The cheap motherboards for gaming can have a huge impact on building the perfect gaming PC. Even with so little difference between them performance-wise nowadays, it’s important not to get the wrong motherboard. So let’s break down the basics to narrow this down.
Mostly your choice of motherboard comes down to CPU socket support, ports, and overall quality, but even beyond all that, there are a few other things to consider.
For example, do you want the option to overclock your CPU at some point, or do you need high-performance memory support? Replacing your motherboard down the line is a serious business and not something to be taken lightly, so you’ll want to make sure you have all your bases covered.
The best gaming motherboards can also offer a modicum of future-proofing, as much as anything can in this fickle, fast-moving PC technology landscape of ours.
Whether that’s a socket or chipset that can support the new processors of today, such as the Intel’s Z490 and Rocket Lake chips, or one that’s able to deliver next-gen interconnects, such as the B550’s PCIe 4.0 support.
We’re testing a bunch of Z590s and at the moment, but aside from some more solid, though still mildly flaky PCIe 4.0 support, Intel’s 500-series boards aren’t offering all that much.
BEST INTEL Z490 MOTHERBOARD
1. Asus ROG Maximus XII Extreme (cheap motherboards for gaming)
If you want the best, most fully-featured Intel Comet Lake motherboard, then I’m afraid you’re going to have to pay for it. And pay through the nose if Asus’ Z490 Maximus XII Extreme is anything to go by.
It is, as the name suggests, extreme, packing in a variety of luxurious and convenient extras (a frickin’ screwdriver with interchangeable heads for one), and it’s also one of the highest performing Z490 boards we’ve tested.
But it only really makes sense if you’re buying a K-series Core i9 and genuinely intend to overclock the nuts off it. The Maximus XII will allow you to get the highest clock speed out of your 10900K and won’t turn it into a pile of molten slag while you’re at it.
The MSI Z490 Godlike is actually the fastest Z490 outright at stock speeds, but I’d rather have the ROG board in my camp if I’m going down the OC route. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
The sparse back panel and missing OLED displays will tell you we’re back into normal motherboard territory again. The rarified air of the ultra-enthusiast ROG board up top might make one giddy, but the Z490 Gaming Carbon will bring us back down to earth without a bump.
Sure, you’re never going to get the same level of luxury feature list as you’ll find with either the Maximus XII or MSI’s own Godlike boards, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of pure performance, it’s right up there. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
Where it matters, in the gaming performance stakes, there’s practically nothing between any of the Z490 boards we’ve tested, and it’s only ever a little behind when it comes to the actual CPU performance in productivity apps. However, when it comes to overclocking, the MPG Z490 Gaming Carbon WiFi inevitably can’t compare to the big boys, with our 10900K running at its peak.
BEST INTEL B460 MOTHERBOARD (cheap motherboards for gaming)
Grabbing one of the best Z490 motherboards might be appealing to your inner elitist, but the sticker price shock is definitely a problem for many people. Sure, it would be nice to have 10Gb LAN, seven M.2 slots, or quad GPU support, but who really needs all that stuff? Most of us will be perfectly happy with a quality B460 motherboard, such as the MSI MAG B460M Mortar WiFi.
If you can put up with the memory speed limitation and have no intention of overclocking (well, with a K-series CPU anyway), then this is the kind of board that should be on your PC building wishlist.
It ticks most of the important boxes, and at $125, it’s well priced, though the competition is tough with many premium B460 motherboards priced in this range. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
It’s got a strong VRM, 2.5Gb LAN, Wi-Fi 6, and adequate, if not particularly outstanding, I/O. Pairing it with a 65W non-K processor and having a crack at pseudo overclocking is definitely worth the minimal efforts too.
If you can live with the maximum DDR4-2666 speed, something like an Intel Core i5-10600 and B460M Mortar, paired with a decent mid-range GPU, would deliver a quality, affordable gaming combo.
The ASRock B460 Steel Legend is an awesomely named mid-range B460 entry. At USD 120, it’s what we’d call a mid-range B460 board. A look over the specs indicates that your $120 is well spent on some important areas. You get a pair of heatsink-covered M.2 slots, an e-key M.2 slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, a front USB Type-C header, and a good helping of RGB onboard.
The increased power demands of 10th generation CPUs mean motherboards generally have to include improved VRM designs, and on that front, the B460 Steel Legend is very well equipped. It includes a 9+1 phase VRM powered by a single 8-Pin EPS connector.
