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Best motherboard: Skylake Z170 and B150 LGA1151 boards put to the test

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Asus Z170-A

Intel's Skylake processors continue to dominate the CPU market, and there's loads of motherboards to choose from. We've picked out seven of the best B150 and Z170 motherboards for all budgets.

Our reviews on the following pages will be ordered by price. The cheaper boards will have fewer features (see below) but will be more than good enough for those creating a modest build. If you're looking for a board for overclocking, skip to the later reviews.

Related: Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors explained

Below we'll run through everything you need to consider when choosing your Skylake motherboard, while over the next few pages we’ve taken ten Skylake motherboards and put them through their paces to find out which is worthy of a place in your next rig.

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While Skylake is the latest generation of Intel processors, it's worth bearing in mind that its successor, Kaby Lake, is in the pipeline. The good news here is that Kaby Lake processors will work in the LGA1151 socket used on Skylake motherboards, so the products listed here will all work with a new Kaby Lake processor. Some 'boards may take a BIOS update to work perfectly with Kaby Lake, which is something we'll know nearer to the launch of Intel's new chips.

This Week's Best Motherboard Deals

MSI B150M Mortar at Amazon.co.uk | Was £95.99 | Now £79

MSI Z170 Tomahawk at Amazon.co.uk | Was £161 | Now £107

ASRock Fatal1ty Z170 Gaming K6 Plus at Amazon.co.uk | Was £235 | Now £155

Gigabyte Z170-Gaming 7 at Amazon.com | Was $219 | Now $199

Intel Skylake LGA1151 chipsets: B150 versus Z170

Z170 chipset and Skylake processors

Skylake is the processor design that is incorporated into a vast range of chips that'll be used in everything from tablets and laptops through to powerful, highly overclocked gaming desktops. For desktop users you'll be looking at getting either the Skylake-S range or the Skylake-K range (the overclocking ones) all of which will sit in the new LGA1151 socket on these Z170 motherboards.

Related: Everything you need to know about the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080

The new chipset is an upgrade in almost every department from the older Z97 hardware that powered Haswell and Broadwell. The chipset’s PCI offering has taken a big leap. Z170 supports 20 PCI 3.0 lanes rather than the eight PCI 2.0 lanes supported by previous chipsets, which means there’s more leeway for motherboards to support multiple GPUs, several M.2 SSDs and third-party controllers for features like USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt.

Intel Skylake

Z170 also supports more USB 3.0 ports than its predecessor (10 vs six) as well as the new ThunderBolt 3.0 connection, though sadly USB 3.1 isn't supported natively (some boards add support via extra chips).

Boards that use Z170 can be configured to support either DDR3 or DDR4 memory, so you don’t necessarily have to buy new sticks of RAM – although we’d advise looking into DDR4, as it’s faster, has twice the density of DDR3 and uses less power.

Related: Best DDR4 memory

All new Skylake processors are built using a smaller manufacturing process than previous designs, making for improvements in processing speed and power saving, plus they feature greatly improved graphics performance, all of which you can read about in our Skylake review. These advancements will be felt across the full range of chips covering a variety of price options.

The top of the range are the Core i7-6700K (£320) and Core i5-6600K (£200), which both feature unliked 'multipliers.' This is key to opening up these chips to greater overclocking, with extreme cooling allowing for massive boosts in clock speeds.

The rest of the range have fixed multipliers, which means overclocking can only be done by increasing the base clock frequency, limiting how far you can go. These start at £270 for the Core i7-6700 and £189 for the Core i5-6600, dropping steadily down to the entry level Pentium G4400 for just £54.

B150 and cheap Z170 boards: Expect compromises

The lower price of these boards means that some companies have opted for different chipsets. The latter is Intel’s top-tier Skylake chipset, and it’s found in everything from affordable boards to the market’s most lavish PCBs.

Three boards deploy Intel’s B150 silicon. That’s an entry-level chipset that comes with a smaller feature set than the Z170. That sounds bad on paper, but in the real world and inside cheaper PCs it’s not likely to make much difference.

The B150 chipset can handle eight PCIe 3.0 lanes to the Z170’s 20, which means it’s difficult to use multi-GPU setups unless you rely on modest graphics cards. The B150 chipset also only supports one SATA Express port – but Z170 can handle three. The lesser chipset doesn’t support M.2 while the Z170 does, and it can have six USB 3 ports, which is four fewer than the Z170.

There’s no doubt that the B150 has poorer support in terms of features, but it makes for a much cheaper motherboard. It’s a trade-off – if you do want more oomph from your PCB, you’ll need to step up to Z170.

Look beyond the chipset differences and you’ll find a host of compromises – necessary when you're trying to keep to a sub-£100 budget.

For starters, none of them have on-board buttons or POST displays. Those are common on pricey boards and are handy for people who like to tweak or overclock, but at this end of the market they’re a luxury that most people just won’t use.

There’s no doubt that the cheaper boards are barer than the pricier ones we've covered before, but that’s no bad thing. They’ve all got enough ability for general-purpose PCs and gaming rigs, but they’ll struggle when tasked with multi-GPU setups and other high-end specifications.

ATX, Micro-ATX or mini-ITX

Although not specifically to do with the Z170 chipset, the first consideration for anyone purchasing a motherboard will be what size to get. The three standard formats are ATX, which is your traditional desktop PC-sized motherboard, as well as the smaller micro-ATX and mini-ITX standards.

Micro-ATX is about two inches shorter than ATX and so offers fewer PCI slots, though you'll often still be able to fit in two graphics cards, and generally you can often find boards that have almost as many features as larger ATX models.

Mini-ITX, though, is a significant drop in size, with there only being one PCI-E slot. That means you can definitely only have one graphics card or one PCI-E SSD or other expansion card. You'll also be limited to two memory slots so will be maxing out at 32GB of RAM.

