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Best Gaming Motherboards: An Overview

PR-ASUS-ROG-Rampage-IV-GENE-Gaming-Motherboard

Mal’s Computer Corner

Platform: PC

By Malefico

The motherboard, also referred to as the system board, is one of the most crucial parts of any gaming computer. If the CPU is the brain, the motherboard can be likened to the nervous system. It’s what ties everything together, ensuring that all the little electrical pulses go where they need to go and resulting in a well-running system.

Much like the CPU world, there are only two popular types of motherboards among gamers- those that work with AMD chips, and Intel-compatible boards. And, much like the CPU reality of today, Intel boards are better-suited for gaming (debatable), but come at a higher price. We’ll focus on the most modern chipsets and sockets, but realize that there are older configurations that work fine for gaming. If you have specific questions shoot me an email.

In order to discuss motherboards, we first have to describe the basic components of the boards. I’ll go into the most relevant components below, but since the board controls all functions of the PC, you’ll see others on the board diagrams included. First I’ll explain older board architecture, and then go into improvements that have been made in board technology

Three Tier Chipsets

SimplemotherboardDiagram

Socket – Receives and mounts the CPU to the board. AMD and Intel sockets are proprietary, they are specific to the manufacturer and will not mount the competition’s chip.

Memory Controller Hub (MCH) – Also called the North bridge directs communication to and from the processor, system memory (RAM) and video card if installed. This is the “fast” portion of a motherboard and is structured as follows CPU<–>FSB(Front Side Bus)<–>MCH<–>video card although of course these components are not laid out in a straight line.

Input/Output Controller Hub (ICH) – Also called the South Bridge, controls input/output from a number of devices – hard and optical drives, keyboard and mouse, USB connections, etc. Also handles BIOS (CMOS) info and deals with other tasks like power management. This is the “slow” part of a board.

Modern Improvements

a85

One of the biggest changes to hit PC systems was the inclusion of the Memory Controller on the CPU die itself. Currently both commonly mounted gaming AMD and Intel processors integrate MCH functions on die.

The Front Side Bus has been replaced with faster, more efficient modules called Hyper Transport (AMD) and QuickPath Interconnect (QPI, Intel). These enable faster data transfer by routing data in larger packets through DDR (Double Data Rate, means the unit can send/receive info twice per clock cycle and this descriptor is also used in RAM, i.e. DDR3) bi-directional buses capable of massive speeds, up to 25.6Gbps each way. Freakin’ fast, in other words.

AMD and Intel have combined the MCH and ICH into the FCH(Fusion Controller Hub, AMD) and the PCH (Platform Controller Hub)

I’ve included diagrams of AMD’s Socket FM2 A85 and Intel’s Z77 boards here. It’s interesting to note that Intel has chosen to use PCI-E (Peripheral Connect Interface – Express) version 3 slots to support the latest cards, while AMD has mostly stuck to PCI-E 2 slots.

ivb-9b

In the case of AMD FM2 boards, the main slot is designed to communicate directly with the CPU, without having to make any stops between. It’s common knowledge that  the vast majority of games don’t place so much pressure on the system that single video cards run out of data bandwith and overwhelm their accompanying PCI-E slot, meaning a PCI-E 3 card will run fine in a PCI-E 2 slot. Obviously AMD considers the direct connection between CPU and card to be fast enough despite using an older version of PCI-E.

When using more than one video card, called Crossfire by AMD and SLI (Scalable Link Interface), PCI-E slots do not use their full bus capacity, normally 16 lanes in the main slot. When you connect two video cards, they use 8 lanes each further pointing to the fact that the slot can transfer more data than the card can generate. See the data transfer rates for PCI-E slots below.

pci-e-transfer-rates with text

Wow, that was just a bunch of technical jargon. Now we’ll talk about practical performance for gamers and look at some boards.

The major chipset manufacturers rank their boards using letters and numbers. While they are both pretty easy to remember, AMD’s is the simplest. Their socket FM2 boards come in four varieties: A55, A75, A85 and A88; Socket AM3+ boards are available in 760G, 880G, 970, 990X and 990FX from basic to gaming boards. Generally speaking the higher the number the more advanced the board and the more features it incorporates. I’m sticking with Intel Ivy Bridge Socket 1155 boards as they are more in line with most gamers’ budgets and the AMD boards we’re looking at) and work very well. They are not the newest Intel boards, that would be Haswell Socket 1150 but their performance is close enough that the lower price makes them the ones to buy if you are counting beans. At any rate, the Intel boards are available in H61/H67. B75/B85, P67 and Z68/Z75/Z77. Basically they break down as follows: H are entry-level boards designed for low-end systems. B represents mobos built for small business applications, but work fine for moderate gaming. P units are performance-oriented boards that do well in a variety of heavy workload situations, and Z boards are the gaming bad boys.

And finally, my picks for good gaming boards at various price ranges. Note that I’ll choose two AMD boards in each category to account for the new FM2 socket and the still widely used AM3+ socket. I’ll also stick with brands I have personally built with and can recommend from experience. I’ll include links to the manufacturer’s product page for more information on each.

