August 23, 2021

Building a computer for gaming can be a daunting task especially for those new to the field. With all the different parts of a computer to understand and the wide variety of individual components to choose from, this can make the task of building your ultimate gaming machine challenging to say the least. In this article, I take a look at the central component of any computer, the motherboard, which links all the other parts together. With an eye to what is available on the market right now, I then explain, in layman's terms as much as possible, what you should know about the different elements of a motherboard in order to choose the best one for you.  

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E-ATX, ATX, Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX?

The very first decision when choosing a motherboard for gaming is to decide on its size or format that fits your circumstances. Motherboards come in several different sizes of which the most common are the E-ATX, ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX formats:  

Common motherboard size formats

Format

Max. Dimens. (w x d)

Extended ATX (E-ATX)

305 x 330 mm

ATX

305 x 244 mm

Micro-ATX (mATX, µATX, uATX)

244 x 244 mm

Mini-ITX

170 x 170 mm

Mini-DTX

203 x 170 mm

FlexATX

229 x 191 mm

BTX

325 x 267 mm

Micro-BTX

264 x 267 mm

Different format motherboards have their advantages and disadvantages and will fit the needs of different users. For instance, if you need your computer to have a smaller overall size, you will be looking for a smaller computer case that will likely only fit Micro-ATX or Mini-ITX motherboards. Alternatively, if you are looking to build a High-End DeskTop (HEDT) that can support massive amounts of RAM and peripheral components, you may need a larger format motherboard like the E-ATX just to have available the connection hardware to accommodate the higher specification. Finally, cost also plays a role in deciding which size is right for you since, in general, bigger motherboards will cost more than smaller ones.

However, the overwhelmingly dominant motherboard size that is most opted for by the majority of PC gamers is the ATX format, so this will be the motherboard format I will be concentrating on in this article.


Intel or AMD

vs

The next decision when choosing a motherboard for gaming is to decide on the company you want to declare your allegiance to. Fortunately, there are really only two companies to choose from: Intel and AMD. The decision on which to go for really depends on whether you want an Intel CPU or an AMD CPU driving your computer. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, however, helping you make your CPU-buying decision is beyond the scope of this article. For my personal needs and in order not to make this article too long, Intel is going to be the focus here. 

Intel has several CPUs to choose from, which vary in generation (i.e. when they were launched), the number of cores, and processor speed. Once again, choosing the right Intel chip for your set-up is beyond the scope of this article, but in general, for gaming, one wants to prioritise the later generations of CPU and the speed at which they run, over the number of cores, as most of today's games do not make use of more than a few cores. Ultimately, the best way to choose a gaming CPU is to compare benchmark results of CPUs against each other.


CPU Socket and Chipset

The question of which CPU to buy will determine the CPU socket and chipset you need to have on your motherboard. Currently, Intel's latest (10th and 11th) generations of CPUs use the LGA 1200 socket, so that will be my focus here.

The LGA 1200 socket is present on a range of motherboards with different chipsets. Each Intel chipset has its own characteristics, but one type, in particular, is most relevant to gamers, especially competitive gamers. Any Intel chipset beginning with the letter 'Z' (eg. Z590 or Z490) means that it is compatible with overclocking. So why would you want to overclock your computer?

Due to manufacturing differences, no single computer component, CPU included, is identical to another, even between individual units of the same component made at the same time. Manufacturers configure components (CPUs, GPUs, Memory, etc) to run at speeds where the risk of failure across a batch of a particular model is minimal. That means that the default running speeds of components are set lower than what individual units may be able to achieve. As a result, by following a careful overclocking procedure, you can usually optimise the individual components of your computer to get more performance out of them, which may, in turn, give you more of that gaming edge.

Now overclocking may not seem necessary when you are first starting out on your gaming career, and that may be true. However, further down the line, it will probably be something you will want to try, especially if it has the potential to increase your gaming potential! As a result of this potential advantage overclocking can provide to gamers, this article will be centred around the Intel 'Z'-model chipsets.

