If the RAM, graphics card, and CPU are the vibrant limbs of your PC, the parts that toil to get work done and fire up your favorite games, the motherboard is the skeleton—and the connective tissue. Oh yeah, it's the circulatory system, too. And, if you stretch things into metaphysics? Maybe it's even the soul.
The soul? No pressure picking the right motherboard for your next PC build or upgrade then, right?
Sure, the other components play a larger role in determining your PC’s overall performance and capabilities. But without the correct motherboard, they are just loose parts. Indeed, likening a PC motherboard to any single system in an organism way undersells it. It connects most everything in the PC together, and it helps the components you choose live up to their operating potential. If you’re looking to build a PC, or upgrade an aging model, you start with the motherboard. And this guide will help you pick the right one for your needs.(Photo: Molly Flores)
We pondered a whole bunch of possible approaches to buying a motherboard. Do you start with the CPU you want to install, and launch your search from there? Do you start with the usage case, then drill down? (Say, gaming versus productivity work versus performance tweaking for fun.) Do you start with the core chipset, and filter your picks from that element first? Or something else?
We'd argue that every PC you're building or upgrading starts with a vision, and in that vision is what size that PC is, or should be. So let's start our primer at the practical: How big a PC are you trying to build?
Over the years, several sizes of motherboards, typically referred to as “form factors,” have swirled around the PC market. Of these, three have risen above the rest and, today, are by far the most common: ATX, MicroATX, and Mini-ITX.
Think of these sizes as large (ATX), medium (MicroATX), and small (Mini-ITX). The first thing you should do when picking a motherboard is decide which of these form factors is best for you. All three have advantages and disadvantages.Motherboard sizes compared: ATX, MicroATX, Mini-ITX boards (left to right)(Photo: Molly Flores)
For some people, Mini-ITX will be the most attractive option. The smallest of standard motherboards, Mini-ITX boards fit into compact PC cases. They are the best pick if you’re in a cramped office or are building a home theater PC (HTPC) that will sit in your living room.
The downside is that Mini-ITX systems and boards, since they are smaller than the rest, tend to have fewer connectors for peripherals, and fewer expansion slots to install components. These boards will have only a single PCI Express x16 slot (typically reserved for a graphics card) and limited storage connections, such as Serial ATA ports and M.2 slots (more about those later). Another downside is that these boards cost a bit of a premium versus equivalent MicroATX and ATX boards. In the case of Mini-ITX, "less" costs more.
At the other end of the size spectrum, ATX motherboards (and a few larger, less common variants) take up the most space, but they also gain you the most expansion options. ATX motherboards can have up to seven PCI Express expansion slots, which means you can install several cards alongside your graphics card. Multiple-GPU desktops were once a big deal in elite gaming PCs, but with the last few generations of GPUs from AMD and Nvidia, support for multi-card CrossFireX and SLI/NVLink configurations has fallen by the wayside. So the need for three or four PCI Express x16 slots has fallen off most users’ wish lists.
Still, some folks will want access to multiple full-size PCI Express slots for a graphics card, a wireless-networking or video capture solution, a pro-level audio card, and other specialized needs. Plus, ATX boards frequently have more robust integrated hardware. This can mean better onboard audio circuitry, more connections for storage devices (the larger circuit board, or PCB, should have more room for M.2 slots, for one thing), and in some cases, better overclocking performance, thanks to a more robust power delivery system.
As you shop, you’ll also run into a few other form factors out there that are larger variants of full-size ATX, notably the oversize Extended ATX (EATX) and XL-ATX formats. Know that your PC case needs to support that larger board size specifically. Plain ATX support is not enough.Big boards: An ATX board (left) versus a wider Extended ATX model (right)(Photo: Molly Flores)
If the size of your PC case is not a factor in what hardware you buy, an ATX board is the default choice. Even if you don’t expect to use all the extra features and ports, having them gives you more options for expanding the system with new hardware down the road. Furthermore, ATX motherboards tend to be among the most affordable due to economies of scale. Though, conversely, the most expensive, tricked-out boards on the market are also usually ATX, you can find ATX boards with better features priced lower than equivalent Mini-ITX solutions.
The third common motherboard form factor is MicroATX, which is the middle option between ATX and Mini-ITX. Some shoppers prefer this size as a “Goldilocks” just-right compromise. It provides you with a balanced solution that’s more space-efficient than ATX, but it also offers significantly more onboard components and connections than a Mini-ITX board can. Most MicroATX boards have up to four expansion slots and can comfortably accommodate two graphics cards, or a GPU plus an expansion card or two.
