Does the motherboard matter for gaming?

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The graphics card is by far the most essential part of the equation when it comes to gaming. Then there’s the CPU, which shouldn’t bottleneck the GPU too much and allow for stutter-free performance. Finally, add a significant amount (16GB or more) of relatively fast memory, and you’re set. But what about the motherboard? With it being more or less the peripheral nervous system for every computer, does the motherboard matter for gaming? Could it affect gaming performance negatively or positively? Find out below.

Short answer: Not really, but motherboards can affect gaming performance

If you want the short answer no, the motherboard shouldn’t matter much for gaming if we assume everything works as it should. This means the board can push the CPU to its maximum power and clock limits without issues. It also implies the board can run the memory at its certified XMP speeds. If these two conditions are met, different motherboards running the same CPU and memory achieve the same performance in games, even if they’re based on other chipsets.

Back in the day (like 15 years ago), different chipsets could show significant performance differences. These days, if all works as supposed to, you shouldn’t worry about getting fewer frames in games if you opt for an affordable motherboard. Modern chipsets usually differ in features such as PCIe lanes and USB ports, not in performance.

With that said, under some circumstances, different motherboards can affect gaming and overall performance. These include chipset limitations such as lack of memory overclocking support. Also, lack of CPU overclocking support, seen on all Intel chipsets except the Z series. Next, design issues, like the one found on the NZXT N7 B550 motherboard where the BIOS doesn’t automatically sync memory and Infinity Fabric frequency, could also lead to slower gaming performance.

There’s also the issue with pairing power-hungry CPUs with boards with less than stellar voltage regulator modules (VRM). Another common occurrence is users forgetting to turn on XMP profiles in case their motherboard supports memory overclocking. Finally, there are potential differences between PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0. Let’s talk about each of these in detail. We’re starting with the lack of memory overclock support on many Intel chipsets.

Memory speed limitations/lack of memory OC support

Most memory sticks technically run overclocked. Only sticks that run at the base speed certified for a specific memory standard (DDR4 base speed is 2133MT/s) aren’t overclocked. To run your memory at speeds higher than the base, you have to turn on the XMP option in BIOS. Intel first introduced XMP, but these days, most motherboard manufacturers call their memory OC feature XMP. Unless you have memory running at base spec (2133MT/s in the case of DDR4), you’ll have to turn on XMP to reach the speeds advertised on the packaging. For instance, if you have DDR4 3200 memory and don’t turn on XMP, the memory will run at slower speeds (2133, or 2400, or 3200 but with looser timings).

Most Intel chipsets come with memory speed limitations. Technically, they support faster memory and XMP profiles but not full memory overclocking. Their upper-speed limit is equal to the speed officially supported by different processors. For instance, if you pair the Core i5-10400 with a B460 board, you’re limited to DDR4 2666 memory – or DDR4 2933 for i7 and i9 CPUs – since this is the fastest speed officially supported by the 10400. Only the newest chipsets made for 11th gen CPUs have full memory OC support as a regular feature (B560 and H570). Well, all except the entry-level H510.

If you install the 10400 on a B560 motherboard, you will be able to use XMP and run your memory stick(s) at the speed advertised on the package. On a board based on the B560 chipset, you can turn on XMP and run the memory at 3200MT/s without issues. In other words, on B460 and H410 and older motherboards, you could lose some of the performance since you’re limited to DDR4 2666 or 2933 memory, depending on the CPU. The difference in gaming performance isn’t huge, but it’s there. So, for all of you wanting to get a 10th gen non-K Intel CPU, a motherboard based on the B560 chipset can give you higher performance in games.

Lack of OC features on certain Intel chipsets

While almost all AMD AM4 chipsets support CPU overclock (not available on the A320 and A520), the situation is different in Intel’s yard. The only way to overclock the CPU if you don’t have a K series CPU and a Z series motherboard is tweaking the BCLK (Base Clock) multiplier. The thing is, this procedure isn’t recommended since it can cause massive stability issues. Even if you pair a K series CPU with any motherboard that isn’t based on a Z series chipset, you won’t be able to overclock it.

This is another way a motherboard could affect gaming performance. The good news is that in most cases, the loss in performance is negligible. Just look at the differences between a stock and OCed 10900K in different games. The average difference between the two is less than ten percent at 1080p resolution. Going to 1440p and 4K would see even more minor performance differences. In other words, the lack of CPU OC features on certain motherboard chipsets can technically affect gaming performance, but not in any meaningful way.

Inadequate VRMs and Intel MCE on motherboards

The most significant way a motherboard can affect gaming performance is if it doesn’t have a VRM (voltage regulator module) capable of running your CPU at its max boost clocks. For instance, look at this B550 motherboard comparison. Most boards can run an overclocked 3950X without issues, but some of the boards’ VRMs can get extremely hot. In extreme cases, VRMs will throttle the CPU and lower its clock or even wholly crash the system. If your board’s VRM is good enough to run the CPU you picked, you won’t see any performance hits. But if you pair a weak VRM with a beefy CPU, you could experience noticeably slower performance, whether in games or CPU-heavy apps.

