch. Over the Z170 chipset it provides a bump in the number of PCIe lanes, to help with PCIe storage demands, and support for Intel’s much-vaunted (though MIA) Optane memory technology.

Beneath that are the cheaper H270 and B250 which follow the sames lines compared with their 100-series chipset predecessors. Where they’re lacking compared to the higher-spec Z270 is in their official support for CPU overclocking and multi-GPU support.

The AMD AM4 platform comes with a selection of different chipsets too, with the X370 representing the pinnacle of the AMD Ryzen platform. The X370 supports ‘overclocking+’ which is reported to offer the deepest level of CPU performance control of all the Zen chipsets, as well as full access to the 24 PCIe 3.0 lanes in the top-spec Ryzen silicon.

Below that is the B350, a mid-range chipset which has limited overclocking support and reportedly no capabilities for multi-GPU either. At the bottom is the A320 which doesn’t have either multi-GPU or overclocking support. There is also set to be a dedicated small form factor chipset, the X300, though exactly what that will bring to the table compared with its larger siblings is currently a bit nebulous.

Intel Kaby Lake CPU wafer

Last gen or next gen?

If the Z170 chipset offers essentially the same performance and feature set as the Z270, and is compatible with both the last gen Skylake and next gen Kaby Lake chips, why go for the likely more expensive 200-series? Good question, me... 

The short answer is that there is probably not going to be a huge disparity between the cost of an old Z170 and a modern Z270 board, at least not after the initial marketing push has died down. You will also be better served by a chipset which will retain support longer than its forebear and there is the potential for a bit of an upgrade path too.

It’s looking unlikely that we’ll get actual 10nm Cannonlake parts on the desktop any time soon, instead it seems as though we’ll see another generation of 14nm chips, code-named Coffee Lake, arriving early next year. They’re reportedly going to be based on the existing Kaby Lake core design and, so long as Intel don’t decide the extra cores touted for Coffee Lake necessitate another new socket, we could see them dropping into firmware updated Z270 boards. But don’t hold me to that…

Motherboard form factor

Form factor

There are four main motherboard sizes to choose from: extended ATX, ATX, micro ATX and mini-ITX. The Advanced Technology Extended (ATX) form factor is the standard motherboard size and is the one which most PC chassis are built around. The larger extended ATX boards are a little broader and generally represent the more expensive, more feature-rich performance designs.

The last two main form factors have been created to cater for smaller PC designs without compromising performance. The micro ATX scale still allows for almost the same level of features as the more standard ATX designs, normally just cutting down on the number of PCIe slots to two x16 and two x1 connections.

Mini-ITX is the smallest of the form factors used in motherboards for gaming. But, because of the amount of componentry which has moved from the motherboard onto the processor itself over the last few years, there is now little appreciable performance drop off with the smaller layout. You do though lose out in terms of features. There is generally only space for a single full size PCIe connection, with only two memory slots available too. To save packing too much onto the topside of the board many manufacturers choose to place the M.2 or mini PCIe slots on the underside of the PCB.

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