On MicroATX boards, other onboard elements, including the circuitry for handling power and audio, are typically on par with what you get on ATX motherboards. In terms of size, MicroATX is closer in size to ATX than it is to Mini-ITX. This is MicroATX's main drawback, as a MicroATX system won’t sit quite as neatly in a compact office PC chassis, or on an entertainment stand, as a Mini-ITX system would. MicroATX PC chassis just aren't as small.
Here’s a handy cheat sheet to typical motherboard sizes. But know that if a PC case says it supports one of these board sizes, you don’t have to get out your ruler if the board uses that form factor. It should just fit.
Okay, you've settled on a motherboard size! Next up: the CPU socket. This socket on the motherboard is one of the key determining factors that controls what hardware the motherboard will support (but especially, the processor). In this regard, it’s second only to the chipset (which we’ll get to in the next section), but it makes more sense to discuss the CPU socket first.
The concept of the CPU socket is simple to understand: Its only job is to hold the processor chip and enable it to connect to the motherboard and thus, the rest of the system. The motherboard and CPU both must support the same socket protocol for them to work together. A given motherboard supports only one socket type, and it works with a specific family of AMD or Intel processors, never both. Each of the two big chip makers also offers multiple families of chips on different sockets. Not all AMD chips fit in all AMD sockets, and likewise with Intel chips and boards. Also, older chips from a given family may not work in newer sockets, and vice versa. (See our deep-dive guide to the best CPUs.)
Under no circumstances should you try to install a CPU on a motherboard unless you are 100% sure that the chip is going into a compatible socket on the board. Installing an incompatible CPU into a motherboard at best will do nothing, and at worst, can fry any or all of the hardware in the system.
At this writing, for mainstream processors, AMD’s only modern socket is known as AMD AM4. A new socket for AMD’s upcoming Ryzen 7000-series chips, known as AMD AM5, is expected to emerge in the second half of 2022. If you are looking to build or upgrade to an AMD Ryzen-based system and it doesn’t have an AM4 (or later, AM5) motherboard, you should steer clear, as the board you are looking at is likely old technology.AMD's AM4 Socket(Photo: Molly Flores)
The one exception is if you are looking at AMD-based boards for the company’s Ryzen Threadripper line of high-end desktop (HEDT) chips. These are expensive, specialized boards for AMD’s stripped-down server processors known as Threadrippers, and they use either the sTRX4 (current third-generation Threadripper) or earlier TR4 (first- or second-generation Threadripper) sockets. (A third variant, Threadripper Pro, uses a socket called sWRX8, but you won't see it much.) These chips are very large, and the sockets are not compatible with chips from the (much smaller) mainstream AMD Ryzen line.
Intel’s newest CPU socket is known as LGA 1700, which replaced LGA 1200 in November. Both of these are worth checking out if you’re buying a system, but only consider LGA 1200 if you’re going for a budget-oriented system and are looking to get a deal by buying previous-generation hardware.Intel's LGA 1200 socket(Photo: Molly Flores)
Note that like AMD and Ryzen Threadripper, Intel also has a line of HEDT processors, known as the Core X-Series and headed by the Core i9-10980XE Extreme. It uses a CPU socket known as LGA 2066 and is incompatible with mainstream Intel processors. It's getting a bit long in the tooth.
Every motherboard has a list of its supported CPUs, hosted on the board maker’s site. To be absolutely sure that you have compatible hardware, you should always check that list and ensure the processor you have (or intend to buy) is on it.
That said, note some nuances there: You may need to perform a BIOS update to get some processors working, if the board was manufactured before the chip you intend to install. Some motherboards are able to perform this update by having you simply plug in a flash drive and push a button. But if the board you’re buying needs an update to support your processor and doesn’t have this function, then you’ll want to buy a different motherboard. Otherwise, you'd need to have or get an older, supported processor to install just so you can flash the BIOS to support that newer chip.
As a quick cheat sheet, here is a list of relevant recent motherboard CPU sockets that have been in the consumer market since the mid-2010s, and the processor families they support...
