Date: Friday , March 16, 2018
Today I noticed a thread on the HardForum asking about motherboards and what the extra money for a higher end motherboard buys you. At first, I started out with a simple forum post to answer this question and before you know it, the article kind of got somewhat out of hand. So here are my thoughts on this topic. You can see the original thread here. This was a thread about HEDT vs. mainstream motherboards and their differing costs. However, the same basic principles and cost considerations are the same regardless of whether you are comparing HEDT vs. mainstream segment motherboards.
I compare motherboards all the time. Many people talk about what you get for your money buying a higher end motherboard, and frankly, most people are only aware of one or two key differences at most. One of the most common misconceptions is that you only get features like a second NIC, better audio, or more ports and that's it. Many people think that motherboards are all basically the same and that the fancier ones aren't worth the extra money. This is of course, a matter of opinion. You also have the other camp who believes that higher end boards are built better, last longer, and overclock better. As is the case with many things, both extreme viewpoints on the spectrum aren't entirely wrong. They are also not entirely right either. Usually the truth is somewhere in between both extremes and that's the case here. Sometimes less is more and sometimes more is actually more.
I'm going to speak about this in general terms as I'm not planning on calling out any specific manufacturer for doing one thing or another I may not like. For those of you who have read my reviews, you'll probably know who I'm talking about here and there. This is a very complex subject, but I'll keep it somewhat brief. As I'm not an electrical engineer, I'll do my best to explain things as best as I understand them. When you get into component level specifics, you go down a rabbit hole and it's hard to find specific information about design choices from manufacturers. Motherboard manufacturers all buy each others boards and reverse engineer those, and discover and copy each others' design specs and secrets. As a result of this behavior, they try and keep innovations and how they are implemented as quiet as possible and aren't as forthcoming about information as you would imagine. In other words, I can only tell you so much about these designs.
In general, more expensive things tend to be "nicer." Those feel better when you hold them, they have a weight that denotes quality while possessing a nicer (although subjective) aesthetic quality. Computer hardware is no different. A $130 Z370 motherboard isn't on the same plane of quality as a $450 Z370 motherboard. PCB thickness, heat sink quality, and the quality of it's integrated features are on different levels. I hate to use automotive analogies but these usually work pretty well for making people understand the differences in computer hardware. A $130 Z370 motherboard is like a Chevy Camaro and a $450 Z370 motherboard is like an Aston Martin DB11. Both drive on the same roads and are subject to the same speed limits and environmental considerations. Most of the time, these vehicles will be limited to doing the same things in the same places.
That cheaper Z370 motherboard can probably get the same, or at least similar performance to that $450 motherboard. However, it won't look as good or be as comfortable doing it. It won't have the same aesthetic qualities and it's not a status symbol like the expensive motherboard is. A more expensive motherboard may feed your ego, and it will certainly look good and feel nice when installing it. However, it goes far deeper than that and the benefits may or may not be worthwhile for you. But, these benefits do exist.
More expensive motherboards have thicker PCBs than their less expensive counterparts do. One manufacturer in particular tends to use thinner PCBs even on their higher end motherboards. It's a cost cutting measure they choose to employ in order to beat out the other top tier manufacturers on price. It's not hard to figure out who I'm talking about, but it doesn't matter beyond citing an example. A thicker PCB prevents motherboard flex and may create specific signal characteristics that a motherboard manufacturer would deem desirable. More trace paths can be supported, allowing for higher levels of feature integration. Durability comes into play as a thicker PCB is less prone to breakage. When a PCB flexes, surface mount component solder joints can break or crack leading to malfunctions and component failure. Durability also comes in many forms with glass fabric being added in for added resistance to humid conditions. Thicker PCBs can support more traces and more copper, which have obvious potential benefits.
