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What’s the Difference Between a $50 Motherboard and a $350 Motherboard?

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The motherboard is a pretty boring component when you think about it. Which is probably why so many people end up buying the cheapest board that will hold their components. But expensive motherboards aren’t expensive for no reason. So let’s look at some of the differences between cheap and pricey gear.

When you look at the specifications for a computer that you’re going to buy, how much time do you spend looking at the motherboard? If you’re like most people the answer is probably “not much” yet there’s a long list of reasons you should care very much what sort of board is used in your build.

The main reason you should care is because skimping on “unsexy” components is one of the main ways companies get prices down or fatten their margin at your expense. Numbers such as RAM totals, core count and GPU specs sell computers. It’s almost impossible to turn the things that make pricier motherboards worthwhile into simple numbers where bigger means better.

So, to illustrate exactly what we mean when we say you get what you pay for, we’ll compare two motherboards in very different price classes with each other.

The first is the ASUS H110M-E/M.2, which retails for a little over fifty bucks. The second is the Asus ROG Maximus Formula. This monster retails for about $350.

Both motherboards support LGA 1151 sockets for the latest 8th-generation Intel CPUs. Both will happily accommodate the latest GPU card, so why would you spend an extra $300 for the Asus? We’re glad you asked!





The Chipsets

One of the biggest factors in the prices of these boards is the motherboard chipsets they use. The motherboard’s chipset is its brain. It manages everything that goes on within the motherboard itself

These days many of the functions that used to be part of the chipset have now moved into the CPU. Specifically the functions that used to be performed by a component known as the “northbridge” wich handled CPU communication and memory controller duties. These days those functions don’t really reside in the motherboard and really only the jobs delegated to the old “southbridge” reside in the motherboard itself. On modern boards the chip that controls this is called the Platform Controller Hub and connects to the CPU-integrated northbridge directly through the DMI or direct controller interface. AMD’s CPUs don’t call it that, but modern APUs also integrate northbridge functions in the CPU itself.

The type of motherboard you pick is very important in terms of the functions that don’t directly relate to the PCIe, RAM and CPU communication buses. In other words, all of the peripheral ports, SSD slots and integrated peripherals depend on the motherboard.

More expensive motherboards will therefore have more USB ports, newer performance standard, more room for drives and so on.


Stability

More expensive motherboards usually mean better quality components. Cheap capacitors are a common failure point on inexpensive motherboards. More expensive motherboards may have better power regulation components. The actual PCB may have more layers and more robust construction.

If you put high performance components that get hot and power hungry into a low end board, you may end up with a system that is unstable. This is particularly infuriating because such systems might work 90% of the time and then fail randomly and for no apparent reason. Not because any one component is faulty, just mismatched.


Expandability


The point of a motherboard is to provide you with a way to connect all the different components that make up a computer so that they work together. The cheaper a motherboard gets, the more it will focus only on the very barebones features needed to make a basic computer.


In the case of our two example motherboards you can immediately tell there’s a difference. The MSI board only has two RAM slots and a single full-length PCIe slot. So 32GB of RAM and one GPU card is where the fun stops. The Asus board doubles the RAM support and triples the number of PCIe slots. Two courtesy of the CPU and one thanks to the Z370 chipset.


Likewise, the MSI board only supports four SATA 6Gbps devices. More than enough for mainstream users, but not for professionals or enthusiasts. The Asus board has six SATA connections and two M.2 ones. Although using the M.2 ports does disable some SATA ports, the overall choice and maximum performance level.


The Asus also has ten USB ports total, vs only four on the MSI board. There really is no comparison.



Overclocking


Overclocking is the act of setting the operating frequency of a processor above what its rated for. For most people this is something you should avoid, especially since modern CPUs are great at pushing themselves to the limit already.

Still, whether you want the best turbo frequencies or want to push the clocks yourself, more expensive motherboards are far better at handling the additional load than something cheap.

More importantly, cheap motherboards are unlikely to have any overclocking support on a firmware level at all. Which means you really have no choice if you want to go down this route.



Features

Pricier motherboards, unsurprisingly, tend to have many more features than bottom-end fare. Diagnostic display screens on the board itself, better cooling hardware, dual-BIOS and so on. While a few of them are just gimmicks, most are useful and relevant to performance enhancement. Although no amount of RGB motherboard lighting is going to make your PC go faster!


You Get What You Pay For

The bottom line here is that, in general, the more a motherboard costs the better your overall experience will be. That doesn’t mean you should spend money on features you will never use. It also doesn’t mean that inexpensive motherboards are bad. What it means is that you should pick a motherboard that will bring out the best in the rest of your system. There’s no point in investing in high-end components and then plugging them into a mainboard designed for office work or light media duties. The motherboard may not be a sexy marketing-worthy component with easy to understand numbers, but it’s worth investing in the right board for you.



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