The chipset is the most important single component on a motherboard. A bit of nutshell history: Originally, motherboards comprised a wide range of microchips that supported a variety of system functions and trafficking of data to and from motherboard-mounted components. (These chips were especially concerned with the operation of the memory, storage, expansion slots, and CPU.) To some extent, this is still true. These chips would often be developed and incorporated together as a set of chips, hence the name. Over time, however, many of these chips have been integrated together to form single chips that handle the bulk of the motherboard's functions, or been incorporated into CPUs themselves, though these entities are still colloquially called “the chipset.”Chipset element on an Intel Z690 motherboard(Photo: Michael Justin Allen Sexton)
Though you will still find several chips that are attached to the motherboard, many of these are optional inclusions on the board maker's part; board manufacturers have a great deal of flexibility in choosing which chips to use along with the chipset, whereas the chipset itself is essential and has few possible alternatives.
Only AMD and Intel produce chipsets, designed for motherboards that support their respective CPUs. With each CPU generation the chip maker issues, a matching series of supporting chipsets typically follows. On average, for each chip generation AMD or Intel issues three or four possible chipsets to choose among, ranging from budget designs to top-end ones for enthusiasts.
One thing to note, though: Chipsets are socket-specific, and they may or may not support all CPUs that work with that socket, which can make things complicated. To help with picking a chipset, we have a separate article that goes over that topic in detail. You can hit that link for some overall background, but we have a rundown of the most recent options below.
Intel’s newest socket at this writing was the LGA 1700, introduced with its 12th Generation “Alder Lake” chips. This socket has four supporting chipset options available, the most premium of which is the Z690 chipset. If you are planning on overclocking your CPU on an LGA 1700 motherboard, then this is the only real option.A breakdown of the Intel 600-series chipsets for 12th Gen Core
Z690 has other benefits, as well, that we covered in detail when the platform first launched, but the most notable feature that Z690 has over other LGA 1700 chipsets is that overclocking support. Z690 also has the most robust support for storage, USB, and PCI Express connections of any LGA 1700 chipset. It’s up to the motherboard designer to leverage that support, though; not all boards physically implement the maximum connectivity that the chipset supports.
Next is Intel's H670. As a step down from Z690, Intel crafted its H670 chipset as a business solution that has nearly as much storage and connection support as the Z690 chipset. It supports slightly fewer PCI Express lanes and USB slots, and it does not support overclocking, but it has greater PCI Express and USB support than Intel’s lower-end B660 or B560 chipsets. This makes it a sensible option if, say, you are building a desktop workstation with large data storage (and thus, drive-connectivity) needs, but it fills a narrower niche in the market.
Intel’s B660 and H610 chipsets are also both, technically, business solutions designed to be budget-friendlier than either Z690 or H670. If you don’t plan to overclock your CPU, a B660 chipset motherboard is likely the best option for you. You want to get an H610 board only if your budget is quite tight. Both of these chipsets have reduced connectivity support, but H610 is the most constrained in this regard, and it also has more limited RAM support and can operate only two RAM sticks at a time (and those, at limited clock speeds).
For AMD systems, the chipset options are far more complicated. That's because AMD’s AM4 socket has been in use since 2017, and in that time eight chipsets have been released. The newest of these chipsets are in AMD’s 500 series: the X570, the B550, and the A520. In general, it’s best to stick to one of these chipsets as they guarantee support for the latest AM4 processors. Conversely, if you are pairing an older CPU with a newer board, check for specific support on that board for that CPU.Highlights of the AMD X570 chipset
If you are on a tight budget and building an AMD system, A520 will be the chipset you want, but if your budget permits, you should try for a B550 chipset instead. A520, similar to Intel’s H610, is rather limited, whereas B550 is one of the most compelling chipsets commercially available today.Highlights of the AMD B550 chipset
The B550 is used on affordable motherboards and priced below the enthusiast X570 chipset in most cases, but it has full support for overclocking the CPU and RAM.
The X570 chipset is technically the "best" of AMD’s chipsets. It has support for up to a dozen SATA 3.0 ports and 16 PCI Express 4.0 lanes, along with up to eight USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports. All of these are scaled back considerably with B550 (up to just six SATA 3.0 ports, 10 PCI Express 3.0 lanes, and two USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports). Realistically, though, most boards won’t implement connections for all of these, and most people will find B550’s connectivity support to be sufficient.
With Intel’s Core X-Series and AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper HEDT chips, chipset choices are a fait accompli. Modern Core X-Series CPUs are supported by the X299 chipset, or a more recent slight variant called X299M. As for Threadripper, it simply depends on the Threadripper chip generation you are looking at. The first and second generation of Threadripper are supported by the X399 chipset, the third-generation (most recent) Threadrippers by TRX40, and the latest (and seldom seen) Threadripper Pros by the WRX80.
