There’s very little room for motherboard vendors to differentiate their wares through platform performance. Intel has its memory controller, graphics engine, much of its PCIe connectivity, and quite a bit of last-level cache built right onto a single die. AMD’s APU incorporate many of the same subsystems. So, the board vendors instead add value through third-party controllers, optimized layout, overclocking headroom, and even their own software products.
When we recommend a high-end processor, we know you plan to complement it with plenty of memory, robust graphics, and a smartly-tiered storage configuration. That’s why we look to flexible platforms loaded with the right slot layout, relevant connectors, and innovative extras. More affordable CPUs deserve solid foundations, too. While you won’t need as much room to expand, we still believe in balance above all else, and that includes support for CrossFire/SLI, lots of 6Gb/s SATA, and USB 3.0.
The three that we picked here will eventually change as we come across more options, but what you see will coincide with what we picked for the Best of the Best: CPUs.
High-end CPUs deserve complementary platforms. If you didn’t flinch at the Core i7-5960X’s $1000+ price tag, then Asus’ Rampage V Extreme almost seems reasonable at $450.
The motherboard is so feature-rich that it won’t fit in a standard ATX form factor. Asus uses E-ATX instead, creating a PCIe slot configuration meant to support four-way CrossFire or SLI. There are also 12 SATA 6Gb/s ports, four of which are shared with two SATA Express interfaces; a four-lane M.2 slot; a 3x3 802.11ac wireless controller; and a number of overclocking-specific features not available on any other motherboard.
Intel’s Core i7-5820K is unique in that its PCIe 3.0 controller is limited to 28 lanes. So shop for a motherboard able to maximize what you can do with the CPU’s available connectivity.
MSI’s X99S MPower is one of the only platforms with support for three-way SLI on the 5820K. You can even drop an M.2-based SSD onto the board with a trio of graphics cards active. Beyond its clear symbiosis with Intel’s entry-level Haswell-E processor, you also get a 12-phase voltage regulator, an Intel GbE controller, and dual BIOS files for graceful overclocking recoveries.
New motherboards for AMD’s fastest processors are rare these days. After all, the FX-8320 was introduced back in 2012. That just means deals abound, though. If you're searching for options to build a good all around system, this one takes the cake.
Gigabyte’s GA-990FXA-UD3 is priced just north of $100. It sports the 990FX northbridge and SB950 southbridge, extending support for two-way CrossFire and SLI, six SATA 6Gb/s ports, eight-channel audio, gigabit Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, and FireWire. While those capabilities aren’t bleeding-edge, they form the foundation of a fully modern PC ready for taxing workloads…and for cheap!
Let’s be honest: the motherboard market isn’t at its most exciting point right now. Intel’s X99 is a marginal improvement over what came before, Z97 is incrementally better than its predecessor, and someone should probably set up hospice care for AMD’s 990FX. Still, it’s exciting to see the pertinent players getting creative to attract power users. Incidentally, the storage space might do the most for compelling upgrades in the months to come as PCIe-based SSDs benefit from NVM Express, of course requiring compatible motherboards.
Fortunately, the last half of 2015 and 2016 should be much livelier. Intel’s Skylake platform will introduce mixed DDR4/DDR3L memory compatibility, third-gen PCIe on the PCH, and much more interesting overclocking (welcome back to the game, BCLK). AMD is also expected to launch its Zen architecture in a new family of FX CPUs—surely that means fresh core logic to support Socket AM4, right? Time will tell.