Ultimately, this doesn't do much for you in ways you'll notice on any daily basis. It benefits you during installation and makes you feel better when installing hardware into the motherboard as it won't flex or break as easily as I said before. The other benefits tend to be electrical or perceptual and therefore usually go unnoticed by the end user. This is of note for the audio subsystem which sometimes integrates certain channels in separate layers for better sound quality. Sound is subjective and not always something people will notice. This is something that's technically true, but matters little where the rubber meets the road. I tend to give motherboard manufacturers hell for going with thinner PCBs, but that's only because I like nice things. Many of those motherboards with wavy, undercooked bacon-like PCBs reviewed well despite my best efforts to kill those.
More expensive motherboards will likely use better quality MOSFET and chipset cooling hardware. This can even include integrated water blocks or hybrid coolers which can cool more efficiently than cheaper ones whether you use water or air cooling primarily. These coolers tend to have greater surface area and make better contact with their surface mounted components. Aesthetic design qualities and manufacturing quality of these coolers are also better on more expensive motherboards. The mounting hardware that secures these to the motherboard PCB are also better on more expensive designs. To save money, some manufacturers will use a plastic push-pin setup with a spring for tension to hold the heat sinks in place. This usually doesn't allow for very good surface mating between the heatsink and the TIM to the MOSFETs. This means that your MOSFETs will run hotter and will ultimately be less efficient.
This is another one of those cases that's hard to quantify. The theory is that components that are cooled better will last longer. In truth, the cooling of the chipset matters very little these days. The MOSFET cooling is a bigger deal and the selected components and what operating temperature ranges these work best in come into play. I've seen cheap motherboards with poor MOSFET cooling go the distance and I've seen motherboards with very robust and effective cooling solutions die very early deaths. However, in general, less heat, and less work makes your VRMs and MOSFETs last longer prolonging board life and allowing for higher overclocks. However, with the silicon lottery being what it is, a beefier motherboard doesn't guarantee success over a cheaper or mid-range motherboard. Most of the time, I can get the same performance out of a given CPU on just about every motherboard. So long as VRD specifications are met, all motherboards should be capable of getting CPUs to their maximum potential so long as all we are talking about is air or water cooling.
This is one that sounds like a given, but it's rarely understood. More expensive motherboards typically use more power phases which translates to more current being available for the processor, RAM etc. More expensive designs will have more power phases which can be used in two different ways. It can be used for more power delivery, or a process of load leveling can be used to spread electrical duties across more phases and therefore those phases will spend less time at high temperatures. This translates to longer service life or more potential performance depending on how you are using the system. It's worth noting that almost all motherboards use a process of phase doubling, which takes 4 phases and makes eight or more phases. A more expensive motherboard may have 8 genuine phases and then double those to 16, or double those again to 32. More phases isn't necessarily better but when properly implemented you have greater power delivery potential and that delivery can be made more stable and yield higher overclocks. Motherboards that cost more also tend to offer a great deal more control over the electrical components and other settings. This translates into a greater capacity for fine tuning and thus, higher theoretical ceilings when overclocking.
Premium component selection for the electrical subsystem is also something that more expensive motherboards have over their cheaper brethren. Chokes, MOSFETs, IC drivers, and capacitor selection on more costly options gives a more expensive motherboard a longer rated MTBF (mean time between failure) life span than a less expensive motherboard. Higher end components can often operate for longer and more efficiently at higher temperatures than the cheap stuff does.
If you are overclocking with air cooling, it might not make much of a difference unless you are comparing some ultra budget board against a much more expensive option. Even then, I've seen fairly disparate boards that can ultimately overclock just as well on air and water cooling. That said, the theory about more phases lasting longer and longer component longevity still stands. It's the same thing I touched on earlier with MTBF of general components. A review ultimately can't predict how long a motherboard will last compared to another. Only time will tell on that front and the two or three weeks we have with a motherboard just doesn't give us longevity data that's worth sharing.