It’s worth a short discussion of pre-12th Generation Intel options here, as 10th and 11th Generation (“Comet Lake” and “Rocket Lake”) CPUs remain viable picks for new builds, especially as their prices fall with the introduction of LGA 1700-socketed motherboards. Like with the Z690, H670, B660, and H610, you have parallel lines of chipsets for these older CPUs, which are both on socket LGA 1200. (These are Z590/Z490, H570/H470, B560/B460, and H510/H410.) Rocket Lake, as the newer of the two designs, is able to accomplish more work each clock cycle, and it also supports PCI Express 4.0 on the 500 Series.
On LGA 1200, you'll have to choose between one of these chipsets in the Intel 400 and 500 chipset families. The 400-series chipsets launched alongside 10th Gen Comet Lake, whereas the Intel 500-series chipsets were released alongside 11th Gen Rocket Lake, and the latter are required to get the most out of a Rocket Lake processor. Both Comet Lake and Rocket Lake processors will work on any LGA 1200 chipset, but there are a few minuses to using a Rocket Lake processor on a 400-series chipset.
First, you may be required to update the BIOS to get a Rocket Lake CPU working on a 400-series motherboard, and this may require a Comet Lake CPU to do in the first place. The second-biggest issue is that you'll miss out on the PCI Express 4.0 support, as this is only available with a 500-series chipset on the LGA 1200 platform. The 500-series chipsets also have updated connectivity options, including more robust USB controllers, and support for USB 3.2 Gen 2x2.
Audio hardware on motherboards, depending on what you do with your PC, will either be extremely important or matter relatively little. If you’re going to use HDMI-based audio or send audio over either an optical or coaxial S/PDIF connection, then it doesn’t matter what audio hardware the motherboard has, as long as it has that appropriate physical output you need. (HDMI audio could also pass over the HDMI port on your video card, if you will be installing a separate card and using the HDMI connection as your primary video conduit.)
Both HDMI and S/PDIF audio connections are designed to pass the audio information in a digital format directly through to your TV or sound system. When this happens, the onboard audio controller is bypassed and thus goes unused. This is also true if you use a USB audio device like a USB headset.
The audio circuitry on the motherboard is used only if you’re using the old-fashioned 3.5mm jacks on the rear or front I/O panels. If you will be using this hardware, then the audio hardware and design becomes more important. The audio controller, which may be referred to as a digital-to-analog (DAC) converter, or codec, is the most important component in the audio subsystem.
It’s impossible to adequately cover all of the audio controllers used on motherboards today, but a few select chips deserve mention. Realtek dominates this corner of the market, with its ALC892, ALC1150, and ALC1220 audio controllers. All of these chips are widely used, with the last being close to an industry standard on midrange and high-end boards for the last several years.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the capacitors and shielding hardware used in the audio subsystem. These can help to reduce noise and create a cleaner audio signal. Some motherboards will also have a dedicated audio controller for the front audio ports, which may be connected to an OP-AMP to drive better performance with headphones.The delineated audio circuitry zone of a late-model motherboard(Photo: Molly Flores)
The ports on the rear I/O panel also play a large role when it comes to audio. The audio ports should be set at the bottom or end of the rear I/O panel, as in most cases this creates the most direct path between the ports and the audio controller. If the ports are set anywhere else, you may note more noise in your audio signals (though this is not an absolute).
You’ll also want to note how many 3.5mm ports are on the rear I/O panel. If you see only three, then the board supports at most a 3.1-channel sound system. If there are five 3.5mm jacks, then the board can handle a 7.1-channel sound system. This is a key detail to keep an eye on, as some motherboard OEMs will list the board as supporting a 7.1-channel sound system because the audio chip itself supports it, but then board designers actually may have placed only three 3.5mm jacks on the panel. If you’re planning to build out a surround sound system connected to your motherboard, this is vital to check.
Every modern motherboard ships with at least integrated wired networking (Ethernet) support, and many boards will also have a built-in Wi-Fi adapter. For the bulk of the last two decades, gigabit 1Gbps/1,000Mbps LAN chips (local area network; another name for wired internet), connected via Ethernet, have been the de facto standard. This has started to evolve over the last couple of years, with faster 2.5Gbps LAN controllers becoming more common and appearing on some midrange and high-end motherboards.