CPU sockets & compatible chipsets for today's CPUs
Header

Intel

(2020 - 2021)

Intel

(2017 - 2018)

Intel

(HEDT*)

AMD

AMD

(HEDT*)

Socket Type

LGA 1200

LGA 1151

LGA 2066

AM4

TR4

Compatible

Chipsets

Z590

Z490

H570

H470

B560

B460

H510

H410

Q570

Q470

W580

W480

Z390

Z370

Q370

H370

B365

B360

H310

C246

X299

X570

X470

X370

X300

B550

B450

B350

A320

A300

X399

* HEDT = High-End DeskTop

Since the Z590 chipset motherboard represents the top end of affordable Intel motherboards in today's market, this is most likely going to be the chipset you are going to choose as a gamer, and so it will be my focus here. Of course, there are better motherboards for the extreme end (High-End DeskTop or HEDT) of computer building but putting together an HEDT is usually unnecessary for gaming and also tends to be out of the price range of most.  

And so at last we get to the actual motherboards!  Below you will find a table of the Intel motherboards with Z590 chipsets that are available today. To better understand their individual capabilities, scroll down below the table to get more detailed explanations of each specification and what to look for.

Intel Z590 Motherboards

To narrow down your motherboard search, enter unique terms (case-insensitive) from the table, separated by spaces:

eg. MSI WiFi-6E HDMI to show only motherboards from MSI with WiFi 6E and an HDMI port.

eg. Gen2x2 Ethernet-2.5Gb for motherboards with at least one USB3.2 Gen2x2 port and 2.5 Gigabit ethernet.

eg. Type-C Gen2x2 for motherboards with at least one USB3.2 Type C port and a USB3.2 Gen2x2 port which may be one and the same.

Intel ATX Motherboard PCIe 4.0PCIe 3.0Storage
Slots
Internal Peripheral
Connectors
Rear Peripheral
Ports
RAM Slots
(DDR4)
Maximum
Memory
Networking
Features
Video Out
Ports
MSI MEG Z590
ACE GOLD
EDITION
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
4 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 Thunderbolt 4
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
Thunderbolt (passthrough)
MSI MEG Z590
ACE
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
4 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 Thunderbolt 4
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
Thunderbolt (passthrough)
MSI MPG Z590
GAMING
CARBON WIFI
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
3 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MPG Z590
GAMING FORCE
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
3 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MPG Z590
CARBON EK X
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
3 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
VISION D
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6
Bluetooth-5.1
HDMI
Thunderbolt (passthrough)
GIGABYTE Z590
AORUS MASTER
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x46 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
5 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4
128GBEthernet-10Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
AORUS ULTRA
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x46 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
4 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6
Bluetooth-5.1
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
TAICHI
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x16, x8/x81 PCIe x16@x4
1 PCIe x1
8 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 USB 4.0 / Thunderbolt 4 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
Ethernet-1Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
ASRock Z590
PG VELOCITA
Amazon
2 PCIe x16@x16, x8/x81 PCIe x16@x4
1 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
1 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
6 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
Ethernet-1Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MPG Z590
GAMING PLUS
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x162 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
3 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
DisplayPort
MSI Z590-A PRO
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MAG Z590 TOMAHAWK WIFI
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MAG Z590 TORPEDO
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
Ethernet-1Gb
HDMI
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
AORUS ELITE AX
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
1 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
3 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6
Bluetooth-5.1
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
AORUS ELITE
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x16
1 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
3 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbDisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
AORUS PRO AX
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x162 PCIe x16@x46 SATA
4 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
4 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6
Bluetooth-5.1
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
VISION G
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x162 PCIe x16@x46 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
ASRock Z590
EXTREME
WIFI 6E
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
Ethernet-1Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
EXTREME
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
Ethernet-1Gb
HDMI
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
PRO4
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
Steel Legend WiFi 6E
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
STEEL LEGEND
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbHDMI
DisplayPort
ASRock Z590
Phantom Gaming 4
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
3 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-1GbHDMI
MSI Z590
PRO WIFI
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
2 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
4 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
DisplayPort
MSI MEG
Z590 UNIFY
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
4 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
8 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
MSI MEG Z590
UNIFY-X
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x4
2 PCIe x1
6 SATA
4 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
1 USB 3.2 Gen2x2 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
8 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
2
64GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-6E
Bluetooth-5.2
HDMI
GIGABYTE Z590
UD AC
Amazon
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
2 PCIe x1
5 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5Gb
WIFI-5
Bluetooth-5.1
DisplayPort
GIGABYTE Z590
UD
1 PCIe x16@x161 PCIe x16@x4
2 PCIe x1
5 SATA
3 M.2
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-C
1 USB 3.2 Gen1 **
2 USB 2.0 **
2 USB 3.2 Gen2 Type-A
4 USB 3.2 Gen1 Type-A
2 USB 2.0
1 PS/2
4
128GBEthernet-2.5GbDisplayPort
** each connector can support 2x USB ports via optional accessories



