Best motherboard: 9 top boards reviewed and rated
20th Dec 2013 | 09:00
The top new Intel Z87 motherboards for Haswell
Not all that long ago, the CPU contained an execution core, maybe two cores if you were really lucky. And that was it. Everything was onboard and that made your choice of board super critical.
Then AMD wheeled out the Athlon 64 in 2003 and nothing was the same again. The Athlon 64 half-inched the memory controller and a few other functions such as system I/O from the northbridge chip. Since then, the steady creep of migrating features has left the motherboard twiddling its thumbs and thinking up ways to justify its existence.
All Intel's current CPUs, have a memory controller, graphics, PCI Express and more integrated on-die. The end-game here is the system-on-a-chip (SoC), but we're some way off that for PCs. Even if we had reached that point, motherboards would still definitely matter. This is because sockets and wiring cost money, so cheaper boards won't bother with wiring everything up - but that's the future.
In the now, the motherboard still contains some critical features, such as storage interfaces, USB controllers and more. Then factor in things like BIOS quality and functionality and you can forget any notion that mobos no longer matter.
Let's kick off with the assumption we've sold you on the basic notion that motherboards still matter in this brave new age of integration. Then follow that up by dropping a bit of a mind bomb on proceedings.
When it comes to Intel's latest desktop tech, it's actually the platform parts that are arguably more interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the new Intel Haswell family of processors are a bit of a blowout as desktop chips. The CPU part is barely any better than its Ivy Bridge predecessor at stock clock speeds and it looks like its overclock isn't that tasty either.
Yes, Haswell has much improved graphics. The top Iris 5300 graphics with 128MB eDRAM looks particularly intriguing for laptops and maybe even tablets, but integrated graphics on the desktop? Get real. You still want a dedicated GPU if you're even remotely bothered about a spot of gameage.
Which is where motherboards come in. Haswell CPUs may be a bit of a bummer, but they do bring with them the new LGA1150 socket and the new Intel 8 series chipsets. Cue much rejoicing. Well, we say chipsets. The reality is more accurately characterised as merely 'chip'. Namely the platform controller hub or PCH chip. Ye olde northbiridge chip has essentially been assimilated into the CPU.
So what's in the 8 series PCH? Anything exciting? Anything new? Let's begin with the 8 series chipset that's most likely to grab your attention: the Z87 (the replacement for our previous fave, the Z77). The fun starts with up to six native USB 3.0 ports. To that you can add up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
Then there's a sextet SATA 6Gbps of storage ports. On the one hand, we're grateful for the all-6Gbps spec. On the other, storage throughput is arguably the one area where we're already straining at the leash for more oomph. Pretty much all modern SSDs bump up against the limits of SATA 6Gbps already. Admittedly, drives with PCI express-derived interfaces aren't yet commonplace, but a motherboard ought to be ahead of the curve. You need to have a platform ready and waiting for the latest peripherals, rather than buying a fancy PCI-e SSD and then having to wait for a motherboard to plug it into.
Thus, it's a pity we'll have to hang about at least another couple of years for Intel chipsets and motherboards with native support for something quicker than SATA 6Gbps. Still, you do get Intel Rapid Storage tech with TRIM-enabled RAID functionality. So the overall package is about as SATA as it gets.
There's one other snag with all this native USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps goodness, and that's the feeble DMI 2.0 interface that connects the PCH chip with Haswell CPUs. Yup, it's the same DMI 2.0 interface seen on Intel's last two mainstream platform (you know, the one that maxes out at 20Gbps). Remember, a single USB 3.0 connection can hit 5Gbps. So, that's six of those, six SATA 6Gbps ports and anything non-graphics attached via PCI express (more on that in a moment) sharing 20Gbps. Yeah, that's some fairly major suckage.
Next up, graphics. While the PCI express lanes for graphics are actually in the CPU, it's the mobo chipset that effectively exposes them. In the case of the Z87, you get the lot. So, that's 16 lanes in either 1x 16-lane single-GPU or 2x 8-lane dual GPU configuration.
But hold on; because it's PCI express 3.0, it doubles the bandwidth per lane and means the dual-card graphics on a Z87 board has as much bandwidth as a full dual 16-lane arrangement has with PCI express 2.0. Nice.
Cheap as chipsets
Elsewhere there's Intel HD audio and a gigabit ethernet interface. Oh, and up to eight spare PCI express lanes for peripherals. As for the digital display interfaces, they've actually migrated on the CPU die with Haswell. That said, you'd still find variation in terms of the actual ports motherboard makers choose to hook up. Finally, as with the old Z77, the Z87 is the only chipset in the new 8 series range that gives you full access to overclocking features in the K series chips.