Networking-component hardware is one of the defining characteristics that separates the low-end from the midrange in the motherboard world. A board with only a gigabit-capable networking controller tends to be a low-end product. A 2.5Gbps controller generally is found in a board that’s midrange or high-end. You will also see faster 5Gbps and 10Gbps wired networking adapters on select midrange and high-end models.
Wireless adapters integrated into motherboards also come in a range of speeds that is also expressed as a simple number. Wi-Fi doesn’t support speeds quite as high as a wired Internet connection, but the latest standard, Wi-Fi 6 (also called 802.11ax), can achieve speeds of up to 2.5Gbps.
If you’re looking at a motherboard’s product page and don’t see the Wi-Fi speed clearly stated, try to look for what type of Wi-Fi chip is being used. If it’s Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E (802.11ax), then you know that’s the latest and greatest in Wi-Fi. You might see boards with 802.11ac wireless adapters, which is the direct predecessor to Wi-Fi 6. It also offers excellent performance for everyday use, though it isn’t quite as fast as Wi-Fi 6 nor as adept at negotiating with lots of other Wi-Fi clients on the same network. It’s doubtful you’ll see any other networking standards built into motherboards nowadays, but if you do see something else listed, like 802.11n, that could be a sign of an older board with aging networking hardware, and that it should be avoided. (Not just for the networking reasons; plenty of other aspects of the board are probably aged, too.)
Unless you have a dedicated high-speed fiber connection at home, networking hardware probably need not top your consideration list when purchasing a motherboard. Though you will find networking hardware on every modern motherboard, add-on cards and USB devices with enhanced networking functionality are widely available. Keep an eye on what networking hardware the motherboard you are looking at has, but know that you don’t always have to pay a hefty premium to do better.
Often, OEMs will produce two motherboards that are nearly identical, except that one has built-in Wi-Fi and one does not. When they do this, they typically put a $10-to-$20 premium on the Wi-Fi model. The added Wi-Fi support is typically well worth the extra cost if you need Wi-Fi, but don't pay much more than that for it. After you pass the $20 mark, you can shop for a Wi-Fi USB dongle or a Wi-Fi card separately.
Your modern motherboard will gain you several types of storage connections. For external connectivity, USB ports are always present, but internally Serial ATA (ATA) and M.2 are the main ways to interface a storage device with your PC.
The older and slower of these connection standards is SATA, and it’s currently on its third revision, as SATA-III. It’s also sometimes referred to as SATA 6.0 or SATA 600, as it supports up to 600MB per second of bandwidth, though in practice tops out at around 560MB per second. This is the interface supported on modern platter hard drives designed for consumers, and it’s also used by 2.5-inch internal solid-state drives (SSDs).
M.2 is the newer interface type, and SSDs have been moving over to it in recent years. M.2 is not just an interface but a form factor. Way smaller than 2.5-inch SSDs, M.2 drives are gumstick-size modules that plug into M.2 slots on your motherboard. Depending on drive, the M.2 drive can run over the PCI Express bus, or the SATA one. M.2 drives come in standard lengths, most notably 42mm, 60mm, 80mm, and 110mm (dubbed Type-2242, Type-2260, Type-2280, and Type-22110). The 80mm size is by far the most common among aftermarket SSDs. You'll want to match a motherboard slot's "size" support with the size of the drive or drives you are installing.An M.2 slot on a recent Asus motherboard. Note the multiple mounting points for the four different M.2 drive lengths.(Photo: Molly Flores)
With the PCI Express bus, M.2 SSDs can potentially support far greater bandwidth than SATA. It’s important to reiterate that M.2 is just a type of physical connection, while the electrical communication standard being used to transmit the data over this connection is not fixed and can be SATA or a flavor of PCI Express. Older M.2 storage devices that operate with SATA-III data protocols will be capped at the same 560MB-per-second data rate. Some motherboard M.2 slots support SATA or PCI Express on the same slot; check the specs for details. But most are moving to PCI Express exclusively.
Alternatively, newer M.2 SSDs can operate over either two or four PCI Express 3.0, 4.0 or 5.0 lanes. This enables significantly more bandwidth that can range anywhere from roughly 2GB per second with a PCI Express 3.0 x2 connection up to just short of 16GB per second of bandwidth with the cutting-edge PCI Express 5.0 x4 connections that are emerging in 2022. (They're not at all common yet.)