Piece of mind is probably the best way to look at this. A more expensive motherboard has the potential to last longer than a cheaper one as it doesn't have to work hard, and the component selection is usually better. All that said, it's hard to say how much this matters as less expensive motherboards should still last the standard 3-5 year life cycle that most people use for their systems. I've seen cheap motherboards last for 5-10 years in some cases. In part, the silicon lottery comes into play here. If you tend to use your systems hard, you might want to buy that more expensive motherboard for piece of mind that it will out last that $100 bargain basement bin motherboard, even though both can achieve the same level of performance for a time.
There are features you see, and features you don't. The features you don't see sometimes impact the cost more than features you can see right away. More expensive motherboards include features like proprietary, or custom ICs and ASICs that allow you to flash a BIOS without having any RAM or even a CPU installed. Features like BIOS Flashback / BIOS recovery, removable BIOS ROMs, and more comprehensive fan control IC's all play into a motherboards price point. Hardware monitoring, onboard thermal sensors, and headers for sensors and other devices all have an impact on the cost of a motherboard.
Even the way your USB ports are designed makes a difference in the board's cost. When a given chipset only supports a set amount of ports, or one specific configuration, and a motherboard supports more than that, how do you think that's achieved? It's achieved by either multiplexing ports through internal USB HUBs or from the use of dedicated USB controllers. There are many options for these as well. Intel's Alpine Ridge controller is more expensive than ASMedia's basic offerings, but it also provides Thunderbolt 3 support. ASMedia doesn't. USB compatibility with devices can be impacted by these design choices. If you are sharing bandwidth through hubs, you could technically run out of bandwidth. However, integrating third party controllers can sometimes create compatibility issues with some devices working in those ports. This isn't the problem it used to be, but its still something to think about. I still run into this from time to time.
Unlike some of the other differences between lower cost and more expensive options, there is quite a lot of difference here. Features you don't really see can include things like external clock generators that allow for greater flexibility while overclocking. This and greater levels of hardware monitoring, fan control, and USB implementation can make all the difference in the overall user experience. These things can also impact your ability to diagnose problems down the line. People tend to think that a motherboards features always come down to the bigger ticket items like your NIC or audio CODEC, but in reality, something like an external clock generator may be far more important. It's why I liked the GIGABYTE AX370 Gaming K7 and hated the GIGABYTE AX370 Gaming 5. The latter wasn't as robust in the overclocking department because it lacked the external clock generator.
Obviously, there are the features no one thinks about, and while those add cost, there are bigger ticket items that add up more than others. Onboard audio CODECs and NICs in particular come to mind as the more prominent features that increase a motherboards cost. This can also extend to drive controllers as well. The chosen audio CODEC is only one part of the audio subsystem. PCB isolation, separating channels into difference PCB layers, auto-impedance detection, and headphone amplifiers make all the difference. Some motherboards offer programmable or even replaceable OP-AMPs which improve sound quality further. A motherboard with a Soundblaster 3D ZXRi is going to be far more expensive than one using a Realtek ALC1220 HD audio CODEC. Similarly, a motherboard using a Realtek ALC1220 or S1220 with dual amplifiers will be more expensive than one without an amplifier. Amplifier quality also varies from model to model and is yet one more thing to keep in mind.
It's the same story with network controllers. There is a big difference in cost between an Intel i219v PHY and a Realtek controller. I'm not sure on the cost of the Killer NIC E2500, but I've seen it used in some very expensive motherboards. Additional features like matching NICs, surge protection over the LAN port, etc. all play into the cost. Other features you'll see are RGB LED lighting, steel reinforcement brackets, and heat sinks for M.2 devices. RGB LEDs are simply for aesthetics, while steel reinforcement serves a more practical purpose, although it's value is certainly debatable as are M.2 heat sinks.
This is probably the best place for cutting corners and keeping costs down for the consumer. If you don't plan on using dual NICs, there isn't any reason to buy a motherboard that has them. If you plan on using an external USB DAC, then your sound card is largely irrelevant, but your USB port configuration won't be. So, while these features can and do matter, these types of features are the best place to differentiate one motherboard from another and control what price point you end up in. These are the features that truly shape the user experiences in tangible ways that you will see every day. A stripped down motherboard doesn't necessarily indicate a loss in quality, but often, expensive motherboards simply have more integrated features. This isn't absolute, and like the car industry, it may be changing. The Rampage VI APEX is stripped compared to the Rampage VI Extreme, but it's no slouch in the quality department.