Under $50

In this category, we’re looking at boards that will get the job done for very basic gaming needs. Most gamers will want to step up from this category, but if you’re a console fan who wants to be able to run emulators, etc. and do a bit of light online gaming these boards will work fine. For most emulators, you don’t even need a video card. On these boards, you will most likely not get the latest PCI-E slots or many expandability options – RAM, video card, etc. slots are limited and so are SATA 3 headers, if they are available at all so take that into consideration.

Asus M5A78L-M LX3 Micro-ATX – ASUS has a solid reputation and I’ve always been happy with their boards. This one uses the 760G chipset and has a single PCI-E 2 slot, supports up to eight USB 2 connections and has decent onboard audio/video, fine for everyday use. NOTE: Only supports CPUs with 95 TDP or less.

MSI FM2-A55M-E33 FM2 Micro-ATX – MSI makes good boards as well, with slightly better quality control on low-end units. One PCI-E 2, more RAM support and HDMI out in line with the APU’s better onboard graphics.

ASRock H61M-PS4 Micro-ATX – ASRock is a relative newcomer to the U.S. But has solid products that tend to pack more features in at a given price point. This Intel board has one PCI-E 3 slot and supports up to eight USB 2 connections.

$51-$100

These boards represent a decent upgrade from the least expensive boards and will work well for the casual to intermediate gamer.

ASRock 970 Extreme3 R2.0 ATX – This AMD Socket AM3+ board is a great value. Full support for all FX processors, two PCI-E 2 slots so you can double up on video cards if you want, four RAM slots and USB 3 headers.

GIGABYTE GA-G1.Sniper A88X ATX – Another good deal, this one works well with the new Athlon or APU chips, but know that you HAVE to use a video card with the new Athlons as they don’t have integrated graphics. 1 PCI-E 3 and 1 PCI-E 2 slot, four RAM slots and six USB 2/twoUSB 3. This one is a real gaming board at an affordable price.

I’m going to point out two Intel motherboards in this category.

Both the ASRock B75 PRO3 AND ASRock Z77 Pro4 ATX – These boards offer great features and performance for the price. The B75 does fine with games and offers a better overall solution, in the unfortunate circumstance that you do actual work on your system. The Z77 is a great gaming for board for not a lot of money. PCI-E 3 slots are limited to one (plus one PCI-E 2 slot meaning you can use two cards), but for most gamers this board is a great value.

$101-$200

Now we’re getting into serious gaming territory.

ASUS SABERTOOTH 990FX R2.0 ATX – This Socket AM3+ board should satisfy all but the most discriminating gamers. Three X PCI-e 2 slots, 12 total USB ports, yada yada, all the goodies you need to get down.

ASUS F2A85-V PRO ATX – Socket FM2. This board features three PCI-E 2 slots, supports up to 64GB of RAM and has a ton of USB ports. AMD is supposed to release some new CPUs in 2014 so I’m hoping at least some of them are upscale from the current offerings. We need a new line to take over where FX leaves off.

MSI Z77A-G45 Thunderbolt ATX – Intel’s analog to AMD’s 990FX, this board is truly advanced and is an awesome gaming tool. Pair it with a core i5 or i7 Ivy Bridge CPU and you are GTG. In addition to three PCI-E slots, this board features Thunderbolt, a new technology that transmits display info or data at a blazing 10Gbps through a single port. Cool.

$200-$300

What can you say about these boards. If you want to accept no substitutes this is your venue.

ASUS Crosshair V Formula-Z ATX – Part of ASUS’ Republic of Gamers series, this is probably the best board out there for socket AM3+ when you want performance without compromise. The real deal. Three PCI-E 2 slots, advanced audio, LAN, etc.

ASRock Z77 Extreme9 ATX – This Intel board has it all. An absurd six PCI-E slots, five PCI-E 3 and one PCI-E 2. Excellent audio and LAN, fast USB, everything but the happy ending.

$300 +

ASUS Maximus V FORMULA/THUNDERFX ATX – Another ROG board; the crème de la crème of Intel Ivy Bridge boards. You can tell by the price it has absolutely everything you will need and a lot of stuff you’ll never use, but just look at the name!!! If you can’t get it done with this hardware,you can’t get it done period.

After the Smoke Clears…

There are those who say Socket AM3+ is dead, but AMD is still selling a lot of FX (Vishera) CPUs and a lot of gamers are still using this technology, so it represents a good value for low- and mid-range systems. As noted earlier, AMD is going to release new APUs next year, and they appear to be widening the gap over Intel in the integrated graphics arena, and catching up in raw computing power. So if you are not ready to build right now, wait until Kaveri launches and reevaluate the situation. One thing is certain, the money AMD will bring in through their contracts with Microsoft and Sony (estimated by some to be worth $3 billion) is going to give a big boost to their R&D budget. NVidia execs, answering questions as to how they felt about being overlooked to supply graphics for the new consoles, feigned indifference, saying the cost of the program outweighed the revenue it would generate (!?!), but I don’t know, $3 billion is a hell of a lot of money and may allow AMD to regain the gaming throne.

