Choosing a motherboard
A good motherboard doesn’t get noticed. If you’re not an overclocker, you install your motherboard, you enable XMP/EXPO and maybe tweak another setting or two, and then if it ever draws attention to itself again it’s almost certainly a bad thing.
A good motherboard should:
not surprise you with a lack of hardware support. You may have more specific requirements you have to check carefully, but many basics should always be there, and support should be good enough to not cause trouble in likely future uses of the board that you may not have in mind when buying it.
make it easy to configure that hardware correctly.
not break, cause any other components to break, or generally be the source of any problems once configured correctly.
provide what help it can (boot debug LEDs and flashback) for the problems it can’t always avoid.
not cost more than necessary to do all of the above.
I’ll go through what I look for in boards in more detail, then at the end list some boards that fit.
This is mostly going to avoid high-end features and boards. High-end could mean a few different things, so if you have tougher requirements there’s no substitute for doing your own research with those requirements in mind. For instance, extreme overclockers and high-end workstation users will probably not be interested in the same boards.
CPU support has one snag: if the CPU you’d like to use was released more recently than the board, there’s a chance you’ll need flashback (or whatever the board manufacturer calls their equivalent) to update the BIOS to support the CPU. (Flashback lets you update the BIOS without the CPU installed or with an unsupported CPU installed.) Flashback is not universal.
CPU overclocking support is good to have for several reasons. The one relevant to this section is that as a build ages, you’re likely to be more concerned with performance and less with reliability (since it has less useful life left in it anyway), so overclocking is often a nice option to have even if it doesn’t interest you at build time.
Any decent board needs to support RAM overclocking (for XMP/EXPO if nothing else). This has some big performance effects. There’s more on this in the reliability section.
I want to see either three M.2 2280+ slots or two and a PCIe slot that could be used for M.2 expansion at the same time as a triple-slot graphics card. I don’t care about PCIe5 M.2 slots; the 7 GB/s that PCIe4 SSDs can deliver is a lot even for things like DirectStorage abuse.
If a board doesn’t include wifi, I want it to allow a way to use a PCIe (non-M.2) wifi card at the same time as a triple-slot graphics card and two M.2 2280 drives. 2.5Gbit ethernet may be a nice-to-have, but I’m not going to start grading on it quite yet.
Boards should have at least one rear USB-C port. With increasing USB-C adoption, it’s very likely you’ll use this at some point over a new board’s lifetime, and it’s an unfortunately common omission.
I want to see at least 7 rear USB-A ports, one DisplayPort output for an integrated GPU, one HDMI output for an integrated GPU, 4 SATA ports, and 4 fan headers. At least one fan header should be good for a water pump. I want to see at least two fan headers supporting voltage control (so you can control non-PWM fans like many that come with cases), but this isn’t always easy to find out.
I don’t put much weight on providing PCIe5 to a graphics card when it’s optional. The manufacturers charge a lot for it and even in worst-case scenarios the performance effects aren’t huge.
Ease of configuration
This is mostly specific to each board manufacturer. They each have a distinct BIOS user experience, and it’s more similar across their whole lineup than it is to any other manufacturer’s lineup.
Flashback is usually a janky mess, and the details of that belong here, but I don’t know the details and don’t currently own the right boards to find out.
MSI is the one I have the least experience with (I’ve only owned a Z390-A PRO), but what experience I do have with their BIOS is good, and I don’t hear many negative things about it from others either. Their menu layout is the most unique of the big four manufacturers, and I find that layout a bit awkward. It is visually well polished and not too buggy (I’ve only found one bug, which is a good score).
ASRock’s BIOS user experience is at this point nondescript, which is good. Things are mostly intuitively placed and well labeled. My 2014 and 2017 ASRock boards had lots of small bugs and rough edges, but my 2022 ASRock board has got this mostly under control.
