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The Best Motherboards For $138 Or Less (Part 1)

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5/7/2014 11:53:21 AM

Mark Pickavance looks at what you can get for a ton and recommends the designs it’s worth spending on.

I'm old enough to remember an era when $138 for a motherboard was a bargain and Charles Babbage was a spotty youth.

Maybe a mild exaggeration there, but the current cost of motherboards is still probably the lowest it's ever been, and the choice of available designs is huge.

In this feature, I'll talk about choosing the right board for you and come up with some excellent examples of those that you can by right now.

AMD Vs Intel

Most people buy a motherboard as part of a larger strategy, rather than looking inside their computer and deciding that the one they've currently got looks dusty.

Description: AMD vs Intel

AMD vs Intel

There are only two basic reasons to buy one: building a new system or fixing an existing one. If you're fixing an existing computer, then exactly what type of board you go for is going to be strictly dictated by the existing model, because of the existing CPU and memory.

Those building a new system are less confined, because they get the option to buy a board that fits with the CPU they'd like to have and the case they'd like to mount it into.

A useful exercise I'd recommend anyone building a new PC should perform is to price the system for both AMD and Intel, given you've some idea how powerful you'd like it to be. Combine the price of motherboard and CPU, because that's the critical number for your budget and might exclude one or more options.

You might want to experiment with the idea of reducing the amount you spend on the CPU for a better board, because unless performance is critical, you might appreciate having a better overall build quality to your system.

In general (and there are exceptions to this rule), AMD is a more cost effective choice, because usually both the CPU and motherboard are cheaper for AMD platforms. But if you want ultimate performance, then Intel is one to go for.

That said, with just $138 to spend on a motherboard you're not likely to have huge amounts to spend on a CPU, so functionality is probably the more critical factor.

Description: Compare AMD with Intel

Compare AMD with Intel

Depending which chipset you focus on, you'll either find that you can have certain features or not. This is especially true of multi-CPU graphics, where the number of PCI lanes is important to enable that feature. Some chipsets don't support multiple PCIe x16 slots with the full bandwidth or even more than one slot, so be careful about buying a cheap motherboard with the intention of growing a gaming system, because you might run into a technical brick wall later.

All these things said it's pretty impressive what you can buy for $138, if you make the right choices.

Intel

Currently, Intel makes a surprisingly large selection of chipset that cover its processor range, which includes three socket standards as well as those processors that come pre-mounted (like Atom).

At the top of its retail product range is the X79 chipset designed for the LGA 2011 and LGA 1366 processors. You won't see any of these covered below, because the very cheapest is about $207, and processors for this cost much more than that.

However, the next rung down is more favorable, because you can get Z87 and its H87, B85 and H81 'Lynx Point' brothers all on LGA 1150 socket for less than $138. You can also still find those made for the previous LGA 1155 socket utilizing the 'Cougar Point' Z77, H77, B75, H67 and H61, and they're generally inexpensive.

Description: Intel chipsets

Intel chipsets

What isn't easy to find these days are motherboards for LGA 1156 or LGA 1366, as Intel doesn't develop those platforms any more. If you've got one of those and it has a broken motherboard, your best bet is eBay or to bite the bullet to a complete CPU and motherboard upgrade.

By way of explaining the difference between, say, a Z87 and a H81, I've created a small table, outlining the critical factors which might explain the underlying choices you'll be making.

Intel Lynx Point Chipsets

All parts in this series support FDI and use the DMI 2.0 Bus Interface with a 4GB/s bus speed. The slightly shocking thing is that these chipsets don't support PCI 3.0, because on the Haswell CPU this is done in the processor, not the chipset.

As you can see from this table, the differences are relatively small from Z87 to B85, unless you like SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0. But in terms of features, most motherboard makers tend to stack the Z87 models, because those are the most popular.

What can also bend these figures is the addition of other SATA and USB 3.0 chips by the board makers, which can add functionality to enable, say, a H81 board to have more than two USB 3.0 ports.

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