ATX, micro ATX, mini ITX

Other than that, though, it's surprising just how many features can be squeezed on to these tiny boards with plenty of storage options available and some boards even managing to squeeze in an M.2 SSD slot on the back.

If you're not too fussed about saving space then ATX is often still the best bet - despite being the largest they're often the cheapest or at least you'll get more for your money - but if you're after a more compact PC then micro-ATX and mini-ITX are great options that won't be much of a compromise in terms of features for most users.

There's also E-ATX, which as even larger version of ATX but for most home users these are totally overkill.

On-board slots and connectors

Every motherboard is littered with several key slots and connectors, and it’s worth paying attention to these to make sure a new board is suited to your needs.

The middle of the board will be dominated by PCI slots. These are used for graphics cards, sound cards, networking cards and increasingly for super-fast PCI-based SSDs such as the Intel SSD 750 series, and they come in three main flavours.

PCI-Express x16 slots are the longest found on a motherboard, and these offer the most bandwidth – that’s why they’re used for graphics cards. Modern motherboards tend to have between one and four, depending on the price.

PCI-Express x1 sockets are smaller, and they’re generally used for more modest expansion cards, like sound cards and SSDs. The last slot commonly found on ATX boards is PCI, and it’s a bit of a throwback – it’s been around for years and is most useful when running legacy hardware.

Z170 motherboards

The borders of most motherboards hold many smaller connectors. The bottom rows usually hold USB headers (for connecting the plugs on the front of your case, for instance), the plug for the PC’s front panel buttons and audio jacks, and the sides conventionally serve up storage and power connectors. Fan connectors are scattered around the edges, too.

Most motherboards have enough ports and sockets to sate the vast majority of users, but it’s worth taking a close look at a board if you have special requirements. Only certain boards will be able to run multiple graphics cards or handle a larger number of hard disks, for instance, and machines with plenty of cooling will need a motherboard with numerous fan connectors. If you've an older PCI expansion card you'll also need to double check it's supported - they're increasingly not included.

Memory slots are always up near the processor socket and, with Z170, there’s almost always going to be two or four of them. They’ll almost always support up to 64GB of memory – the only thing to look out for is the speed, as you’ll only be able to run high-end overclocked memory on expensive boards.

Examining Storage

Most motherboards now come with three different kinds of storage connectors. The most plentiful is the standard SATA connector, which offers enough bandwidth to satisfy standard hard disks and SSDs.

SATA Express is an extension of SATA that uses PCI lanes to offer faster speeds than a standard SATA connection. Many motherboards now include one or two of these, but they’ve got limited functionality due to a lack of compatible hardware.

The new kid on the block is M.2, which has replaced mSATA as one of the most popular formats for next-generation SSDs. The M.2 format looks a little like a stick of RAM and it'll more often than not sit flat against the motherboard rather than in a separate rack like a hard drive.

It uses PCI lanes, which means drives used here can run at far faster speed than SATA-based SSDs. Most motherboards have one of these connectors, and some have two – but they’re only worth considering if you’ve bought a PCI-based M.2 drive.

Other On-Board Features

Motherboards are packed with plenty of other features worth consideration, with many appealing to gamers and tweaking enthusiasts. Several of the boards in this test, for instance, have on-board power and reset buttons – handy for faster resets if an overclock hasn’t work – and LED POST displays, which present codes that can identify troubleshooting issues.

High-end boards often go beyond this, with points for plugging in separate temperature measurement or voltage monitoring. They’re tempting features to have, but only worth paying for if you’re a serious overclocker – we're talking dry ice here.

Rear IO

More important is the selection of ports on the rear panel. The new Z170 chipset allows for more USB 3.0 ports, which could banish the slower USB 2.0 standard for good.

Look out for PS/2 connectivity if you like to use an older keyboard or mouse, and check display outputs if you’re going to use Skylake’s integrated graphics.

USB 3.1 - the new standard that the new compact Type-C connector uses - isn't supported by Z170 so motherboard manufacturers have to add this separately. As such if you want the latest, fastest USB standard you'll have to spend a little more and double check it's supported.

Performance Levels

The chips, features and circuitry of a motherboard all effect the performance of a PC, but the differences seen between boards are minor – the other components of your PC will have a far larger impact on benchmarks and day-to-day use than the choice of motherboard.

The vast majority of buyers shouldn't worry about the claimed overclocking and 'ultra-mega-performance' claims of high-end boards and concentrate on getting the best balance of features for their needs instead.

That said, it’s still worth looking into performance levels if you’re going to perform certain tasks with your PC. People who want to break overclocking records or play games at their absolute best settings will definitely want to investigate which motherboards offer the best performance levels. It’s also worth checking benchmarks out if you’re going to be running intensive work applications.

This is particularly true as there ultimately isn't that great a difference in price range between top-end and mid-range Z170 boards. While you can get boards for around £80 and up to £200, most are between £100 and £160 so it can often be worth just spending the extra £20-£30 to get those extra features – it's not like graphics cards where you can spend anything from £50 to £1000.

How We Test Motherboards

We’ve run these motherboards through a variety of tests to determine how a choice of motherboard can influence processor and graphics card performance. Cinebench’s single- and multi-core benchmarks show how a board can alter the ability of a processor, and 3D Mark’s Fire Strike test is used to evaluate graphics performance. To keep things simple, w don't delve into detailed results, but we'll make notes of any notable results relative to other boards we've tested in the past.

We’ve also measured the idle and peak temperature of the processor in our test rig, and the power levels of our machine in order to see how motherboards influence heat and power consumption.

Our test machine uses a Core i5-6600K processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 graphics card and 16GB of 2,666MHz DDR4 memory alongside a Samsung 850 Pro SSD.

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