Best Intel Motherboards: February 2021by Gavin Bonshor on February 5, 2021 7:45 AM EST
Here's the latest update to our list of recommended Intel motherboards in our series of motherboards buyers guides. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing.
Best Intel Motherboards: February 2021
In January, Intel finally lifted the lid on its latest Z590 chipset, enabling motherboards focused for Intel's 11th generation Rocket Lake processors. While the vast majority of models have been announced, only a small handful are currently available to buy from retail outlets such as Amazon and Newegg. The demand for Z590 is expected to be higher when Intel launches Rocket Lake, and as such, our guides going forward will align with this. For now, especially with Z590 prices being stratospheric, the best price to performance can be found from its 10th generation Z490 chipset. With PCIe 4.0 coming to Rocket Lake, some Z490 are already equipped with this and will be enabled through a BIOS update, but some Z490 are not. We make our recommendations for February based on our research, as well as availability.
Here are our choices in the motherboard market for Intel. For AMD recommendations, head on over to our AMD guide. This is usually updated monthly.
|Intel Motherboards Recommendations
|Intel 'Clean Mix of Price/Features' Motherboard|
|MSI MPG Z590
Gaming Carbon WiFi
|GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra||$300||$300||$300|
|Intel Value Motherboard|
|MSI Z490-A Pro||$160||$160||$160|
|Favorite Intel Mini-ITX Motherboard|
|ASRock Z490 Phantom
|Intel 'Money is no Object' Motherboard|
|MSI MEG Z490 Godlike||$750||$750||$750|
Our recommendations for motherboards are based entirely on personal and professional opinion. There are notably many different motherboards across the Intel chipsets including B460, Z490, and the workstation focused W480 chipset. This also includes Intel's latest Z590 models, although available stock is few and far between at present. While vendors have listed a small selection of models, we've omitted Z590 until we see more availability. I have selected my top four picks based on the four market segments based on what's available at the time of writing, regardless of the chipset. We have considered Intel's HEDT X299 chipset, but we feel this platform doesn't represent value for money since HEDT users typically have stricter requirements.
Intel Rocket Lake and Z590
Intel finally unveiled more about its Rocket Lake processors which are set to be available in Q1 2021. Despite the launch still being some time away, it unveiled the new Z590 chipset, which features official support for PCIe 4.0 when used with Rocket Lake and is backward compatible with the current Comet Lake desktop processors. Both Comet Lake and Rocket Lake share the same LGA1200 socket, with the newer Z590 motherboards coming with newer controller sets, although at an increased cost.
For those looking for Z590 models, we've compiled details on over 50 of them in our Z590 motherboard overview:
For users looking for other options, we've also gone over multiple chipset families as well in the links below.
- The AMD B550 Motherboard Overview: ASUS, GIGABYTE, MSI, ASRock, and Others
- The Intel W480 Motherboard Overview: LGA1200 For Xeon W-1200
- The AMD TRX40 Motherboard Overview: 12 New Motherboards Analyzed
- The AMD X570 Motherboard Overview: Over 35+ Motherboards Analyzed
- Intel Z390 Motherboard Overview: 50+ Motherboards Analyzed
- Analyzing B450 for AMD Ryzen: A Quick Look at 25+ Motherboards
- Analyzing Z370 for Intel's 8th Generation Coffee Lake: A Quick Look at 50+ Motherboards
- An AMD Threadripper X399 Motherboard Overview: A Quick Look at Seven Products
Best Intel Motherboard For Gaming/Performance
In this instance, our recommended Z490 board seems to be going in and out of stock - as a result, we're also suggesting a Z590 equivalent.
Z490: GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra ($300 at Amazon/$300 at Newegg)
If we are looking for a model that blends price, performance, and functionality, then there are many high-quality products to choose. Performance is one angle to compare, as well as controller set, the power delivery, and expansion slot support while keeping things as reasonable in regards to pricing as possible. One model which stands out is the GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra which is designed for gamers but has the versatility to be the foundation for a solid high-performance system with a good feature set at a mid-market price too, if you can find one.
The GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra sits below the more premium GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Master in the product stack but keeps much of the same in regards to feature set and capability. In terms of controllers, the GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra includes an Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller, with support from an Intel AX201 interface which adds Wi-Fi 6 and BT 5.1 connectivity. Also on the rear panel is a single USB 3.2 G2 20 Gbps Type-C port, with three USB 3.2 G2 Type-A, two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A, and four USB 2.0 ports. There are four memory slots with support for up to 128 GB, with official support for up to DDR4-4800 which is great for a mid-range model. For storage, there's three PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots with each slot inclusive of its own M.2 heatsink, and six SATA ports which include support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays.