PCI Express (PCIe)

Probably one of the most important aspects when building a computer is its expandability. Expansion is primarily mediated through the availability and type of PCI Express (PCIe) ports that are available on the motherboard. Expansion cards of different types can be inserted into these PCIe ports to increase the computer's functionality. The majority of motherboards come with several PCIe ports of different physical size of which the most common are:

  • PCIe x1
  • PCIe x4
  • PCIe x16

Importantly, expansion cards will naturally fit into PCIe slots that are sized for their PCIe interface but they will also work in PCIe slots that are physically larger. This means, for example, that an expansion card with a PCIe x4 size interface can be used in a PCIe x4 size slot, but it can also be used in a PCIe x8 size slot or a PCIe x16 size slot.

In addition, the larger the PCIe port size, the greater the bandwidth it usually supports and the greater its ability to transfer data. However, some larger PCIe ports only support reduced numbers of data lanes even though their physical size matches that of a larger port. For example, a PCIe x16 size port may only be able to support 4 data lanes (instead of the expected 16 based on the port size). This is can be represented in a few different ways, one of which is through the use of the "@" symbol, so in our example, the PCIe x16 size port that supports only 4 data lanes would be represented by "PCIe x16 @ x4".

Occasionally, one also comes across two PCIe x16 ports sharing 16 data lanes. If only one of the ports is used, then it functions as a full-sized PCIe x16 @ x16 port using all 16 data lanes for itself. However, if both PCI x16 ports are used at the same time, then the two PCIe x16 ports share the bandwidth and both function as PCIe x16 @ x8 ports using only 8 data lanes each. In this case, these ports can be represented by "2 PCIe x16 @ x16, x8/x8".

Most common PCIe port types found on the latest Intel motherboards

PCIe Port Type

Description

PCIe x16 @ x16

PCIe x16 size port using all 16 lanes of data

PCIe x16 @ x4

PCIe x16 size port that only uses 4 data lanes

PCIe x1

PCIe x1 size port that uses only 1 data lane (same as PCIe x1 @ x1)

2  PCIE x16 @ x16, x8/x8

Two PCIe x16 size ports, one of which can be used as PCIe x16 @ x16 port (when the other is unoccupied) OR if both are occupied, then both function as PCIe x16 @ x8 ports


How many PCIe ports do you need?

Deciding on the number and type of PCIe ports you need on your computer's motherboard is determined by the number and types of expansion cards you plan to add to your machine, which is ultimately determined by how you intend to use the computer and for what purposes. 

Usually, the primary component gamers want to add to their computer is a graphics card. Almost all graphics cards today use a PCIe x16 size port, and to get the most out of the card, especially if you are gaming, a PCIe x16 @ x16 port (i.e. using all 16 data lanes) should be used. Fortunately, every ATX motherboard comes with at least one PCIe x16 @ x16 port for this reason. 

After the graphics card, things get a little less well-defined and how many ports and which types is determined by what sort of computer user (in addition to being a gamer!) you are or intend to be. Expansion cards come in many different forms as shown in the table below.

Types of PCIe expansion cards

Expansion Card

What It Does

Number PCIe Data Lanes Usually Needed

Examples

Graphics cards

Improve computer graphics or connect more screens at higher resolutions

16

(i.e. PCIe x16 @ x16)

M.2 interface cards

Add more M.2 slots so that more M.2 SSD drives or other M.2 devices can be connected

16

(i.e. PCIe x16 @ x16)

RAID cards

 Implement RAID configurations across multiple storage drives

4, 8, or 16

(eg. PCIe x16 @ x16

or PCIe x16 @ x8

or PCIe x16 @ x4)

SSD cards

Add an additional SSD storage drive

8

(eg. PCIe x16 @ x8

or PCIe x8 @ x8)

Network cards (special)

Add upgraded ethernet (eg. dual or 10Gb)

4

(eg. PCIe x16 @ x4

or PCIe x4 @ x4)

USB 3 interface cards

Add more USB 3 ports

4

(eg. PCIe x16 @ x4

or PCIe x4 @ x4)

USB 2 interface cards

Add more USB 2 ports

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

Sound cards

Improve sound

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

Parallel interface cards

Connect to (usually older) printers, scanners, memory card readers, barcode scanners, etc

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

Serial interface cards

Connect to serial devices such as scales, touchscreens, magnetic card readers, bar code scanners, receipt printers, label printers, etc

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

Firewire interface cards

Add Firewire ports to connect to Firewire devices such as (older) hard drives

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

SATA interface cards

Add more SATA ports to connect more hard drives or optical drives

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)

Network cards

Add ethernet or WIFI / Bluetooth

1

(i.e. PCIe x1)


Do you need PCIe version 4.0?

