Best motherboard: 14 reviewed and rated
31st May 2012 | 08:00
The best AMD and Intel motherboards
Best motherboard 2012
We love motherboards at TechRadar. Your motherboard is the component that holds everything together, the sticky silicon glue that binds your PC as one.
If you're contemplating building a system from scratch, performing a serious system upgrade or want to switch to the latest and greatest Ivy Bridge processor it's more than likely you're going to start the upgrade head scratching with the motherboard.
The market has contracted somewhat as AMD has fallen behind Intel on the performance front and out of favour with consumers.
Intel retains its iron grip on the chipset market ensuring you'll pretty much only see motherboards based on its chipsets and therefore its design blueprints.
Ivy Bridge: What you need to know
Intel Core i7 3770K review
Intel Core i5 3570K review
Currently as is the Intel way current-generation chipsets are based on three models the high-end X79 that offers everything including Ivy Bridge support on socket LGA2011 and quad-memory channels, then the mid-range Z77 for everyone else with its socket LGA1155 support. While for the cheapskate H77 based-boards will fill out the ranks.
Even nine months on from launch X79 motherboards remain expensive but if you're after a bargain then a few Z68-based boards still make our top 14 list and offer great value with all of the performance but not all the latest technology.
As for AMD we have a single entry that ranks rather well, so it's not for the lack of AMD trying, but a horrible ebbing of the market away from AMD sales.
1. Asus P9X79 Pro - £192
We're not usually scared of price and certainly no X79-based motherboard can be described as cheap but in terms of pricing the Asus P9X79 Pro isn't bad, yet puts in the kind of specification and performance that matches it supposedly superior Sabretooth X79 bother.
The P9X79 Pro is still packed with up-to-the-minute features, such as PCIe 3.0 support, USB 3.0 boost technology, SSD caching, Asus's new USB BIOS Flashback, an updated UEFI BIOS with new features, eSATA 6Gbps and a full compliment of eight DIMM slots. So in fact you're getting an awful lot of board for that price tag and with a fair degree of future-proofing built in as a bonus.
2. Asus Sabertooth X79 - £241
One of the earlier X79 motherboard it remains top-flight in terms of performance, features and of course cost. But you get what you pay for and that's a lot. The Sabertooth X79 has lost the "Thermal Armour" cladding seen in the Sabertooth P67. There just isn't space to plumb in the fan. Instead, Asus has rigged up an enclosure around the rear panel, complete with a small fan to extract the worst of the hot gases from the chipset.
Another highlight of Asus's implementation of the X79 chipset is a new take on SSD caching. Think of it as a more user-friendly version of Intel's smart cache. Asus's effort is much easier to set up. In fact, you can add it any time you want after installing the OS on a normal magnetic hard drive.
3. MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) - £220
Is there such as thing as too much system memory? In the context of the new MSI X79A-GD65 8D, that's the first question that leaps to mind. As an X79 motherboard compatible with the latest Intel Core i7 processors for the LGA2011 socket, it forms part of the highest performing PC platform on planet Earth. But you still have to wonder whether support for 128GB of DDR3 memory split over eight DIMM slots is really rational.
Sure, for server PCs running multiple virtualised operating system and a whole hill of applications, that much memory is a boon. But for desktop PCs, even those running heavy duty content creations apps, eight to sixteen gig is usually plenty.
In its fisticuffs with the Gigabyte X79-UD3 and Asus's P9X79 Pro, therefore, the MSI X79A-GD65 8D will need a few more tricks up its sleeve. Maybe that old MSI favourite, the OC Genie button, can make the difference?
4. Gigabyte X79-UD3 - £162
Plotting a performance PC? Snag a high end motherboard. That's the conventional wisdom challenged by the new Gigabyte X79-UD3. Of course, any board based on Intel's X79 chipset hardly rates as poverty item. At £162, the Gigabyte X79-UD3 ain't exactly cheap, but it is one of the cheapest X79 motherboards on the market. Everything, therefore, is relative.
Consequently, the Gigabyte X79-UD3 is flagrantly frills-free. But with so many features now finding their way onto the the CPU die itself, including the memory controller and PCI Express bus, you could argue motherboards in general are less critical.
So Gigabyte's task is to deliver quality and performance where it matters while not going overboard on the corner cutting compared with more expensive X79 models such as the Asus P9X79 Pro and MSI X79A-GD65 8D. If Gigabyte can pull that off, we can certainly live without trinkets such as hardware power switches and LED displays.
5. Gigabyte Z77X-UD5H - £160
At £160/$190 the Gigabyte Z77X-UD5H is one of the more expensive of our launch Z77 boards, but still cheaper than Intel's DZ77GA-70K or the Asus Sabertooth Z77, and arguably better than both. Key to the board's impressive debut is the serious feature-set it manages for the price.
Although it doesn't actually come with a drive as standard it still sports the teeny mSATA connection, like the Gigabyte Z68XP-UD3-iSSD before it. That allows you to drop in a little 60GB SSD into the slot to link up with Intel's Smart Response Technology for drive caching loveliness.
6. Sapphire Pure Black 990FX - £140
The only AMD entry in our top 14 list manages to make it fittingly high and it's all done on merit rather than price or promises. Just one glance at the Sapphire Pure Black 990FX and you can see that it follows the strict design and layout of other recent Sapphire motherboards. But there's nothing necessarily wrong with that - if it ain't broke, why fix it?
If you happen to own a large number of hard drives, as well as a multitude of graphics cards, the Sapphire Pure Black FX990 should be able to satisfy your needs with no less than nine - yes nine - SATA 6Gbps ports.
