What to look for in a motherboard

I’ve been building PCs for more than 20 years and I tend to keep them a very long time, so it occurred to me that someone might be interested in what I look for in a motherboard to ensure both a long, reliable life and a long useful life.

Technology has changed a lot but what I look for has remained surprisingly consistent over the years.

Brand

what to look for in a motherboard
This motherboard has plenty of memory slots and SATA ports but it’s short on expansion slots. It only has room for one PCIe video card and one PCIe I/O card of some kind. Micro ATX boards often compromise on PCIe slots.

Above all else I look for a manufacturer with a proven track record. Asus has been my #1 choice for more than 15 years because I’ve had far fewer problems with their boards than with anyone else. If I couldn’t buy an Asus for some reason, Gigabyte would probably be my second choice and Asrock would probably be my third. These days the price difference between a quality board and a questionable one tends to be rather small. From what I understand ECS has cleaned up their act–they really had nowhere to go but up–but when an Asus board costs $15 more than an ECS board I don’t see any reason to take a chance on them.

Memory slots

I don’t need 32 GB of RAM right now. I don’t really need 16 GB of RAM right now either, but I don’t know what the future will bring, so I want a board with four memory slots so I can put a pair of 8 GB DIMMs in it and have a couple of slots left over to upgrade later. Memory isn’t as ridiculously cheap now as it was a couple of years ago, but 16 GB is cheap enough that it makes sense to go ahead and get it. I remember when eight megabytes of RAM cost $200, and today you can get 16 GB for more like $160.

Video outputs

If you’re going to use integrated video, look for a board with VGA, HDMI and DVI outputs so I could connect it to a TV or to multiple monitors. If you’re going to keep a PC a long time, you want versatility. A board that’s outmoded for everyday desktop use would probably still fine for some living room duties, so I want the TV option.

Post-2015 Intel and AMD chips have integrated video that’s nearly as fast as a $100 video card, so integrated video can be worth using these days.

Expansion slots

I want a minimum of two PCIe slots available, one for a video card and one for I/O. More is better, but today’s motherboards have so much integrated onboard that it’s unusual for someone to actually need seven slots anymore. If I wanted to be really safe, I would want two full-length PCIe slots that could accommodate video cards, and two smaller PCIe slots to accommodate a good network card and either a SATA or USB card for future-proofing, and a couple of PCI slots for legacy compatibility. But realistically, I would be surprised if I ever actually used all of them.

Form factor

Whatever fits the case. If I can find a micro ATX board with enough memory and expansion slots, I’ll gladly buy it.

Intel vs. AMD

AMD tends to cost less up front while Intel tends to be more power efficient. If Bromium ever releases a consumer product I’ll probably never buy AMD again (it only runs on Intel CPUs, and i3 or higher CPUs at that), but I have no idea if Bromium will do that. Although I’ve heard people pan AMD reliability for years, I’ve never seen it. I’ve been using AMD chips since 1994 and I’ve never had one die on me.

I/O

Of course I want the latest SATA and USB, and the more ports the better, but if I have enough ports to plug in what I need right now and still have one or two left, I’m fine. I also look for a PS/2 port so I can use my ancient IBM keyboards. The continued presence of PS/2 ports suggests I’m not alone in this, though I know people like me are a fraction of the market.

A high-end board should have at least one M.2 connector for a PCI express SSD, as those are considerably faster than SATA.

Price

The ideal motherboard almost always costs $200 or more, but frequently I can get something that meets my minimum for less than $100. Any no-compromises board will be expensive, but the thing to remember is that by the time you fill a board up, you’re likely to run up against its CPU limitations too. The $100 board I bought in 2011 aged better than I expected. We even do some light gaming on it.

Reviews

I know some people believe every online review is astroturfed, but I can glean useful information from end-user motherboard reviews. It’s usually not difficult to tell which people don’t know what they’re talking about. I tend to look for the extremes, and if a normally reliable company releases a board that gets hundreds of positive reviews and a handful of one-star reviews, that sounds like normal DOA failures to me. When I see a large number of one-star reviews where people step through what didn’t work but should, I get concerned. I also want to see thoughtful 5-star reviews, not one-liners that say, “Best motherboard ever! This manufacturer rules! This vendor rocks!” Come to think of it, there’s an inverse relationship between the number of exclamation points in a review and the quality of the review.

In conclusion

A year or so ago a former coworker bragged to me about the system he’d just built. He spared no expense, buying the biggest, most expensive motherboard he could find, outfitting it with 32 GB of RAM from the very beginning and one or two high-end video cards, and he bought either the fastest or second-fastest Intel Core i7 CPU on the market at the time. I’m sure it’s a nice machine, but I could have built a machine with half the specs for 1/3 the price, and it would be 75% as nice. And in two years, I could do it again, probably have a nicer machine at that point, and still be money ahead.

A computer that’s top of the line in every regard can easily cost more than an air conditioner or a furnace, but air conditioners and furnaces last 20 years. I have a hard time justifying spending more on computer hardware than I spend on the most expensive appliance in a house.

One thought on “What to look for in a motherboard

  • October 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm
    Permalink

    The first day this post was up, you had hi-lighted buttons to Amazon on the products you were interested in. Is it possible that you could send the list of products again????

    Reply

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