As with all things digital, the PCIe standards are constantly improving and changes are represented by the increase in the version number of the PCIe interface. PCIe version 3.0 has been the standard for several years now, but a more recent version, PCIe version 4.0, is just starting to replace it. The major difference between the two PCIe standards is that the data transfer rate of version 4.0 is twice as fast as version 3.0.

So do you need your motherboard to support PCIe version 4.0? The simple answer is probably yes, but as always it depends on what you intend to do with your computer and how much disposable cash you have to spend.

For one of the most important aspects of a gaming computer: graphics, although most high-end graphics cards today are designed to use PCIe version 4.0, the increase in performance is minor, although the occasional game does show a significant improvement. Making use of Intel's 11th generation 'Rocket-Lake' CPUs should make an even bigger difference, suggesting that any performance improvement in gameplay is bottlenecked at the level of the CPU. Therefore, using faster CPUs that make full use of PCIe version 4.0 should unleash the extra power a PCIe 4.0-compatible motherboard and graphics card are capable of.

Another benefit of a PCIe 4.0-compatible motherboard is seen with the movement of data to and from SSD storage drives that also make use of the more advanced PCIe standard. A good example where this may have a significant impact for gamers is in the loading times of games, which will be significantly faster with PCIe version 4.0 than with version 3.0.

The final obvious benefit of opting for a motherboard that supports PCIe 4.0 is that it future-proofs the hardware for the inevitable full uptake of the higher PCIe standard over the next few years.


Storage Drive Slots

All computers need long-term storage and, when connecting storage drives, two types of interfaces are currently the standard: SATA and M.2.  SATA is traditionally the connection used for spinning hard drives and optical drives, while M.2 is becoming the de facto standard for connecting SSD drives.  

SATA

Most of us will know hard drives and optical drives connect via a wide 'SATA connector'. However, did you know that this SATA connector consists of two delineated parts, the data pins and the power pins? 

The SATA connector on a hard drive

The SATA connector on a hard drive

When a SATA drive is used within a gaming computer two separate cables are used to connect it: the data cable that connects the SATA port on the motherboard to the data pins of the drive, and a power cable that connects the computer power supply to the power pins of the drive. Importantly, SATA connections make use of the AHCI driver and the SATA bus to mediate file transfer (more on that later).

When SSDs first came out they too were connected via the SATA connector and SATA SSD drives are even still available today. However, more modern SSDs have moved on from the SATA connector to the M.2 connection interface.

M.2

Solid-state drives (SSDs), in contrast to hard drives and optical drives, are much smaller, faster and more robust. As a consequence, SSDs are slowly taking over the role of file storage on a computer. Solid-state drives today primarily connect via the M.2 interface, however, there are three types of M.2 connection and therefore three different types of SSDs:

SSD Drive

Connection

Bus

Driver

Speed

M.2 SATA SSD

M.2

SATA

AHCI

same as SATA

M.2 PCIe SSD

M.2

PCIe

AHCI

faster than SATA

M.2 PCIe SSD

M.2

PCIe

NVMe

fastest

M.2 SATA (AHCI) SSDs  - these SSDs connect via the M.2 physical connector making use of the SATA bus on the motherboard to transfer data, and using the AHCI driver (that was originally designed for SATA connections and the SATA bus).

M.2 PCIe (AHCI) SSDs - these SSDs connect via the M.2 connector, this time making use of the PCIe bus on the motherboard. However, they still use the slower AHCI driver.

M.2 PCIe (NVMe) SSDs - these SSDs connect via the M.2 connector making use of the PCIe bus on the motherboard but with the more recently-developed NVMe driver which was designed to facilitate data transfer at a much higher rate.

