If you’ve got a 8th or 9th gen Intel -K series CPU and are looking to push it to its max with some overclocking, then you might be in the market for an Intel Z390 motherboard. If all of that just sounds like a word salad, don’t worry: we have you covered.
In this article, we’re going to go over our top 5 picks for an Intel Z390 motherboard in 2020. Whether you’re on a tight budget or you want every extra feature imaginable, don’t worry: we have you covered. We also have dedicated picks for top Micro ATX and Mini ITX options, too, which is sure to make those SFF PC builders among you happy.
With no further ado…let’s hop right into it.
In this section, we’re going to discuss what sets Z390 motherboards apart, and how you can choose the right one for you.
What sets Intel Z390 apart from other Intel chipsets?
First and foremost, let’s talk about the chipset that all these motherboards have in common: Z390. Intel Z390 is an updated version of Z370, and for the most part… that’s just about all it is. You won’t see many meaningful differences since the two chipsets are now mostly-identical in terms of pricing. Z390 is just better at supporting newer technology, like NVMe SSDs and USB 3.1 Gen2 (which is now infuriatingly called 3.2 Gen2).
The main benefit of Z370 and Z390 chipsets is that they allow 8th and 9th Gen Intel CPUs to be overclocked. At least supported -K series CPUs to be overclocked. Non-K Intel CPUs, unfortunately, do not support overclocking on any motherboard. Z390 motherboards are also said to boast improved VRMs (voltage regulator module), which should lend itself to improved stability for overclocking purposes.
In essence, Z390 is the chipset for those who intend to overclock their CPUs and want the most high-end features built-in.
Why does form factor matter?
Form factor dictates both compatibility and expansion. The smaller the form factor, the more compatibility. The larger the form factor, the more expansion. Each motherboard size– from Mini ITX to ATX– corresponds to a case size, generally ranging from ITX Mini Towers to ATX Mid/Full Towers.
Here are the three main sizes to worry about:
- Mini ITX (MITX) – The smallest. Usually limited to 2 PCIe slots (1 often to make room for M.2), 2 RAM slots, and 2-4 SATA ports. M.2 capacity never exceeds two.
- Micro ATX (MATX) – The middle-ground. Usually limited to 3-4 PCIe slots (occasionally losing one or two for dedicated NVMe M.2 slots.) 2 to 4 RAM slots. 4-6 SATA ports. M.2 capacity usually never exceeds two.
- Standard ATX (ATX) – The standard. 5-6 PCIe slots, with some occasionally sacrificed for M.2 drives. 4 to 8 RAM slots. 6 or more SATA ports. M.2 capacity usually never exceeds three, with one or two being more common.
SATA and M.2
When it comes to storage, SATA and M.2 are two terms you’ll see pop up very frequently.
SATA refers to Serial ATA, the standard storage connection for the past two decades, pretty much. Revisions overtime have resulted in speed boosts of up to six gigabits a second, though this applies to simultaneous read and writes. You couldn’t get a hard drive with this read speed on SATA, because it would also need bandwidth for writes as well.
Mechanical hard drives, or HDDs, fall well under the maximum speeds of the SATA standard. If you don’t really care about storage speed and just want sheer capacity, then a high number of SATA ports should be your priority. Many SSDs can be used with SATA, too, but you won’t achieve the highest possible speeds the technology allows in this way; it’ll top out at the roughly 550 MB threshold for SATA.
In order to use the fastest SSDs on the market, you need to use PCI Express bandwidth. To do this, you need to use an M.2 form factor SSD, which is comparable to a wafer-thin USB drive in size. This M.2 SSD needs to support NVMe as well, or else you’ll be restricted to SATA speeds and bandwidth– fortunately, every motherboard listed in this article supports the faster standard. These SSDs can easily top 3000 MB read/writes.
We highly recommend investing in the best M.2 NVMe SSD you can afford to install your operating system and main applications on, and expanding later storage with SATA SSDS or HDDs.
RAM and PCIe
RAM slots in a motherboard start as low as 2 and can go as high as 8. The motherboards in this roundup max out at 4, and the number of RAM slots corresponds to the RAM configurations that you’re able to run.
- Single-Channel – When only a single RAM stick is present, it can only run at half of its rated speed. Highly unrecommended; will bottleneck anything better than a budget CPU.
- Dual-Channel – The ideal. With two RAM sticks of the same speed and capacity present, they can effectively pool their resources and run at their full speed. This should prevent any CPU bottlenecking.
- Quad-Channel – A bit extra and generally unnecessary, at least for gaming (more useful for dedicated video editing work stations). While this will provide a marginal speed boost over dual-channel, the main reason to run a Quad-Channel configuration is with 4 identical RAM sticks, pushing your RAM capacity as high as it can go.
Even with an ITX board, you’ll be able to do a Dual-Channel configuration, which is all you really need.
With PCIe, or PCI Express slots, the story is a little different. There are two types of PCI Express slots:
- x16 slots– you can mount graphics cards within these full-sized slots
- x1 slots– these smaller slots are used for other expansion options.
Before motherboards started integrating wireless technology and sound cards, a lot of PCI Express cards were necessary to achieve ideal PC performance.
Fortunately, the only reason you really need PCI Express slots nowadays is for a graphics card. Unless you already have another PCI Express expansion in mind– perhaps the addition of extra USB ports, for instance– you don’t really need to worry about this.
Multi-GPU setups have increasingly fallen out of developer support as well, though you’ll definitely want an ATX board if you still want to do that somewhere down the line.
RGB, Wireless, and extras
Last but not least, let’s talk about extras that you may notice in your motherboard.
RGB lights are common in high-end motherboards, and even mid-range boards will have connectors and software for controlling RGB RAM, fans, and other components. The presence of RGB lighting is ultimately a cosmetic flair, and up to user preference. If you want to save some cash, opting for an RGB-less motherboard is a great place to start.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have become more common, especially in Mini ITX and Micro ATX motherboards. This is because these form factors have fewer PCI Express slots available, and things like Wi-Fi are common user needs. If you live in a dorm or another area where you can’t feasibly run an ethernet cable, built-in Wi-Fi can go a long way toward improving your PC usage experience.
Other extras tend to be more software-centric, like LAN, storage, or driver software. These are ultimately minor in the grand scheme of things, though, and shouldn’t influence your final buying decision very much.