7. Asus Sabertooth Z77 - £180
With Intel's Z77 desktop chipset in full swing the Asus Sabertooth Z77 is one of the most intriguing of the motherboard models available. So it's time to find out how the Sabertooth Z77 stacks up compared to both ye olde Intel 6 Series platforms and also a few of the competing members of the Z77 vanguard, including the MSI Z77A-GD65.
If motherboards were rated purely on appearance, the Asus Sabertooth Z77 would have things completely sewn up. It's almost entirely clad in air-channeling armour, with gaps allowed for the various slots and sockets. Even the USB headers have little plugs.
OK, the cladding is actually just plastic, but it gives the Sabertooth line of motherboards a completely unique look. Apart form allowing for more accurately managed airflow, we reckon the protective shell will help dust and dirt from building up on the board's surface, which has to be a good thing. It also makes just about every other motherboard out there look like a mess.
8. Asus RoG Maximus V Gene - £156
A familiar name, the same old colour scheme and a layout that leaves you with a sense of deja vu. But don't go thinking you've seen it all before with the Asus Republic of Gamers (RoG) Maximus V Gene.
This time around Asus's pint-sized MicroATX RoG Maximus powerhouse gets Intel's Z77 chipset just in time for the launch of the 3rd Generation revision of the Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors. In the meantime, we can get a feel for how the Asus Maximus V Gene and its Z77 chipset handles with an existing Intel Core i7 processor thanks to the fact that Intel has, for once, decided to carry over the LGA1155 socket, ensuring backwards compatibility with Sandy Bridge-era Intel CPUs.
9. Asus P8Z68-V LX - £75
A budget board with a premium chipset. Is that the most effective combination for achieving maximum bang-for-buck? If so, the Asus P8Z68-V LX is positioned perfectly.
It sells for as little as £75 but it packs Intel's Z68 chipset. OK, that means at best you're stuck with mainstream LGA1155 processors and a quad-core cap, rather than the six (like the Intel Core i7 3960X) and eight-core (the latter in the form of Xeon CPUs) beasts available for the monstrous LGA2011 bucket of pins. But as LGA1155 chipsets go, the Z68 is easily the pick of the bunch.
10. Asus Rampage IV Formula - £261
When you come up with an extreme, enthusiast-class platform like Intel's Sandy Bridge E and Ivy Bridge, you want the motherboard boys to come in and sort you out with a blazing mobo to showcase its full potential. Generally you can count on Asus, and generally it's the Republic of Gamers range that delivers.
The Rampage IV Formula was the first of the Republic of Gamers boards we tested tailored to Intel's X79 specs and we were hoping for something impressive given its outrageous £300+ price tag.
With the gamers' boards now the Sabertooth series, offering a decent balance of price, features and casual overclocking capabilities. The RoG boards are falling out of fashion creating an even smaller niche, catering only to the very obsessive hardcore clockers. These guys aren't gamers – they're after numbers, looking to get the fastest silicon going simply for the sake of it.
11. Sapphire Pure Black X79N - £257
Like the Sapphire Pure Black FX990, this is Sapphire's top-end motherboard for someone's highest-spec desktop chipset, and this time it's the turn of Intel's X79 platform. The Pure Black X79N, like most of Sapphire's latest boards aimed at the enthusiast end of the market, is full to the brim with features.
This is no more then you should expect on a motherboard aiming its beady eye at this particular market segment. However although the pricing is yet to be confirmed, the feature load is likely to be reflected in the price tag.
When we say full to the brim, that's a bit of an understatement - the Sapphire Pure Black X79N comes with no less than six PCIe x16 slots, two of which support the latest Generation 3 specs.
12. MSI Z77A-GD65 - £153
As CPU launches go, Intel's Ivy Bridge family was firmly in the reluctant, heel-dragging category. But it's finally out and the MSI Z77A-GD65 is one of the very first motherboards optimised for this latest line of Intel desktop number crunchers.
In its wisdom and mercy, Intel has decided not to roll out yet another socket for Ivy Bridge. So, the good news is that you can drop in any existing Intel LGA 1155 processor into the MSI Z77A-GD65 and let rip.
It's also this backwards compatibility that allows us to get a feeling for the MSI board and the new Intel Z77 chipset. That gives a chance to gauge how the Z77 shapes up for raw performance, what we can expect from it in terms of overclocking, how it compares to the old 6 Series family of chipsets, such as the Z68 and H67 and all, well, that jazz.
13. ASRock X79 Extreme4 - £165
The X79 Extreme4 is ASRock's third tier LGA2011 offering after the Extreme7 and Extreme9. Those are the performance boards in ASRock's lineup, with the Extreme4 fitting right in the middle.
It's not the top overclocking board but it's got enough extras in the package to make a fairly compelling argument for itself. But are these features enough when you're still being asked to spend so much on a new motherboard?
The value proposition becomes less of an issue when you're spending around £800 on the Core i7 3960X, or £400-odd on the Core i7 3930K. The difference between spending £200 and £250 on a board to get the most out of your CPU then seems less important.
The thing is, as important as all the other components are, the motherboard is the facilitator. It's the piece of the puzzle that enables the entire machine to run at its very best. Do you really want to stint on that?
14. Asus P8Z68-V Gen3 - £139
Intel's Z68 chipset, which is at the heart of this Asus P8Z68-V Gen3, has been around for a little while now, so what's with a new motherboard built around it? Especially from a technology leader like Asus - it's not like it hasn't got a least half a dozen boards in its Z68 range already. There's even a couple that, like the P8Z68-V Gen3, already have PCIe 3.0 support…
At a guess all this will come at a premium price, as it always does with a new chipset launch. And there in a nutshell is what the Asus P8Z68-V Gen3 is all about: offering the latest PCIe specifications on an already pretty well-featured board at a more affordable price for those whose budget can't cater for a board with the latest upcoming technology.