Remember that most folks never fully utilize the capabilities of their hardware, so be realistic when you choose a board. If you don’t plan to overclock, there’s no need to pay extra for that feature, etc. If you’re only ever going to have one GPU installed, you don’t need a board with multiple slots. These are not the only good boards out there, just ones I’ve had success with so look around to find that perfect board. There are a lot of features available that I haven’t gone into here as they don’t relate to gaming, but built-in Wifi and BT are available and so are a lot of other cool one-off features that may suit your specific needs. Take your time when you research and think carefully about exactly what you want; sometimes it helps to write it down. Take into account how much memory you want to use and decide if you need to leave room for the future (four DIMM slots vs. two). You may well find that you can easily get by with an inexpensive board. If you want better performance, are interested in overclocking or can see yourself running multiple GPUs it makes sense to invest in a higher-end board. Remember that you have to match components. For overclockers, your CPU and board both have to be capable of it, and you’ll need to spend some money on upgrading the cooling system and power supply if necessary. Boards that support this practice are bundled with apps that make setting the O/C elements easy, and some will manage your overclocking in real time, taking into account available power, component temperatures, etc.

I hope this has helped and welcome your feedback and questions.

Written by Nerd Bacon

Nerd Bacon

 
 

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2 Comments

  1. Donbuster says:

    It’s common knowledge that single video cards basically can’t run fast enough to overwhelm their accompanying PCI-E slot meaning a PCI-E 3 card will run fine in a PCI-E 2 slot.

    This is completely false… while cards will run in older PCI-E slots, they do so at significantly slower speeds; GPUs transfer far more information through the PCI-E interface than any other expansion card… if the extra speed was not needed by GPUs, why would newer, faster versions of the PCIE standard exist? Why would we even leave the much cheaper to produce AGP slot… A motherboard with a pcie 3.0 x16 slot is essential to get the most performance out of the rest of your hardware… not only does the larger bus size help, but its ALWAYS nice to have the lower latency that newer expansion slots provide… to anyone not on a very tight budget, I always recommend a board with at least 2 pcie 3.0 x16s, in case they want to potentially upgrade via CFX/sli when their card stops being able to shape up…

     
    • Malefico says:

      No, it’s not completely false, but the sentence was unclear, so I’m glad you brought it to my attention. I changed it to read:

      It’s common knowledge that the vast majority of games don’t place so much pressure on the system that single video cards run out of data bandwith and overwhelm their accompanying PCI-E slot, meaning a PCI-E 3 card will run fine in a PCI-E 2 slot.

      To your other points, yes, cards run at data rates based on the slot into which they’re installed, and in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t matter. At least 80% of games, and probably closer to 90% don’t even use up the bandwidth in PCI-E 2 slots.

      “if the extra speed was not needed by GPUs, why would newer, faster versions of the PCIE standard exist?” I’m not trying to say that NO GPU is incapable of utilizing the PCI-E 3 standard, but again it depends on the game you’re running, and of course the GPU itself. But more to your point, why are they rolling out DDR-4 when DDR-3 is more than adequate for system memory? Why are the CPU manufacturers pushing quad-core and more chips on the public when most games still only require dual-cores, and not fast dual-cores at that? The basic problem is that hardware specs have far exceeded software needs.

      “Why would we even leave the much cheaper to produce AGP slot”
      I’m really not sure… Why did VHS rule the video tape market when Betamax had better resolution and sound, and come in a more compact format? Why did BluRay, rather than HD-DVD become the latest standard media for movies? My best guess would be a combo platter of marketing and the influence of various hardware manufacturers? Your guess is as good as mine. The point here is that the best product isn’t always adopted as the industry standard.
      “A motherboard with a pcie 3.0 x16 slot is essential to get the most performance out of the rest of your hardware.” No, it really isn’t. The little review system I just put together uses an R7 260X (PCI-E 3) seated in an AMD 970 board (PCI-E 2) and it runs everything I throw at it on the monitor’s native resolution with 2-4XMSAA, effects on medium to high and stays glued to 60FPS. I haven’t tried putting it in a PCI-E 3 slot, but I know from the card’s specs that it won’t make a difference in real-world performance, it (the GPU) isn’t powerful enough to max out the PCI-E 2 slot.
      Of course, it all depends what kinds of games you play and what your expectations are regarding resolution, textures, etc. but in most cases you can get a decent gaming system up and running without having to match the latest PCI-E slot. For my customers who play FPS and want the HD or 4K experience, I naturally steer them toward PCI-E 3 (and you’re right, the option to double up on cards in Crossfire or SLI is nice) and a good-quality card.
      I get bored with systems and usually build a new onf for myself every couple years, but I know some folks want to build once and stay with that hardware for a number of years, and that’s cool, but one usually ends up spending more on the long-term system than if you put together two (or more) more moderately priced computers over the course of, say, ten years. But that’s also a matter of preference.
      I appreciate the comments as they made me revisit the article.
      -Mal

       

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