Choosing the correct motherboard is about selecting the whole foundation of your future computer. The stability and performance of all other components will depend on the motherboard. A video card, processor, memory, SSD, and HDD – all this is connected directly to it and communicates with each other precisely through its channels.
At the same time, there are many technical characteristics for any motherboard. It will be difficult for an ordinary person to understand everything. In this article, I will focus on the most significant factors. Those that you only need to know and understand.
Main points to pay attention to
The selected motherboard must have a suitable CPU socket. All consumer AMD Ryzen uses AM4; the super-powered Ryzen ThreadRipper uses sTRX4 (old ones – TR4). And Intel Core 10 and 11 generations use LGA 1200 (9 generation – LGA 1151).
There is a simple rule here. The smaller the motherboard, the less useful thing will fit on it. There are three famous form factors: ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX (Mini-ITX is smaller than Micro-ATX).
Usually, choosing a compact form factor means two RAM slots instead of four, fewer PCIe slots, and most likely fewer other connectors.
ATX is the most popular form factor, and if your PC (or rather, your PC case) is large enough, then this is the motherboard for you. Micro-ATX is about 6cm shorter, making it suitable for mid-size chassis. Mini-ITX is the basis for the smallest (full-fledged) home PCs. And such a board will usually only fit one large expansion card (a discrete graphics card, for example).
The cheapest motherboard for (more or less) modern processors can be purchased for only a few tens of dollars. The most expensive one will cost more than $ 1000. How to find your way more accurately?
Around $ 120: Usually, this money can buy a decent motherboard for Ryzen. It will also allow you to overclock the processor if you wish. In the case of Intel and this budget, forget about overclocking.
More than $ 160: For this amount, you can already find variants with the Intel Z490 chipset, which supports overclocking. AMD is starting to see motherboards in this range with top-end X570 chipsets, RGB lighting, and even Wi-Fi.
$ 200 and more: more RGB lighting, more advanced VRM cooling systems, and more range of ports.
More than $ 300: premium consumer-grade boards – for that much, you can buy a flagship motherboard based on the X570 or Z490 / Z590 with a beautiful design, tons of RGB, and support for special overclocking functions.
It is worth spending more money only on motherboards for the so-called HEDT platforms – Intel Core X and AMD Ryzen ThreadRipper. It is an option for those who plan to use a computer for serious work with large amounts of data.
Ports, slots, and interfaces
First of all, it’s worth noting that paying for additional ports and, say, an integrated Wi-Fi chip is only worth paying when you need them. On the other hand, you may still need high-speed USB 3.1 Gen 2 / Thunderbolt 3/4 and PCIe 4.0 support.
Let’s bargain about all the important ones in detail:
USB 3.0 / USB 3.1 Gen 1: The more, the better – this is now a standard and fast USB port to work with just about any peripheral.
USB 2.0: An old and slow port, which, however, is fast enough for keyboards, mice, and many other devices.
USB 3.1 / 3.2 Gen 2: so far, not every device can take advantage of the full potential of this port (up to 10 Gb / s). But the availability of such ports will help in the future.
USB 3.2 Gen 2 2×2: Even Faster Than Previous Standard – 10Gb / s Dual Lanes! You will find such ports only on rather expensive boards.
HDMI / DisplayPort Outputs: You will only need them if you plan on using the onboard GPU. Discrete graphics cards have their own HDMI and DisplayPort ports.
Audio Outputs: Important if you are going to connect analog headphones or speakers to your PC.
Thunderbolt: Still rarely seen on desktop motherboards (usually, these ports are added with PCIe cards if desired). Provide the highest data transfer rate – up to 40 Gb / s!
SATA: This interface connects older hard drives and (relatively slow but inexpensive) SATA SSDs.
The vast majority of popular motherboards use four RAM slots. Mini-ITX models usually have two slots, while top-end HEDT models have eight slots. Naturally, this limits the maximum amount of memory supported by the system.
The standard amount of RAM in 2021 is 16 GB. 32GB may be needed by advanced users. At the same time, two slots can be installed with two 32 GB strips with a total volume of 64 GB. On the other hand, you will often have to pay more for two 32GB sticks than four 16GB sticks.
If you are worried about overclocking, you should pay attention to the maximum frequency of RAM supported by the motherboard.
The choice of the chipset is primarily limited by the chosen platform – AMD or Intel. If you need a ThreadRipper workstation, then there is no choice at all. Now, these are only boards based on AMD X399.
If you do not need the most top-end but functional computer, you can almost always get by with a motherboard that uses a cheaper and more economical chipset than the top-end Intel Z590 and AMD X570.
First, motherboards based on Intel Z490 and Z590 are needed if you want to overclock the processor. In other cases, cheaper models with H470 and B460 chipsets will suffice (they won’t allow overclocking).
Secondly, motherboards based on AMD X570, in fact, also need to be bought quite rarely. The B550, X470, and B450 models may have slightly fewer fast ports and interfaces. But, overall, they perform just as well. In addition, the overwhelming majority of X570 motherboards also have an extra fan located on the chipset. At the same time, they all support the ability to overclock and install even fresh Ryzen 5000 processors.
Unless you consider yourself an audiophile and are not ready to spend hundreds of dollars to achieve the highest sound quality in headphones and speakers, this point is not worth worrying about. Even the cheapest motherboards today provide decent audio transmission and conversion.
In which case, later, it will always be possible to purchase a separate audio card – external or internal. It will ensure the use of a separate DAC and components that are reliably shielded from possible interference.
Much here depends on the specific manufacturer – to tell about all the additional “chips” of modern motherboards. Let’s dwell on the most important ones:
Onboard power switch for the board itself: This can come in handy when assembling a PC or testing individual components outside the case. It is hardly useable for ordinary users.
Diagnostic LEDs and Displays: Many modern motherboards are used, in addition to or instead of a tiny speaker, to identify and then resolve problems. They display error codes associated, for example, with defective components or their incorrect installation. These codes are described in the board’s user manual.
Wi-Fi Chip: If your computer can’t reach an Ethernet cable, you’ll need a wireless connection. It can be implemented through a chip on the board or a separate PCIe card or USB dongle. The choice is yours, but motherboards with Wi-Fi are always a little more expensive.