As M.2 has become more widespread and the cost of M.2 SSDs has dropped, the importance of SATA-III has declined, except for folks with lots of older drives or who want to use platter drives. At this point, motherboards that lack M.2 support are rare, but ideally you want to try and get a motherboard that has at least two M.2 slots.
Having a SATA storage device at this point is generally unnecessary unless you already own some SATA drives or want to use cost-saving (and much slower) platter hard drives, almost all of which connect through SATA. Any motherboards should have at least two of these ports, with the majority having six. Unless you are planning to add a large number of storage devices to your system, the number of SATA-III ports on the board can probably be a modest consideration. You also don’t need to worry about what type they are, as SATA-I and SATA-II have fallen out of use.A bank of side-mount SATA ports on a modern motherboard(Photo: Molly Flores)
One thing to note, though, is SATA port location. In some boards, the ports stick straight up; in others they are parallel to the PCB, usually sticking off the right edge. Just mind the case you are installing your motherboard in. Sometimes those side-angled SATA ports can make for awkward cable routing, depending on the case design.
At the moment, there’s not much that you need to be concerned about when it comes to RAM support on any motherboard you buy, unless you are buying a board for use with a 12th Generation Intel CPU.
Most motherboards currently use DDR4 RAM, with a selection of 12th Generation Alder Lake LGA 1700 Intel motherboards using DDR5 RAM. (Some Alder Lake boards do indeed support older DDR4, though, so be careful to check. See our first tests with DDR5 versus DDR4.) As long as you pick the right type of RAM for your motherboard, and pay attention to the speeds supported, it should work.DDR4 RAM slots on a late-model Intel board(Photo: Molly Flores)
You’ll also want to pay attention to how many RAM slots your motherboard has, and the maximum capacity per slot. If you have only two RAM slots, you will have to buy RAM modules for the capacity you want at a higher per-module capacity than you might with four sticks. If you want to experiment with memory speeds, you may also want to consider RAM that operates at a higher speed than the peak rated RAM speed of the board. (As long as it's the right type, it should work regardless.) For more information on buying RAM, especially faster RAM kits, you should check out our article about picking the right RAM kit for you. There's a lot of nuance to the choice, if you want to get down and dirty; for basic use, getting modules that match the peak supported speed of the board is a safe bet.
The standard module type for desktop motherboards is known as a DIMM, or dual inline memory module. Note that a few highly compact Mini-ITX motherboards use SO-DIMM modules, which are much smaller and are the kind used in some highly compact desktop PCs and in many laptops. SO-DIMM-based motherboards are uncommon, but they do exist, and you should be aware of them if you are hunting in the Mini-ITX aisle.
When picking the right motherboard, the rear I/O panel often isn't high up on the list of concerns. Every motherboard has one of these, and all of them are loaded with ports for connecting various external devices up to your PC. The core mix of ports on a typical board doesn't change all that much between two systems. Depending on what you plan to do with the system, however, it could be very important.The back panel of a typical premium motherboard(Photo: Molly Flores)
If you are building a system that will rely on integrated graphics (the graphics acceleration built into your processor), rather than a graphics card, you need a motherboard that has video connections on the rear I/O panel. If you don't, the integrated graphics chip won't be usable.Another typical motherboard I/O panel, but with HDMI and DisplayPort outputs for integrated graphics(Photo: Molly Flores)
If you are buying a graphics card to install in your PC, this may not matter. (Most AMD Ryzen chips don't have integrated graphics, while most mainstream Intel Core chips do.) But if you aren't buying a GPU, a motherboard with video connections is an absolute must. For use with integrated graphics, the most common video connections today on motherboards, by far, are HDMI and DisplayPort, but a few select models (a few-odd business-oriented boards) may retain old-school VGA and DVI for specialized purposes or use with old fleet monitors. If the board supports it and you have a compatible monitor, video can also be sent over a USB Type-C port using the DisplayPort Over USB spec, but this is not common. Not all USB Type-C ports support that.A typical I/O panel's layout, from an MSI Z690 board
Most likely, the port you'll need for video will be either HDMI or DisplayPort. There are various "number versions" of each, but realistically you don't need to worry about this much. Both HDMI and DisplayPort have had native support for 4K video for the last several generations, and the latest standards even have support for future-looking 8K video. Audio can be sent along to the display over both connections, as well, and they can be used as a connection with audio equipment.