Firmware is one aspect of the motherboard design that does have something to do with price. On the surface, it often seems like the BIOS of a cheaper board is just as good as the most expensive one. At a glance, this certainly seems true but it's not always the case. Motherboards, such as those in the ROG line from ASUS tend to have additional memory tweaking values the standard production motherboards do not have. You may also find additional tools in the UEFI BIOS such as secure HDD or SSD erase, updating the BIOS from the internet and any other manner of features. Another thing that more expensive motherboards may offer over cheaper options is additional granularity regarding tuning options. I used the GIGABYTE X370 Gaming 5 and Gaming K7 as an example of this earlier. The latter has an external clock generator and can manipulate it's base clock far more than the Gaming 5 can. This made it a much better and more tunable motherboard in spite of the fact that these motherboards are almost identical otherwise.
If you aren't planning on truly pushing your system, little touches or additional options in the firmware may or may not matter to you. I couldn't do as much with the Gaming 5 as I could the Gaming K7, and this came down to a feature and the BIOS option that ultimately became available due to that feature. A less expensive board won't necessarily have the same hardware and thus, less flexibility than the more expensive motherboard might. Then again, this varies by manufacturer and model. It must be taken on a case by case basis. I specifically mentioned ROG, because these have the most easily recognized variance between the cheaper models and the more costly ones that I could point out. I've seen cases where I couldn't adjust the voltages as much on a given motherboard because it only supported override, adaptive, or whatever vs. supporting multiple methods. Sometimes, a given motherboard and CPU combination seems to work better in one voltage mode vs. another. The option to do more gives the user more choice in how they run their system. On a test bench, I couldn't care less about running a processor at full speed all the time with maximum power draw. If this thing is on your desk in your bedroom 24/7, you might care.
While quality vendor list testing isn't so much price point specific as it is brand specific, there are some things to keep in mind which do translate to cost. As an example, workstation motherboards and higher end gaming boards may undergo far deeper QVL testing than budget boards do. This shouldn't be taken lightly as a more expensive motherboard might offer you greater variety in selecting memory. This wasn't a problem a few years ago, and it's less of a problem with some brands or some chipsets. However, in recent years memory compatibility and supporting anything over JEDEC specs has become something of a crap shoot. This is especially true of anything that released in 2017.
This matters depending on your desired system configuration. If you plan on running a huge storage subsystem based on a Dell PERC controller you bought off Ebay, or some LSI controller, you will want something that's not necessarily a gaming motherboard and something with a QVL that included testing with commercial hardware. This also includes things like Intel's commercial SSDs, 10GbE network controllers, and Intel's Xeon CPUs. It's rare you'll find anything budget oriented that works well with that kind of hardware. Going with something that's actually compatible with ECC RAM, Xeon CPUs, or those commercial grade SSDs and NICs will save you headaches if you are going to use that type of hardware. Of course, if your buying a lot of that stuff you probably aren't settling for a $100 motherboard either.
More expensive motherboards tend to offer more features centered around overclocking. These include voltage check points, more BIOS options, external clock generators, better cooling, and voltage delivery systems, which can be a culmination of those features talked about above. Features not mentioned before may even include LN2 modes, additional fan headers, thermal sensors, and even custom or semi-custom CPU sockets with more voltage pins in them to deliver extra power. Onboard controls for power, reset, clearing CMOS and even base clock tuning allow someone to fine tune their systems on open test benches.