It is also important to note that the motherboard M.2 ports themselves will either support SATA bus connections only, PCIe bus connections only, or both SATA and PCIe bus connections. In addition, M.2 ports that support PCIe connections will either support the AHCI driver or the NVMe driver. So it is important to check which type of M.2 ports your future motherboard has to ensure that they are compatible with the type(s) of SSDs you intend to use in your new computer.


External Peripheral Connections

USB & Thunderbolt

Being able to connect peripheral devices to a computer from the outside of the case is an important consideration when building your new computer. External peripheral ports have come in many flavours over the years, but today USB has become the dominant player in this space, along with a couple of other port types that make an appearance occasionally.  

It is important here to differentiate between the actual physical port used and the peripheral connection standard that uses that physical port. Some physical ports can support different connection technologies eg. a USB Type-C physical port can support different versions of USB 3.2 and can also sometimes support Thunderbolt 3 or 4. In addition, some connection technologies can opt to use different types of physical ports eg. USB 3.2 can use either USB Type-A or USB Type-C physical ports.

How many USB ports do you need and which types? 'A few' is probably the best answer as we all have some peripheral hardware (external hard drives, printers, scanners, computer mice, keyboard, trackpad, etc) that we will need to connect to our finished build. As for which versions of USB connections will depend on what data speeds you need the USB ports to perform at. All USB versions are backwards and forwards-compatible, which means that any USB device will work with any USB connection. However, the older the USB version is, the slower it is at moving data through it. For some low data-consuming applications, a slower connection is fine, for instance, for a keyboard or mouse, any USB connection will do. However, for heavier data-transferring applications, such as accessing an external hard drive, you will want the fastest USB connection available.

Common external peripheral connections & ports found on today's motherboards

Connection Technology

Previous names

Maximum Speed

Physical Ports Used

USB 2.0

--

0.48 Gbps (480 Mbps)

USB Type-A

USB 3.2 Gen 1

USB 3.0,

USB 3.1 Gen 1

5 Gbps

USB Type-A

USB Type-C

USB 3.2 Gen 2

USB 3.1 Gen 2

10 Gbps

USB Type-A

USB Type-C

USB 3.2 Gen 2x2

--

20 Gbps

USB Type-C

Thunderbolt 3

--

40 Gbps

USB Type-C

Thunderbolt 4

--

40 Gbps

USB Type-C


Internal headers for front-facing USB ports

Traditionally, physical ports are soldered onto the motherboard in a rear-facing orientation, designed to protrude from the back of a finished computer build. However, the majority of modern motherboards now also come with the ability to connect to front-facing USB ports. The way this is accomplished is by providing the header pins on the motherboard that accept the cables needed to link them to physical USB ports embedded in the front of most computer cases.

PS/2

Another port one sometimes sees on motherboards is the PS/2 port. This is a legacy port that was developed many years ago but still gets included on some hardware for various reasons. Its function is exclusively to connect computer mice and keyboards that operate via a PS/2 connector rather than USB.


Memory (RAM)

RAM slots on a motherboard

RAM slots on a motherboard

Motherboards come with several slots that accept memory (RAM) modules which are critical for holding applications or games so that they are readily accessible to the CPU. The more memory a motherboard has, the greater the number of programs it can load simultaneously. For most gaming needs, 16 GB is currently sufficient while 32 GB is usually more than enough. There will be an upper limit to the total amount of memory a motherboard can support but this is usually way in excess of what normal users or gamers will ever need, for example, most Z590 chipset ATX motherboards will support up to 128 GB of RAM.

Different motherboards can also vary in the number of RAM slots. For small mini-ITX boards, these usually have 2 slots, while larger ATX boards will normally have 4 slots for RAM. As for High-End DeskTop (HEDT) motherboards, they will usually have 8 slots to accommodate the larger memory requirements more demanding applications may require.

Ultimately, when it comes to RAM slots, more is always better. RAM modules are more expensive the more memory each module holds. This means that a certain amount of memory spread over fewer modules will be more expensive than the same total amount of memory spread over more modules. So for instance, 2 x 8 GB of memory will cost more than 4 x 4 GB of RAM, even though their total capacity (16 GB) is identical. As a result, the more memory slots a motherboard has, the better it is from an economic standpoint as well.