Each stage can deliver up to 60A. Bear in mind that overclocking is not allowed on B460 motherboards, so the VRM will not see extreme loads as you might get with an all-core overclocked Intel Core i9 10900K.
The ASRock B460 Steel legend will appeal to buyers who aren’t so interested in bells and whistles but want a solid ATX board capable of powering any 10th Gen CPU without bursting into flames. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
BEST INTEL Z390 MOTHERBOARD
The Gigabyte Z390 Aorus Ultra competes with the MSI Z390 Gaming Pro Carbon AC and the Asus ROG Maximus XI Hero (Wi-Fi) lower price tag and more features. It has triple M.2 slots for your super-speedy NVMe SSD needs, Intel Wi-Fi Wave2 and ethernet, a full RGB treatment with multiple headers, and ALC1220 audio.
The only real downside for us is that this mobo is perhaps a little too flashy and may not suit more restrained gaming builds. Thankfully, you can disable all the RGB bling within the BIOS if you want, though other elements may still clash. But that’s a small criticism of an otherwise top board. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
With the price dropping and the previous Z370-based model disappearing from vendors, ASUS’s Strix Z390-I Gaming moves into the boutique ITX segment’s top spot. Despite its diminutive size and paucity of upgrade options, the ROG Strix Z390-I Gaming provides excellent performance and value.
Boasting stable 5GHz overclocks using several memory speeds, including 3,600MHz with tweaking, its single PCIe x16 slot pushed top-shelf graphics cards to speeds that matched or exceeded most Z390 ATX boards during testing.
The smallest Strix has a lengthy features list, with no shortcomings despite the tiny form factor, including dual PCIe Gen3 x4 M.2 slots, Intel v219 ethernet, upgraded Intel 9560 2×2 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and an ALC1220A audio codec supported by isolated circuitry and headphone amps.
Despite the dense set of features, the Strix Z390-I’s clean design makes for quick system assembly and configuration, an important consideration for ITX rig building. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
It’s worth noting that this board can be hard to find, but the previous generation ROG Strix Z370-I model, with its slimmer design, remains an excellent alternative, especially at clearance prices.
BEST AMD X570 MOTHERBOARD
There isn’t a new chipset debuting with the AMD Ryzen 5000 CPUs, but Asus’ ROG Crosshair VIII Dark Hero wants to be the last AM4 motherboard you’ll ever need. But what is it that makes a great motherboard? Features are important, as is a stable and refined BIOS, value for money, a good design, but sometimes it’s intangible. Sometimes it’s that the damn thing just works.
Motherboard testing is often one of the most painful things a tech journalist has to do. With some boards you have to fight it to get it to do what you want, or expect it to, or have to or crank up some voltage setting to a level you don’t really want to, but the Dark Hero just boots the first time, even as we played with the memory clocks and timings and the Infinity Fabric. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
The Crosshair VIII Dark Hero might not be the best AM4 motherboard ever made, we’d have to review a few hundred others to make that claim, but it’s an easy claim to make that the Dark Hero is certainly one of the best AM4 motherboards we’ve ever used.
Time and months of user feedback will determine if the Dark Hero assumes a position as one of the truly legendary ROG motherboards, but we wouldn’t bet against that happening.
The MSI MPG X570 represents an amalgamation of bleeding-edge motherboard tech, built to get the most out of AMD’s 3rd gen Ryzen CPUs. It has four DIMM slots that can handle speeds up to 4,400Mhz and two M.2 slots sporting support for PCIe 4.0.
The rear I/O panel features seven USB-A ports for peripherals and a single USB-C port for connectivity and high-speed data transfer. There are headers for the included Wi-Fi antenna to help with wireless connectivity, as well as a gigabit ethernet port. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
The MPG X570 supports Wi-Fi 6, and while that does necessitate a Wi-Fi 6 compatible router, it’s backward compatible with other Wi-Fi standards and gives the potential for a speed boost down the line. Also of note is the HDMI port, which many X570 boards.
The MPG X570 features enough compatibility to get the most out of your hardware now and in the future, provided you’re willing to pay a premium for it. While it’s certainly an excellent mobo, if you aren’t already committed to a shopping list of top-of-the-line components now or shortly, you may want to consider a slightly less expensive board for your needs.