Other than video ports, the rear I/O panel on motherboards will also have connections for audio and networking hardware. We discussed typical audio jacks earlier. Alongside these will typically be a boatload of USB ports, divided among a host of types: USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1, USB 3.2, and USB4. The first four could be implemented via a USB Type-A port, the common rectangular USB connection that you're doubtless accustomed to. The newer USB Type-C comes into play on some USB 3.2 and all USB4 ports. For more information on USB Type-C itself, check out the explainer at the link. It comes in a host of speeds, and there are bunch of fine points around USB 3.2 to know.
Indeed, USB speeds are a more complicated matter than the mere look of the A ports versus the C ports. Venerable USB 2.0 is the slowest, topping out at around 480Mbps of bandwidth. Though it's old, USB 2.0 is not obsolete; for low-bandwidth peripherals like keyboards, mice, USB headsets, and printers, it works just fine. Then there's the myriad of USB 3.x ports that have the main benefit of supporting higher data rates. These are best reserved for USB flash drives and other external storage devices, but they work A-OK with any USB device.
For convenience, we've included a chart here listing the most common types of USB and their speeds...
Also in the chart, you'll see reference to "Thunderbolt," which is technically not a USB standard. Thunderbolt was developed by Intel and has its own unique benefits, but in recent versions it is implemented over a USB Type-C physical connector and competes directly with USB 3.x, which is why it's in the chart for comparison. Note: Thunderbolt is very rare on AMD motherboards or on low-end Intel motherboards.
You might encounter a legacy connector now and then, notably PS/2 or serial port. These ports go back decades, but they make occasional appearances on new boards, typically business or low-end consumer boards designed to maintain support for old hardware. The PS/2 port can be used to connect geriatric keyboards or mice; serial ports were rough predecessors to USB, and some specialized/vertical-market business hardware, security dongles, and devices like barcode scanners may still need a port.
It’s best to think about PCI Express as an electrical communications standard. Though all motherboards today have physical PCI Express "expansion" slots, the interface goes beyond those familiar slots. Motherboard designers can use PCI Express to connect additional chips to a board to enable a wider range of features than the CPU and chipset support natively. For example, via PCI Express, a board maker can add Thunderbolt or Wi-Fi support to a board that lacks chipset-level support for these items. PCI Express is also widely used to connect storage devices and graphics cards to a motherboard.A typical PCI Express slot layout on an ATX board, with long x16 (silver) and short x1 (black) physical slots(Photo: Molly Flores)
To date there have been five major revisions to the PCI Express interface, three of which (3.0, 4.0, and 5.0) are still in use. Each new revision of the standard has doubled the peak potential bandwidth, with the newest 5.0 interface rated for up to 3.94GBps per lane. This drops to 1.97GBps under 4.0 and to 985MBps for PCI Express 3.0. Multiple lanes can be connected to a single device to boost possible bandwidth. (For example, a PCI Express 5.0 x16 slot would have 16 times the bandwidth of a PCI Express 5.0 x1 slot, which would tally up to 63GBps of bandwidth.)
Almost all motherboards will ship with at least one PCI Express x16 slot for a graphics card, which demandslots of bandwidth to drive high performance. Some care needs to be taken when installing a graphics card to make sure you place it in the right slot: the topmost x16 slot. Many motherboards will have full-size slots that are physically PCI Express x16 but that electronically support just PCI Express x1, x4, or x8 connections. PCI Express devices are designed to work in all slots they fit, regardless of how many lanes are actually available, but you can get reduced performance if you place your graphics card in one of these lesser slots.
Motherboards typically also have short PCI Express x1 slots for devices like storage controller cards and networking adapters, but these are the only other type of physical PCI Express connector you are likely to see (outside of M.2 drive slots); x4 and x8 connectors do exist, but these have fallen out of favor and are rarely used anymore.
Then there's the issue that separates the PC enthusiasts and performance hounds from the everyday users: overclocking. Most folks won't care and indeed will opt for motherboards with chipsets that aren't overclocking-ready at all. For that very reason, we saved this section until last. Several things are worth scrutinizing when buying a motherboard for overclocking, though, if that is your thing.