We have a similar situation with Intel chipsets and CPUs, but we also have a feature called MCE or multi-core enhancement. This feature allows Intel Z series motherboards to run without power limits and thus run CPUs at higher clocks. ASUS calls this feature APE on its non-Z boards, ASRock calls it BFB, etc. On MSI B560 boards, for instance, the power limit setting is hiding under the cooler option in the BIOS. Not all motherboards have equally capable VRMs and this can lead to slower performance if their VRMs cannot keep up with the massive power requirements of specific CPUs.

As you can see in this B560 motherboard comparison, specific models can’t run the Core i5-11400f at its max boost clock even with power limits enabled. For instance, the MSI B560M Pro can run the Core i5 11400F at 3100MHz with power limits disabled, while the Gigabyte B560M DS3H runs the same CPU at 3500MHz. Once you turn off power limits, most boards can run the CPU at around 4200Mhz, except the ASRock B560M-HDV, which runs the 11400F at 3990Mhz.

The difference in boost clocks is more pronounced when using a more powerful CPU that needs more power. In the case of the Core i7-11700, four motherboard models can’t keep up with the maximum boost clock of 4400Mhz. They either fail to reach the 4400Mhz or their voltage regulator modules throttle due to running at high temperatures. Similar to what happened to some B550 boards when combined with an overclocked 3950X.

And if you forget to disable power limits, you can lose up to 50 percent of CPU performance. So, if you decide to get a B560 motherboard, do not forget to disable CPU power limits as it will give you back most if not all performance you lost when running the CPU with power limits turned on. With that said, you should also make sure that the motherboard you get can handle running the CPU of your choice with power limits disabled.

Because pairing a CPU to a board with an inadequate VRM unit for that CPU can lead to the most significant changes in performance. You could see massive performance drops when playing games or using CPU-intensive apps. You could even experience other issues. Issues like stuttering or even system crash in the most extreme cases. To avoid this, make sure your motherboard can run your CPU at its max boost clocks without its VRM getting scorching hot, which can lead to a drop in CPU frequency and other issues.

If you plan on getting an Intel CPU and motherboard combo, make sure the board you buy can run the said CPU with power limits disabled. Because of power limiting, the CPU can induce massive performance penalties and is one case where the motherboard does matter for gaming.

Motherboards with PCIe 3.0 vs PCIe 4.0

Finally, we have the differences between PCIe 3.0 and 4.0. PCIe 4.0 is available on B550 and X570 (AMD) chipsets and B560, H570, and Z590 (Intel) chipsets. Do note that Intel chipsets only work if you pair them with 11th gen Intel CPUs. Older chipsets – X470 or Z490, for instance – only support PCIe 3.0. This difference affects graphics cards, not processors. Performance differences are more or less negligible in most cases. If you have a regular graphics card, you’ll see around a 1 percent difference between motherboards supporting PCIe 3.0 and PCIe 4.0. In other words, the difference is not high enough to notice while gaming.

This is the case with most cards, but there are, of course, outliers. The RX 6600 XT from AMD, while looking like a standard GPU, uses a PCIe x8 interface instead of the full x16 interface. This doesn’t affect its gaming performance in most games. But some titles, such as CoD: Black Ops Cold War or Doom: Eternal, show a measurable discrepancy between the PCIe 3.0 and 4.0 interface, at least in 1080p resolution. Upping the resolution to 1440p melts the framerate variances, making them more or less unnoticeable in real-time.

If you plan on getting the RX 6600 XT (which is, by the way, an excellent card for 1080p gaming) and you happen to play lots of CoD Blops or Doom: Eternal, you might want to get a motherboard with PCIe 4.0 support. Here, a PCIe 3.0 motherboard can lead to noticeably slower performance, but only in a handful of games and only in 1080p resolution. Playing @4K would probably almost completely melt the differences.

So does motherboard matter for gaming?

So, there you have it. You won’t see any performance drops if you get a motherboard that can keep up with your CPU and memory. In other words, if a motherboard is good enough to run your CPU and memory at their official specs and without power limits, then the motherboard doesn’t matter when it comes to gaming.

This is why VRM on motherboards is so important. If it cannot keep up with the CPU it’s coupled with, the user can suffer noticeably slower performance. This is why we recommend that first, check out which boards have quality enough VRM to run the CPU you plan on getting at its max boost clocks without issues. Only then take a look at other features such as the rear I/O connectors, internal connectors, BIOS flashback button, debug LEDs, RGB, etc.

Further, when looking for your next motherboard, make sure to perform detailed research on models that have made it onto your shortlist. As you’ve seen with the NZXT N7 B550, some boards have issues other than weak VRM that could also affect gaming and general performance.

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