Asus’ BIOS user experience is mostly very well polished, with occasional glaring exceptions like the setting you use to enable XMP/EXPO not being named anything obvious. Since there are few exceptions they’re at least quick to learn. I have concerns about Asus’ defaults; they seem the most willing to use uncomfortably high voltages in situations where you might not expect it.
Gigabyte’s BIOS user experience is a bit rough. It’s often unintuitive, bugs are too common, and some of those bugs are not minor. I have some concerns about their defaults too, though less than with Asus. All that said, once you learn where the rough edges are and how to not cut yourself on them Gigabyte is the nicest to iterate on overclocks with in my experience. Just don’t forget to make sure the board is doing what you think it’s doing.
This is unfortunately fuzzy. Reliability hazards can hide anywhere. Hardly anyone has a decent picture of how this stuff will hold up over 5+ years of service. There are some issues we can get out in front of though.
Default settings matter. If one board delivers a percent or two more CPU performance than another right out of the box, that’s just as likely to be the fast board pushing something harder than AMD, Intel, or the RAM manufacturer intended as it is to be anything wrong with the slow board. Board manufacturers can’t pull these gains out of thin air (though they’ve got colorful histories of creative attempts) and it’s a significant source of reliability problems. Right now, Asus and Gigabyte look more prone to this kind of trouble than MSI and ASRock.
I don’t have many ways to guess how many behind-the-scenes bugs might exist in each manufacturer’s firmware, but Gigabyte’s unusual number of front-of-house bugs doesn’t inspire confidence in them. (I wouldn’t actually mind the visible bugs that much if I thought they were the only bugs.)
Primary M.2 slots should never be in the path of GPU exhaust. This is negligent engineering and there is no excuse for it. It’s so bad that I’m immediately more skeptical of any manufacturer that does it. Gigabyte does this on their micro-ATX AM5 designs, and ASRock used to on many of their AM4 designs but has stopped doing it since.
I won’t disqualify boards for putting secondary M.2 slots in the path of GPU exhaust (there are only so many places to put these and it’s better than not having the slot at all), but it’s still something to be aware of when buying.
The CPU (memory controller), board, and RAM all have to work together to make the RAM work correctly. The CPU’s role in this is fairly predictable, but the RAM manufacturer has to make some assumptions about the board when they’re setting profiles, and if the board doesn’t live up to those assumptions you may run into trouble even at RAM speeds far lower than you might think from the board’s specs or QVL. Awkwardly, QVLs are still the best signal available for this without getting deep into testing. I want to see RAM QVLs with entries up to 4400 for B550, 6000-6200 for B650 (this doesn’t work as well on B650 since the CPU is very limiting), or 7200 for Z790/B760. This should exclude most (unfortunately not all) boards that cut major corners in this area and leave most of the rest.
Voltage regulators are an endless rabbit hole, it’s not always possible to tell much of anything useful about them from spec sheets or pictures, and they’re rarely thoroughly reviewed. Luckily for us, at this point most of them are somewhere between comfortably overkill and ridiculously overkill. If you’re looking at something like a 7800X3D or 13600K, most anything out there now that isn’t the absolute bottom of the barrel should be fine. If you’re going to put a lot of full-power hours on a 7950X or 13900K, maybe aim for at least 12 Vcore or 14 total phases.
Vsoc or VccGT regulator phases are sometimes not covered by heatsinks. If you’re going to put an integrated GPU to heavy use, probably avoid this. Otherwise, if there’s no Vsoc heatsink on an AMD platform, just confirm your Vsoc isn’t too high (1.2V should be good for Zen 4).
Helping with unavoidable problems
Any good board should have boot debug LEDs and flashback. They each make certain problems much less of a headache, and I can’t imagine the manufacturers even save any money by not including at least debug LEDs everywhere given how many returns and warranty claims it must save them.
Being able to overclock the CPU is useful not only for overclocking itself, but sometimes as a debugging tool or to give degraded hardware the margins it needs to keep working reliably.