BEST AMD B550 MOTHERBOARD
Sure, the Asus ROG Strix B550-E is the same price as other X570 motherboards; in fact, it pretty much matches our favorite of AMD’s top-end boards, the MSI MPG X570 Gaming Pro Carbon. But it’s a premium motherboard, with all the trappings you’d expect from Asus’ Republic of Gamers stables, such as 14+2 power stage, M.2 heatsinks, and pre-installed backplates.
You also get Wi-Fi 6 wireless networking as well as Intel 2.5Gb ethernet too. And RGB LEDs, of course. If you’re looking at building a Zen 3 system, then the necessary BIOS updates should drop in January for this motherboard. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
Performance too is typically good for a high-end Asus board, matching X570 motherboards for gaming performance without issue. That said, of the B550 boards we’ve tested, it’s the far more affordable MSI board that actually comes out top in our straight performance testing. But the Asus can overclock far better, even if it does chew up more raw power from the plug on the whole.
The Asus ROG Strix B550-E Gaming is the whole package then, and right now is our all-around pick for the best B550 motherboard. Though that still feels like a tough recommendation when X570 boards are the same price…
When it comes to gaming performance above all else, then MSI’s micro-ATX MAG B550M Mortar is your best bet for an affordable next-gen Ryzen machine. It comes in around the $160 mark, making it cheaper than a great many X570 and other B550 motherboards on the market right now. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
The gaming frame rates of the MSI B550 Mortar put it above the rest of the B550 crew we’ve tested so far, and indeed its straight CPU performance puts it up there with some of the best X570s.
That bodes well if you’re looking for an affordable home for your AMD Zen 3 CPU of the future (BIOS updates to support Ryzen 5000 chips are due to start rolling out in January); this B550 has a great chance to ensure it performs to its fullest stock-clocked potential without breaking the bank.
But you will be missing out on extra PCIe 4.0 M.2 and x16 graphics slots if those extras mean a lot to you. You can also opt to ditch wireless networking too, depending on whether you pick the straight Mortar or the more expensive Mortar Wi-Fi version.
BEST AMD A520 MOTHERBOARD
1. ASRock A520M
AMD’s budget Ryzen motherboard chipset, the A520, has largely slipped under the radar. While B350 and B450 motherboards were mostly regarded as entry-level, A320 was strictly seen as the resolutely low end.
The introduction of B550 motherboards, and their associated move upward in price, left a big hole in the sub-$100 market. Enter A520. If you’re on a tighter budget and don’t care about PCIe 4.0 or the overclocking support offered by B550, then the A520 motherboards might be exactly what you need.
There’s cheap, and there’s really cheap, but a decent A520 board can more or less do everything aboard at double the price can. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
Then there’s the cherry on top, which is support for AMD Ryzen 5000 series CPUs and, almost as importantly, Ryzen 4000 series APUs. Combine a Zen 3 CPU with a motherboard such as this ASRock A520M ITX/ac, and you’ll be able to build an affordable and compact system that can beat any Intel chip in any workload.
The ASRock A520M’s audio is a bit of a letdown, but that’s something that budget boards often compromise on. A gamer listening to compressed audio assets in-game probably won’t be any less immersed. The little ASRock A520M ITX/ac has it where it counts and will serve you well at the heart of a budget gaming system.
It benefits from the strengths of the Ryzen platform and adds some future-proofing into the mix. ITX fans looking for a capable budget AMD Ryzen option should definitely have this one on their shortlist.
AMD’s A520 motherboard chipset might not make for the sexiest of PC components, that’s for sure. You probably wouldn’t buy one to take place at the heart of your water-cooled build or Nvidia RTX 3090 gaming system.
When you look at the chipset itself, it doesn’t really miss out in terms of real-world essential features. There’s no PCIe 4.0, but then no Intel systems have it either, not until Rocket Lake next year. This is one of the best cheap motherboards for gaming to buy in 2021.
The Gigabyte A520 Aorus Elite is a high-end A520 board, which might seem oxymoronic, but if you didn’t know what it was, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was more of a mid-range board and not a $90 bargain.
It’s even got two RGB headers and a further two ARGB headers. About the only thing it really lacks is Wi-Fi, but then do you really expect to have Wi-Fi at this price?
Gigabyte deserves credit for including audio built around the ALC1200 codec. Usually, this is reserved for use with more expensive motherboards. If you’re on a budget, this Gigabyte A520 Aorus Elite is well worth a look.