So that's the elevator pitch for the Z87. What about the other new 8-ers? The B and Q variants are for office rigs, systems for deskbound wage slaves in other words. So, we'll ignore those. Instead, it's the H87 and H81 that might just generate a considerable blip on your personal motherboard-buying radar.
So what do you lose out on with the more mainstream motherboard chipsets? Well, both drop multi-GPU support, meaning you can only run a single discrete graphics card. Meanwhile, with the H81, you can only drive two displays off the on-CPU graphics, compared with three for the Z87 and H87 chipsets. Next up, neither the H87 or H81 officially support overclocking - although that hasn't stopped Asus or MSI from offering just that on their H87 motherboards. Although the fear is that this could be turned off by Intel at a later date.
Then there's Intel's Rapid Storage tech complete with RAID support, which isn't available on the H81. Same goes for Intel's quick-booting smart response tech. The H81 also limits USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps connectivity to two ports each. At this stage, the H81 looks like a bit of a chump. It might make for a cheaper mobo, but it scrimps on far too many features for our liking.
What about the H87? If you're dead set against overclocking your chip, then you're going to lose very little. The same goes for grabbing some hot multi-GPU action. The danger, of course, is that you may change your mind in future. If that happens, a Z87 board has you covered, an H87 leaves you cold. It all comes down to how you judge the value proposition.
And what of AMD?
If you've read this far you might be wondering if we even realise AMD exists. All this talk of Intel Haswell processors, Intel 8 Series chipsets, Intel LGA1150 sockets. Intel, Intel, Intel.
But what about poor old AMD, ah? That's a very tricky question. AMD hasn't brought out a truly new chipset in yonks. The current AMD 9 Series chipset has been knocking about since 2011. For high performance variants, the chip at its heart is the SB950. Frankly, it's not an advance over the SB850 that preceded it or the SB750 before that.
None of them, for instance, have native USB 3.0 support. Intriguingly, however, AMD chipsets for its fusion processors or APUs do have USB 3.0 support. Ultimately, that's indicative of where AMD is headed: it's all about APUs. That's why the much-mooted AMD 1000 Series chipsets - including the 1090FX - were expected to appear in 2012, but remain nowhere to be seen.
Hard facts on AMD's current plans are hard to come by, too. Some sources indicate that AMD next major desktop CPU, Steamroller, will be moved to the FM socket family used by its APU products. Then again, some reckon Steamroller will never make it to the desktop. Likewise, in the long run, features like PCI Express 3.0 support become less critical.
If your plan is to integrate the CPU and GPU, you don't need to worry about providing bandwidth to dedicate graphics cards. In fact, AMD's strategy appears to pretty much assume the elimination of the motherboard chipset in favour of a system-on-a-chip based around AMD's fabled HSA architecture.
So, does all this really mean the end of AMD motherboards as we know them? Probably. Does it mean the end of AMD motherboards altogether? We at PCFormat doubt it very much.
Asrock Z87 Extreme3
Cheap and slightly shonky, but quirky and intriguing mobos. That used to be Asrock's place in the world. These days, however, the manufacturer has gone a bit mainstream. On the upside, that means a range of more straightforward models, including some high-end clobber. That said, old affinities die hard, and we're a little bit more comfortable with the prospect of this bargain basement board with an Asrock badge than one of its closest competitors, such as the rather disappointing entry from Gigabyte, the lacklustre Z87-D3HP.
Physically, they're two peas in a pod. Both are based on very thin PCBs, with a sludgy colour and flimsy feel that give the unsavoury impression of being mashed up from recycled games cartridges from the 80s, or pressed peanut sweepings from the factory floor. Okay, the latter's a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Think cheap. Think commodity electronics banged out in big numbers in dingy factories.
Asus Sabertooth Z87
This will have engineers at Asus's competitors either headbutting their workbenches in frustration or pacing up and down their labs like neglected zoo animals, because it's going to really hurt. We're suckers for the new Sabertooth Z87 just as much as we were for its Z77 daddy.
In some ways, the Sabertooth is nothing special. For the cynical, the recipe goes something like this. Take a plain Jane motherboard. Cover it up with some bits of pointless plastic. And then flog it at a bit of a premium price point. Kerching, indeed. And there's a lot of truth in that position.
The board that underpins the Sabertooth isn't a fancy-pants high-end item, and it is clad in frankly fairly cheap plastic panels. Premium features like a debug LED readout, hardware power buttons, V-check points? Fuggedabowdit, you get none of that stuff, but here's the thing: the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
An issue or three ago, this was our first taste of Asus's new 8 Series chipset generation, but now we've got the Z87 Sabertooth in the house too, the Z87-Pro's gaudy gold medallion accessories are much less of a distraction. Actually that's a bit unfair, because this board is actually pretty low key if you look past the dodgy detailing.