As of this writing, a variety of solid (by all of the above criteria) B650 and Z790 options are available under $250 and few people have a good reason to pay $300 or more. Some decent options go down to $150 or less, if you’re willing to accept some limitations.
Some good boards
MSI PRO B650-P WIFI ($190): Its main weakness is only having two M.2 slots.
MSI MAG B650 TOMAHAWK WIFI ($220): This is mostly a straight upgrade from the PRO B650-P, but most aspects of that rarely matter in practice. The third M.2 slot is nice though, and sometimes it’s barely more money.
Asus TUF GAMING B650-PLUS WIFI ($215): This is mostly equivalent to MSI’s Tomahawk, but a bit short on rear USB-A ports with only 6 (to the Tomahawk’s 9). It has two rear USB-C ports though.
ASRock B650 PG LIGHTNING ($200): Again mostly equivalent to the Tomahawk, this is missing a DisplayPort output for an integrated GPU and puts the third M.2 slot in the path of GPU exhaust, but has a whole 11 rear USB-A ports.
MSI PRO B650M-A WIFI ($160): This is missing a rear USB-C port, only has 6 rear USB-A ports, has its second M.2 slot in the path of GPU exhaust, and if you want a spare PCIe slot it can only fit a double-slot graphics card.
ASRock B650M-HDV/M.2 ($125): The secondary M.2 slot (there are only two total) is a bit closer than ideal to GPU exhaust, it’s only got 6 rear USB-A ports, and it’s only got two RAM slots. At this price point I’m on edge about any cut corners that might affect CPU or RAM stability, but I don’t see anything concerning here beyond the price itself. Only having two RAM slots is if anything a plus at this price point since it helps out signal integrity (I’d rather have limited RAM capacity than RAM stability issues), and the RAM QVL for this board actually goes all the way to 6400 where many other ASRock boards top out at 6200.
MSI PRO Z790-P WIFI ($210): One of the four M.2 slots is in the path of GPU exhaust.
MSI PRO Z790-A WIFI ($240): This is similar to the PRO Z790-P, mostly a small upgrade but in ways that rarely matter. It sometimes costs the same. One of the four M.2 slots is in the path of GPU exhaust.
ASRock Z790 PG LIGHTNING ($180): This is only missing flashback and a DisplayPort output for an integrated GPU. One of the four M.2 slots is in the path of GPU exhaust.
Gigabyte Z790 UD AX ($190): This is only missing flashback, but being made by Gigabyte is a bit concerning for many uses. One of the three M.2 slots is uncomfortably close to GPU exhaust.
MSI B760 GAMING PLUS WIFI ($165) / PRO B760-P WIFI ($170): These are missing flashback, CPU overclocking, and a rear USB-A port (they have 6). They only have two M.2 slots. They’re very similar boards and whichever you can get for cheaper is fine.
ASRock B760M PG Riptide ($140): This is missing flashback and CPU overclocking, and the spare PCIe slot is placed so that it’s only usable with a double-slot graphics card. It only has two M.2 slots and no built-in wifi, so the chances you’ll want to use that slot at some point are higher than usual.
MSI PRO B550-VC ($130) / B550-A PRO ($140): Their main weakness is only having two M.2 slots. The B550-A is more widely available and very similar, but you would have to modify a PCIe slot on it to use a third M.2 drive at the same time as a dedicated GPU.
Asus TUF GAMING B550-PRO ($150) / B550-PLUS ($150) / B550-PLUS WIFI II ($170) / ROG STRIX B550-A GAMING ($160): These also only have two M.2 slots. They are all similar but with spotty pricing and availability, so the best one may vary.
MSI PRO B550M-VC WIFI ($120): This is missing a rear USB-C port, only has 6 rear USB-A ports, only has two M.2 slots, has no heatsink on its Vsoc phases, and has weaker Vcore regulation that I wouldn’t pair with anything more power-hungry than a 5800X3D.