This is where people often fail to understand how these features impact the user. On one level, even for the enthusiast who uses high end air or even watercooling, the cheaper boards are more capable than they've ever been. However, if you are going to the bleeding edge of what water or other cooling methods can achieve, the higher end boards are going to be significantly better than the less expensive ones. All those features tend to add up when you are going for that last 50MHz-100MHz overclock on a processor that's at the edge of what its truly capable of. For everyone else, it makes almost no difference if any at all. I've achieved the same results on $150 motherboards that I have on the $500 boards. With some processors, the difference can be more pronounced than others, but some are more or less architecturally limited and your choice of board is almost inconsequential.
To summarize, you definitely get more when you buy a more expensive motherboard. Some of what your getting isn't necessarily beneficial or even tangible. Sometimes it comes down to having something that looks nicer, feels nicer, and even carries a certain amount of bragging rights with it. Many of the benefits of going to a more expensive motherboard may not matter in the long run either. If you're running a simple configuration with a moderate overclock, one graphics card and only a couple storage devices, going with a $500 motherboard may not make much sense. Conversely, I've argued that some more complex configurations can be made cheaper and benefit from an expensive motherboard with a ton of integrated features. If you want a higher end sound card and a given motherboard has it, you can save yourself some money by having it integrated into the motherboard. It's also true of Thunderbolt support and multiple NICs. This isn't really the norm, but there are cases where a $400+ motherboard could be thought of as a value solution in the overall cost of a high end gaming or workstation build.
Sometimes people buy more expensive and overbuilt motherboards for piece of mind over features with no regard for overall value. Some people like an elegant unboxing experience that is accompanied by deep add-on set is of lots of bells and whistles in the box. Some have faith in thinking that higher end components make for longer service life and greater flexibility down the line. It's hard to argue that point, although many people have good experiences with less expensive hardware. Sometimes the choice to go with an expensive motherboard comes down to nothing more than bragging rights. I've had people pay me to build them extremely expensive machines without providing any usage context with their only guidance being: "I want the best of everything." That's certainly fine if you can afford it and your honest with your reasoning.
As is the case with almost any industry or hobby, you usually get what you pay for. However, there is a point of diminishing returns. That point is variable for everyone. I think my main point in writing this centered around someone on the forum asking questions about what more money actually buys you. I see many people trying to provide answers and often times, the answer may be right even though it's only a single facet of the truth. I thought this was a topic worth talking about in greater depth as it comes up a lot. This article is obviously a long answer to a short but not so simple question: "What are you actually getting for your money?" The simple answer is, "You're getting a lot." The more complex answer centers around what those differences truly are, and how those impact the consumer. 10+ years ago, less expensive also meant considerably worse quality. It meant using sub-par chipsets and getting shafted on performance and cutting out features. Motherboards have changed a lot in the last decade, and it is getting considerably harder to purchase a "bad" motherboard from ASUS, GIGABYTE, and MSI if you are looking at an enthusiast grade chipset-based motherboard. Worth mentioning here is that much of analysis is predicated on enthusiast level chipsets. You can certainly slide down the chipset stack and find motherboards that are not good for enthusiasts.
Again, I go back to car analogies. 20 years ago when I got into this business, a cheaper motherboard was like buying a Yugo. Today, a cheaper motherboard is like a Chevrolet Camaro compared to an Aston Martin with both cars sharing the same highway and speed limits. One is undoubtedly nicer than the other. However, the Chevrolet Camaro you get in 2018 is a far cry from the ones sold in 1998. The quality of those lower end motherboards has improved to a point where going cheap usually means giving up some frills rather than compromising on quality. Mid-range and even some lower end motherboards should all be capable of achieving a 3-5 year service life with many going well beyond that. It's been that way for awhile as evidenced by all our readers that report running Sandy Bridge based systems to this day. We've also seen many people with budget motherboards that haven't replaced them even after 7 years of hard service. In contrast, those sub-$100 FIC VA 503+ motherboards dropped like flies. I saw dozens of them that barely made it a year.
In short, you get what you pay for. You also get a lot more for your money today than you could 20 or even 10 years ago. Quite simply, when you look at enthusiast-grade chipset based motherboards, the entire product line overall for any given manufacturer has gotten better, both in terms of quality and features.
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