On Z490 at the $250 to $300 price point, there is a stack of models to select from, all of which have their own merits and caveats. The GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Ultra has an MSRP of $300 but both Newegg and Amazon don't currently have any deals on this model. Users can find the competitive albeit lesser spec ASUS ROG Strix Z490-F Gaming for $269 at Newegg, but the GIGABYTE model does offer a better power delivery. The MSI MPG Z490 Gaming Carbon Wifi ($250) is close in terms of features with a Realtek 2.5 G Ethernet controller and much of the same feature set, but the GIGABYTE model seems to be the best board for under $300 on Z490 on paper, as well as looking good too. It is currently available to buy for $270 at both Amazon and Newegg, which is around $20 cheaper than it was last month and is a good $30 cheaper than the launch MSRP pricing of $300.
Z590: MSI MPG Z590 Gaming Carbon WiFi (MSRP $324)
Despite Intel's latest Z590 models either not being available at retail, or fully announced, one model that piqued our interest in the mid-range is the MSI MPG Z590 Gaming Carbon WiFi. Typically positioned at the mid-range, the Z590 Gaming Carbon WiFi has plenty of features and at the time of writing, is a very good alternative to Z490 models.
Some of its main features include three M.2 slots, with one PCIe 4.0 x4 M.2 and two with support for PCIe 3.0 x4 and SATA drives. Typical of a mid-range Z590 model, there's Intel's new AX210 Wi-Fi 6E CNVi and one Intel I225-V 2.5 GbE controller which is now a staple for most vendors in the way of networking. The rear panel includes one USB 3.2 G2x2 Type-C port which is now native to Intel's Z590 chipset, as well as three USB 3.2 G2 Type-A, two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A, and four USB 2.0 ports. MSI is using a Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec for its onboard audio solution, and also includes a small, but handy BIOS Flashback button on the rear panel.
Although there isn't yet a comprehensive list of Z590 pricing at this time, the MSI MPG Z590 Gaming Carbon WiFi looks set to include a 'reasonable' MSRP of $324.
Best Intel Motherboard: The Value Option
MSI Z490-A Pro ($160 at Amazon/$160 at Newegg)
The term 'value' can be taken any different ways, as it can be related to budget but with plenty of quality, or it can be relative to how much money is available. Prices of high-end motherboards have increased over the years - I remember when a high-end board would cost $175! But today the top chipsets are starting nearer that price.
With lots of Intel LGA 1200 chipsets available with the H410, B460, H470, and Z490, there are a lot of solid contenders in this particular area. My pick for value is the MSI Z490-A Pro. This isn't on a budget-based Intel chipset such as H410, but it allows users to overclock and squeeze out more performance from the 10th generation Comet Lake processors. The MSI Z490-A Pro is one of the cheapest Z490 models available on the market and has a solid feature set for the price. This includes a 12-phase power delivery, a Realtek ALC1200 HD audio codec, two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, a Realtek 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and a single USB 3.2 G2 Type-C port on the rear panel.
The biggest feature of note on the MSI Z490-A Pro is the power delivery, with a 12-phase design as well as the inclusion of a Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller. It also includes a solid budget storage configuration with six SATA slots and two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, with one slot coming with a heatsink, and the other reliant on the user installing one, or going for passive cooling. The rear panel is pretty standard for a board of this caliber, with a single USB 3.2 G2 Type-A, five USB 3.2 G1 Type-A, and two USB 2.0 ports. It includes an HDMI and DisplayPort video output pairing for users looking to leverage Intel's UHD integrated graphics, as well as six 3.5 mm audio jacks powered by a Realtek ALC1200 HD audio codec.
Despite the existence of the budget-focused H410, H470, and B460 chipsets, none of them officially support overclocking or memory faster than the default JEDEC specifications. When combining a Comet Lake desktop processor with adequate cooling, can offer excellent performance. The MSI Z490-A Pro isn't just one of the cheapest Z490 models with an MSRP of $160, but it's actually solid on paper too, for both overclocking and with a host of value-orientated features, but still more than capable controller set for a board at this price point. The Z490-A Pro is currently available for $160 at Amazon and Newegg. Its biggest competition comes via the equally impressive GIGABYTE Z490 Gaming X model at $160, but it lacks the 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and instead opts for an Intel Gigabit controller, and uses a USB 3.2 G2 Type-A instead of the Type-C on the MSI.
Best Intel Motherboard: The Best Mini-ITX Motherboard
ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 (N/A at Amazon/$280 at Newegg)
With fewer mini-ITX models than other form factors on the Z490 chipset, there are just six models to select from for small form factor enthusiasts and gamers. One of the biggest groundbreakers in mini-ITX is ASRock, and these models are generally popular with enthusiasts looking for a solid balance of features, good quality componentry, and pricing. The ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 is an update over the previous Z390 model, with a similar feature set, but designed with Intel's LGA 1200 socket in mind.
Out of the small handful of available mini-ITX Z490 motherboards, only two include Thunderbolt 3 connectivity on the rear panel: the ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 and the MSI MEG Z490I Unify. The reason for selecting the similarly priced ASRock over the MSI, having seen numerous ASRock mini-ITX models over the years, including the Z390 Phantom Gaming-ITX/ac before, we know what to expect from ASRock and it's a feature-packed model for its size. Aside from the single Thunderbolt 3 Type-C connector on the rear panel, it includes a Realtek RTL8125BG 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller and Intel AX201 Wi-Fi 6 interface pairing for the networking, as well as supporting up to two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 drives, one on the front and another slot on the rear.