Start with the power-regulation circuitry. The job of the power-regulation circuitry on a motherboard is to provide a clean, compatible power source to the CPU and RAM. The power supplied by the power supply doesn’t arrive at the motherboard at the correct voltage for these components, which is why this hardware is essential. A motherboard with an insufficient power-regulation system can hamper performance if pushed too far in an overclock, and power circuits have even been known to blow out when overdriven.Motherboard power-regulation/VRM circuitry surrounding the CPU socket(Photo: Molly Flores)
Most motherboards are designed with a sufficiently capable power system, and fail-safes, to avoid such issues. Typically, you only encounter problems on the rare motherboard with a flawed power design or a manufacturing defect. It’s worth noting, however, not every motherboard is designed to handle the power needs of every "compatible" CPU that physically fits in its socket, even if the board supports other CPUs in the same immediate family. Some motherboards will explicitly state a maximum CPU power limit, but the safest thing to do here—again we stress this!—is to check the motherboard maker’s list of supported processors for the board.
If you’re overclocking, the importance of the power-regulation hardware increases. That’s because overclocking often requires you to increase the amount of power flowing to the CPU. The power-regulation hardware is made up of components that are commonly referred to as power phases, VRMs, or MOSFETs. Essentially, the job of this hardware is to take the power sent from the power supply and adjust its voltage and amplitude to better suit the processor. Often, motherboard OEMs will state how many power phases a board designed to overclock has, and the materials may also list the amount of current that these components can handle.
That said, there's a lot of marketing fog around these parts, with no easy, golden number for how many phases you want or how much current they should be able to handle to get good overclocking results. Instead, it’s easiest to just remember this: More phases and higher current ratings are generally better, all else being equal. Phases share their workload with each other, so the more of them you have, the less likely it is that any one of them will be overworked to the point of failure or crashes.Heavy-metal power-delivery cooling hardware on an Asus Prime board(Photo: Molly Flores)
You should also assess the cooling hardware around the CPU socket, as this metal is what cools the power hardware. You want to see large heatsinks here at a minimum, but more-premium models will also have heatpipes in series, and sometimes a fan to further improve cooling performance. It’s impossible to draw firm conclusions at a glance about this stuff, but a robust set of cooling gear around the socket is the indicator of a higher-end board in which the maker took care to outfit it properly.
Many motherboards that are designed to overclock also come with a number of helpful features to help you troubleshoot issues and fix problems. Some boards have LED pinpoints onboard that correspond to messages in the manual, or an “88”-style red LED numeric readout that will display a numbered error code to indicate specific troubles.
On some boards, you’ll also find buttons either on the board itself or its rear I/O panel that can clear the BIOS, which is exceedingly useful if you overclock your PC too far and are unable to get into the BIOS. A small number of boards have two BIOS chips for the same purpose; you can switch between the two BIOSes, and their discrete settings, to resolve issues. This can even save you from what would otherwise be a complete failure of the system if, for some reason, one of your BIOSes gets corrupted and unrecoverable. It happens! (See our guide to BIOS tweaking basics.)
As you can see, when it comes to buying a motherboard, there’s a lot to keep in mind. Unlike buying a single component—CPU, GPU or RAM—numerous interlocking things need consideration beyond just performance benchmarks. With the CPU socket, the RAM support, the audio hardware, the networking hardware, the power hardware, overclocking features and so much more, buying a motherboard can start to feel rather overwhelming.
To keep the task from feeling too daunting, just take things in order. It's easiest to pick a motherboard once you have an idea of how big a PC you are building or upgrading. Settle on a size, after which you pick a CPU that you want to buy and that fits your budget. Then comes the chipset consideration; that, to a large extent, will set the price range for the board itself, and you can make sure it fits your budget.(Photo: Molly Flores)
We didn’t get deep into the issue of price in this article, because motherboards can range everywhere from as low as $40 for the most basic models (likely, last-generation) to above $1,000 for rare and elite extreme-tweaker models with built-in liquid cooling hardware. Simply put, there is no way to do justice to that large of a price range with solid advice. The vast span and mix of parts that can change on a motherboard also significantly alters the value of any given board for people with specific needs. It needs to be calculated on a case-by-case basis.
To be sure, some boards offer more value than others. But don't fret; as long as the board you buy works with the CPU you want, is the size you want, and is in a comfortable price range, it generally should work fine. All of the other features—the I/O port mix, the onboard audio solution, suitability to overclocking—are best considered only if they are important to you personally. These factors may also help you decide between two similar motherboards near the same price. But, ultimately, features like the audio and networking systems should be secondary considerations.
The grid below (and our picks up top) show some of our favorite models we have tested in recent months by platform and rough use case. That said, motherboard makers put out a vast slate of models, and no one on the Net comes even close to reviewing them all. Use these models as a jumping-off point in your search, and look for professional reviews of the specific models you have under consideration for the fine points.