In addition to the amount and the size of memory that can be added to a motherboard, another important criterion to consider is the maximum memory speed the motherboard will support. Naturally, the faster the memory, the snappier the computer will operate, so choosing a motherboard that can handle as high a memory speed as possible should be aimed for here. Z590 chipset motherboards can usually support RAM speeds up to 3200 MHz without overclocking, while Z490 chipset motherboards are specified to support up to 2933 MHz memory speeds.


Networking

One of the primary functions of a computer is to connect to networks. On a motherboard, this is implemented through three different technologies: Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. In today's technologically-driven world, most of us already understand the role each of these technologies plays in our digital lives. However, each exists in several different versions and, when picking a motherboard, understanding the capabilities of each version of a networking technology will help determine what is necessary for your particular build.  

Ethernet

Today most ethernet comes in three different data transfer speeds that are measured in Megabits per second (Mbps) or Gigabits per second (Gbps). These are:

  •  '1 Gigabit (1Gb) Ethernet' = 1000 Mbps  = 1 Gbps
  •  '2.5 Gigabit (2.5Gb) Ethernet' = 2500 Mbps = 2.5 Gbps
  • '10 Gigabit (10Gb) Ethernet' = 10,000 Mbps = 10 Gbps

What speed do you need on your motherboard? Today, any of the above will do. That is because most home broadband speeds are at or less than 1 Gigabit, meaning that the limiting factor on data transfer speeds when connecting to the internet will be the connection to your internet service provider and not the ethernet connection on your motherboard. For example, at the time of writing, the fastest home broadband available to the UK public is Virgin Media's Gig1 service which is at the level of 1 Gigabit Ethernet, however, this is only available to certain households where the infrastructure is in place.

With home broadband speeds just starting to hit the 1 Gigabit level, one should be fine with any of the available ethernet connection speeds on their motherboard. However, to future-proof your new computer for future increases in home broadband speeds, it is probably more prudent to opt for the 2.5 Gigabit ethernet option.

For the overwhelming majority of users, the 10 Gigabit Ethernet connection will probably never be used to its fullest capacity before the other hardware on your motherboard becomes outdated and it is time to upgrade the whole computer anyway. There is, however, one exception and that is if you need fast intranet speeds for data transfer between computers/devices within your home. If you need to transfer data between your new computer build and other devices connected to the router in your home either through ethernet cables or via Wi-Fi, then having the 10 Gigabit Ethernet connection could be useful. However, you will also need to ensure that your router and other devices also have 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports to make use of the high-speed connection. Currently, most (if not all) routers included with home broadband packages do not have 10 Gigabit Ethernet, for instance, Virgin Broadband's latest Hub 4 router has only 1 Gigabit Ethernet ports. In addition, if any of your devices you are moving data between are connected via Wi-Fi rather than ethernet, then the router and the Wi-Fi-connected device will also have to support at least Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) in order to make use of the higher data speeds (more on Wi-Fi below).


Wi-Fi

Another important networking technology to consider including on your motherboard is wireless internet or Wi-Fi. Again this has evolved over the years and currently exists in several versions with increasing capabilities. Like ethernet, however, the versions of Wi-Fi that are common in today's motherboards (Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E) can transfer data at speeds far in excess of the fastest home broadband connection (currently at 1 Gbps in the UK) and so will unlikely be a limiting factor on internet speeds now or in the near future. However, wireless signals are a bit more complicated than ethernet in that they are more easily subject to interference and congestion. Wireless signals are impeded by physical structures such as walls and are limited in the distance they can travel, which affects data transfer speeds. And if too many devices are using the same bandwidth, this too can slow down internet connection speeds due to congestion. With each new version of Wi-Fi, these problems have been incrementally addressed.

Wi-Fi versions found on today's motherboards

Wi-Fi Common Name

Technology

Frequency Range

Maximum Data Transfer Rate

Wi-Fi 4

802.11n

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

0.6 Gbps (600 Mbps)

Wi-Fi 5

802.11ac

5 GHz

3.5 Gbps

Wi-Fi 6

802.11ax

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

9.6 Gbps

Wi-Fi 6E

802.11ax

2.4 GHz

5 GHz

6 GHz

9.6 Gbps

Today, Wi-Fi 5 should be the minimum standard on a new motherboard. However, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E come with some new technologies that help address some of the interference and congestion issues of earlier versions:

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 is better than Wi-Fi 5 in three main ways:

  • it can better handle multiple connected devices at once by interacting with them simultaneously rather than one by one.
  • it has 'Transmit beamforming' which means the Wi-Fi signal is directed at specific devices which allows for faster speeds at a greater range.
  • Wi-Fi 6 routers now have 'Target Wake Time' which tells devices when to wake and sleep so they are not constantly looking for a signal. This means less energy/battery usage and reduced congestion on the airways.
Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6E has everything that Wi-Fi 6 possesses but it has been extended (hence the 'E' at the end) to include the 6 GHz frequency band in addition to the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz ranges that are used by Wi-Fi 6. This means there is much more space on the airways to send wireless signals so congestion will be reduced further still.