Also on the rear panel are five 3.5 mm audio jacks and S/PDIF optical output powered by a premium Realtek ALC1220 HD audio codec and three USB 3.2 G2 Type-A and two USB 3.2 G1 Type-A ports. A handily located clear CMOS button is featured in the middle of the rear panel, with a PS/2 keyboard and mouse combo port, and two video outputs including a DisplayPort and HDMI pairing, although the Thunderbolt 3 Type-C port can also output video. The ASRock also supports up to DDR4-4666 officially, with a maximum capacity of up to 64 GB across two memory slots. In addition to the two PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots are four SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays.
The ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 is a solid motherboard for enthusiasts to overclock on with its 8+2 phase power delivery, as well as the potential foundation for a monstrous single graphics card gaming system. The Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 has an MSRP of $280 and is currently available at Newegg for this price. Unfortunately, stock as Amazon has dwindled over the last month or two, and as such, is only available via third-party sellers. In regards to the competition, we reviewed the MSI Z490I Unify ($270) with a similar feature set and a 10-layer PCB, as well as the GIGABYTE Z490I Aorus Ultra ($270). The ASUS ROG Strix Z490-I Gaming is slightly more expensive with an MSRP of $300, but the ASRock is our pick in regards to Intel-based mini-ITX boards for September. One important thing to consider is boards such as the ASRock Z490 Phantom Gaming-ITX/TB3 make solid options for Rocket Lake, as it includes the capability for PCIe 4.0 with one of the M.2 slots, and the full-length PCIe x16 slot.
Best Intel Motherboard: Money Is No Object
MSI MEG Z490 Godlike ($750 at Amazon/$750 at Newegg)
At the top tier of the Z490 product stack, all of the major vendors have options that are quite frankly overkill. They are laden with features such as 10 gigabit Ethernet, triple PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots, and Thunderbolt 3 Type-C connectivity. One of the most extravagant and premium models is the MSI MEG Z490 Godlike which includes dual Thunderbolt 3 Type-C ports on the rear panel, support for up to five PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots (the bundled Xpander-Z Gen4 M.2 add-on card gives an extra few), as well as a beefy 16-phase power delivery and an OLED panel.
The MSI MEG Z490 Godlike has official support for DDR4-5000 memory, with a total capacity of up to 128 GB across four memory slots. Storage support out of the box is also impressive with each of the three PCIe 3.0 x4 M.2 slots having its own heatshield, and a further two available from an Xpander-Z Gen4 dual M.2 slot adapter in the box. For SATA devices, MSI includes six SATA ports with support for RAID 0, 1, 5, and 10 arrays.
Its design is both futuristic, modern and clean, with plenty of grey metallic shading, on a black contrasting background. There is also plenty of integrated RGB LED lighting with some in the rear panel cover which illuminates the MSI dragon logo, the chipset heatsink with the Godlike branding, and an OLED panel that can be customized via MSI's Mystic Light software next to the memory slots. The MSI MEG Z490 is also using a large 16-phase power delivery with sixteen ISL99390B 90 A power stages and is controlled by an ISL69269 PWM controller operating in an 8+1 configuration, with each of the CPU phases doubled up with an ISL6617A doubler.
The rear panel's connectivity includes the dual Thunderbolt 3 Type-C ports, two USB 3.2 G2 Type-A. four USB 3.2 G1 Type-A, and two USB 2.0 ports. A handily located pair of buttons are present that allow users to perform USB BIOS Flashback and reset the CMOS. Networking includes an Aquantia AQC107 10 GbE Ethernet controller, with an added Realtek RTL8125B 2.5 GbE controller for good measure, with an Intel AX201 interface providing both Wi-Fi 6 and BT 5.1 connectivity.
The MSI MEG Z490 Godlike has an MSRP of $750 and due to current stock issues worldwide, it is available at both Newegg and Amazon for $750. When compared to other brand's flagship models such as the ASUS ROG Maximus XII Extreme ($750) and GIGABYTE Z490 Aorus Xtreme ($799), these include similar feature sets, but what sets the Godlike apart from the other is its superb accessories bundle, the overall networking configuration with a 10 GbE and 2.5 GbE Ethernet controller pairing with Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, but five PCIe 3.0 x4 is surely a benefit to those looking to build a very high-speed storage configuration. Each of the models mentioned has its own individual merits, but one thing to consider is the added compatibility for PCIe 4.0 when Rocket Lake hits the market next year, which allows users some PCIe 4.0 support without purchasing a new motherboard.
Z590: The Future
We've covered as much as we can in our Z590 overview before we can get one of the new Rocket Lake processors into test, and no doubt when that platform comes into bloom, we'll be examining them even more closely when it comes to our buyers guides. Is there a particular Z590 model that interests you? Please let us know in the comments below.