That's not something we can say about all the new Haswell-compatible boards we viewed at a recent Asus event. Whether it was pointless RFID kit or bizarre slide-out remote control devices, the air was filled with an air of desperation to come up with something to make each board stand out from the competition. By the end of the show, we'd barely have batted a bag of SATA cables had Asus wheeled out a motherboard with a mini drinks dispenser as a final flourish.
We're not sure why it bothers, because in many ways this rather straightforward mid-ranger and the aforementioned Sabertooth are the most relevant. So anyway, what do you actually get?
There's one in every group. One that has you tearing your hair out. If you have a lot of hair, which at least one August member of the PCF team does not. We'll say no more on that. The hair, that is, rather than this rather infuriating Gigabyte board, which at this stage we're contractually obliged to discuss even if we'd rather forget about it.
From the moment the deboxing began, the boding, er, boded ill. For starters, the PCB is thin, flimsy and generally devoid of proper heft. Gigabyte doesn't quote how many layers the Z87-D3HP's PCB has, but it's still seriously skinny, though.
Anyway, the point is that the general air is of a board that's had dollars shaved of the production cost whenever possible. That includes not only the thickness of the PCB and the number of copper layers, but also its width. It's one of those less-than-full-ATX size boards. Specifically it's 16mm narrower than the full ATX standard.
Gigabyte Z87 G1 Sniper M5
Manufacturing motherboards for a living? No thanks. Mostly it seems to involve jumping up and down, shouting very loudly about how wonderful you are, utilising some kind of weapons-themed nomenclature and plastering yourself in loud colours, and still being ignored. The result is that attention-grabbing gimmicks are often of dubious value when it comes to actually doing anything with your PC.
Enter, therefore, the charmingly-titled Gigabyte Z87 G1 Sniper M5 - because we all know guns are cool. Erm... But hold on - with the Sniper, Gigabyte has been careful to take aim at some things that might actually matter.
First though, let's cover the basics. Although we're actually a bit peeved about Intel forcing yet another new socket on us, we can't blame Gigabyte or this board for that. Instead, we can welcome in the new 8 Series chipsets and appreciate the features you get with pretty much all boards based on the new Z87 in particular.
Give it up for the end of an era. Intel is getting out of the mobo game. The 8 Series boards introduced with its new Haswell CPUs are the last full-sized desktop boards it will make. So is it goodbye and good riddance, or will we miss the things when they're gone?
Credit where it's due, Intel has turned things around a little when it comes to actually listening to what PC enthusiasts want. It used to take the dictatorial attitude that it knew best and anyone who didn't agree could sod off. A delightful example of this was the relatively piffling issue of legacy ports on the back panel. Intel didn't go in for them, so you didn't get any PS2 ports for mice and keyboards, even on its priciest board.
To be fair to Intel, it wasn't a cost issue. Intel just didn't think they were necessary to it's motherboard designs. Except, just occasionally they are. For instance, when you have a USB keyboard that just won't wake up until after the board has passed POST and is well in its way to booting the OS, leaving you a bit stuffed if you want to plunge into the BIOS options.
Mobos based on Intel's new Z87 chipset don't come much cheaper than this. In fact, as this issue of PCF hits the presses, Google tells us the only board that undercuts the MSI Z87-GD43 is its close MicroATX cousin, the Z87M-GD43. If nothing else, that adds some pleasing symmetry to this month's Z87 groupie, with MSI also topping the price table with the £350 XPower monster - which in turn provides a handy reminder that MSI is a pukka outfit that operates across all parts of the motherboard market.
Cut-price the GD43 may be, but it's still a big-brand board. It's also immediately jauntier than its closest competition: the intriguing Asrock Z87 Extreme3 and the flaky Gigabyte Z87-D3HP. That's partly because it's full ATX width, so it doesn't immediately remind you of its budget positioning by virtue of looking a bit of a wrong 'un. But it's also because MSI has made a virtue of the cheap, dark and sludgy PCB, by pairing it with a mix of black and electric blue slots and sockets.
MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming
Welcome to the latest edition of MSI motherboards monthly. Yup, the MSI Z87-GD65 is one of no fewer than three MSI efforts on test this issue. A bit OTT? Perhaps, but all three are very different propositions. In fact, as a trio they handily capture the key choices you must make when buying a mobo.