Wi-Fi on your router

Importantly, routers also have to support the version of Wi-Fi that you intend to use. Although Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E-compatible routers are available for purchase from retail outlets, most (if not all) Wi-Fi routers currently included with home broadband packages only support up to Wi-Fi 5. Therefore, including Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E capability on your motherboard is more about future-proofing your computer rather than making immediate use of the improved Wi-Fi standards.


Bluetooth

Like Ethernet and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth too improves with each version and, like the other networking technologies, moving between Bluetooth versions requires new hardware. At the time of writing, Bluetooth version 5 is the default standard with motherboards of today coming mostly with Bluetooth version 5.1 or 5.2.  

Bluetooth Version 5.1

The main improvements over version 5.0 are:

  • Version 5.1 can now pinpoint your location which is useful for Bluetooth lost item-locator devices.
  • Version 5.1 mediates faster connection initiation between Bluetooth devices while also using less power to do so.
  • Version 5.1 has improvements in connection advertising, which is where a Bluetooth device indicates that it is available for connection.
Bluetooth Version 5.2

The main improvements over version 5.1 are:

  • Version 5.2 uses low energy power control, which allows for more information to be transmitted using less bandwidth & lower amounts of power.
  • Version 5.2 allows for parallel communication, for example, multiple apps on a device may use the Bluetooth module simultaneously to communicate externally.
  • Version 5.2 uses asynchronous channels which permits simultaneous connections to multiple devices from single sources. For example, you can pair your computer with both Bluetooth headphones and speakers at the same time and then switch between them seamlessly.


Video-Out Ports

A lot of motherboards today come with one or two video-out ports. These are capable of connecting the motherboard to display screens without the need for a dedicated graphics card (although your CPU is then usually required to have an integrated GPU). However, since one of the major reasons for building a gaming computer in the first place is for the enhanced visuals that a high-end graphics card can produce, these motherboard video-out ports are often superfluous. 

There are, however, some special circumstances when you might want to use the integrated graphics capability of the motherboard rather than a dedicated graphics card. These predominantly include the initial configuration of a system or BIOS before the graphics card has been installed or configured, or when diagnosing a computer problem that might involve the dedicated graphics card.

Most of today's motherboards will include one or more of the following video-out ports:

  • HDMI
  • DisplayPort
  • Thunderbolt (passthrough)

Thunderbolt (passthrough)

HDMI and DisplayPort are straightforward connections that are easy to understand and most people have experienced connecting a monitor via one or both standards. However, a Thunderbolt 'passthrough' connection is a little bit more complicated. It allows for the connection of Thunderbolt displays - think Apple displays - to your computer. However, although you connect the Thunderbolt display to the USB-C port in the usual way, another connection is needed between a Mini DisplayPort IN port on the motherboard, and either a DisplayPort also located on the motherboard (which uses the integrated graphics previously described) or a DisplayPort on a dedicated graphics card.

(excerpt from the GIGABYTE Z590 Vision D motherboard manual)


Conclusion

When building a gaming computer, the motherboard is probably one of the most complicated components to choose, as it connects all of the other hardware together. This makes it necessary to understand how the computer will function as a whole before deciding on which motherboard is a good fit. 

Once you have decided on the size format of the motherboard as well as whether it should run an Intel or AMD CPU, you then have to determine what its hardware characteristics should be.

The hardware choices to make include computer expandability through the PCIe bus, how much internal long-term storage you may want on your computer, and the number and type of external connection ports to have for peripheral devices. In addition, you will also need to decide on the amount of RAM the motherboard should be capable of supporting, its networking capabilities, and finally, which type (if any) of video-out connections you may need to make with the motherboard itself.

Hopefully, this article has covered most of these issues in sufficient detail for you to make your motherboard-buying decision just that little bit easier!


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