At one end of the scale there's the apparently poverty-stricken GD43 and its sub-£100 sticker. At the other, the XPower implodes any notions of value for money at £350. Thus at £160 the MSI Z87-GD65 represents the Tony Blair option. No, not a motherboard with an incongruous perma-tan, bizarre mid-Atlantic twang and a faint whiff of war crime. That would be silly, albeit a pretty impressive effort from what is an inanimate object.
No, what we're talking about is a third way. Not ultra cheap, not ultra expensive, but pragmatically somewhere in between and with a gaming focused twist that ought to be right up our collective alley.
MSI Z87 XPower
Make no mistake, this is a seriously fine board of the mothering kind. But for £350, this thing shouldn't just provide a comfortable home for your Intel chip of choice and extract the max in terms of performance. It should probably put up most of your extended family, make the breakfast and have you weeping with gratitude by asking how your day was after you get home from work when nobody else seems to care.
All of which is a round about way of posing the following question: can any motherboard really be worth this much money? Actually, that's easy. It's a no. But that really isn't the point at this end of the market. What matters isn't whether the MSI Z87 XPower can justify its apparently preposterous pricing. No, what matters is that it's seriously hot stuff in performance terms and packed with all the features you could possibly imagine.
How we tested
With so many features integrated onto CPUs today, it's inevitable that motherboard performance has converged, and that's exactly what our test results show. Where there is a difference, it's often down to the setting used for Intel's Turbo feature. Some motherboard makers stick strictly to the rules, while others crank Turbo up a bit.
However, that's typically something you can tweak in the BIOS, so shouldn't be treated as a deal breaker. It's therefore overclocking that separates the best boards from the duffers. Most have auto-overclocking features and results can vary wildly. Many use settings that have the CPU boot at a very high frequency only to downclock under load. Your best bet, therefore, is to set the frequency by hand.
As our results show, pretty much all boards give reasonable results, but some offer a little more headroom than others. Oh, and for the record, our main testing is done at optimised defaults for each motherboard as provided in the BIOS. That's why the memory bandwidth results are sub20GB/ s. However, it's worth noting that even at these settings, memory bandwidth isn't a bottleneck for CPU performance.
And the winner is… MSI Z87-GD65 Gaming
Does this motherboard groupie represent the end of an era? It certainly contains one of the very last Intel mobos we'll ever see. More to the point, it feels as though a lot of the things we hold dear will soon either be on lockdown or disappear entirely. There's even talk of soldering CPUs onto motherboards. Oh, the very humanity of it all.
So let's enjoy what freedom remains while we still can. There are some really super boards among this bunch. But not, sadly, the Gigabyte Z87-D3HP. It comes arse last. It was recalcitrant in testing, it screams cost-cutting from every trace line and its overclocking functionality is a bit borked. If there were no other Z87 alternatives available at this price point, it might be worth a look. But there are. So it isn't.
Intel's DZ87KLT-75K isn't a serious prospect either. It's fairly expensive, has a slightly annoying specification and isn't a particularly fancy overclocker. Next!
Actually, next is a bit of a problem as from here on in things get awfully tight. You can make an argument for each of the remaining seven boards. In fact, for six of them it's a dead heat. If money's no object, for instance, go and get yourself an MSI Z87 XPower. It's an absolute beast of a board. But money is an object and £350 for a motherboard based on the mainstream LGA1150 socket is ultimately idiotic.
Then there's Asus's Sabertooth Z87. It was the pre-test favourite based on our love for the Sabertooth Z77 and we love the new Z87 model almost as much, but ultimately it can't justify its £200 price tag. It would make a lot more sense and have a real shot at victory if it was priced around £160. Over to you, Asus.
The Asrock Z87 Extreme3 is certainly a tempter. It's the cheapest board here to offer a full-house multi-GPU spec thanks to support for both AMD Crossfire and Nvidia SLI. It's a good performer too, and a great choice if you're on a tight budget.
The same goes for the MSI Z87-GD43. It's low on frills and fancy features. There's no SLI support, but for £95 it does a good impression of a mainstream mobo rather than a budget board.
Next up we have a pair of £160 boards - the Gigabyte Z87 G1.Sniper M5 and the Asus Z87-Pro. We're confident you'd be happy with either. It's ultimately a toss up between the snazzier Gigabyte and the more conventional and capacious Asus. Either way, you'll get a great board.
But you'll get an even better board - if only marginally - if you go with MSI's Z87-GD65 Gaming. There's not a lot in it. But as an overall package, it pulls just a few more of our triggers than the rest. In fact, the best compliment we can give it is that if we were to design a board to specifically nail PCF's gaming-centric requirements, it would look an awful lot like the GD65. Kudos to MSI.