DDR4? DDR5? Wireless Internet access? A brief overview of motherboards for Intel’s new Alder Lake CPUs
Enlarge / Gigabyte’s $ 270 Z690 Aorus Elite AX Z690. Alder Lake motherboards come in all shapes, sizes, and prices as long as you can spend at least $ 200 (and preferably closer to $ 300).
Intel’s 12th generation core processors for desktops are here, and they’re fast. Codenamed Alder Lake, these processors use a lot of power to reach the heights they reach and require expensive high-performance cooling to match. In return, however, they deliver healthy single-thread performance gains over their closest competition from AMD, and they generally come pretty close in multi-thread performance tests despite the use of lower-performance “efficiency” cores (or e-cores).
As is so often the case, this new processor architecture requires new chipsets and processor sockets from Intel – motherboards with chipsets of the 500 series are not compatible. To accompany our Alder Lake review, we looked at the breadth of Z690-based motherboards currently available, as well as the state of the emerging DDR5 RAM market (spoiler: it’s not great).
All kinds of boards
Enlarge / Gigabyte’s Z690 UD AX DDR4 is a solid entry-level Z690 ATX motherboard for Alder Lake with DDR4 support, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, a respectable port selection, and decent-looking VRM heat sinks for around $ 220.
Entry-level ATX and micro ATX motherboards with the Z690 chipset start at between $ 200 and $ 250. There are some that fall below that $ 200 mark, but they’re more likely than the other models that are sold out as of this writing. In general, we’ve tried to focus on boards that you can actually buy right now. Newegg currently lists most ASRock and many Asus motherboards as out of stock, but you can still find boards that will fit most budgets if you need one.
Even entry-level Z-series motherboards have their fair share of bells and whistles – really bare motherboards are reserved for cheaper chipsets that Intel hasn’t announced or released yet. In this price range you generally get four DDR4 memory slots, although some (like the MSI Pro Z690-A DDR5 and Z690-A WIFI DDR5) instead have four DDR5 memory slots and a PCI Express 5.0 x16 slot for GPUs couple of display outputs (usually a DisplayPort, an HDMI) and three or four M.2-2280 slots for installing multiple SSDs.
You also get between six and 10 rear USB ports with a mix of speeds, usually with a single USB-C port underneath. Most include a single 2.5 Gbps ethernet port at this point, though you’ll still see 1 Gbps on the cheapest boards. Integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support is rare in this price range, but not uncommon – you can find it in boards like the Gigabyte Z690 UD AX and the DDR5 and DDR4 versions of the MSI Pro Z690-A.
Enlarge / It lacks WiFi and Bluetooth, but for around $ 230, MSI’s Pro Z690-A is one of the cheapest Z690 motherboards with DDR5 RAM support.
The only thing to look out for with the cheapest of these mainboards is a small heat sink for the voltage regulator modules or VRMs. The cooling of the VRMs ensures that the processor receives a constant power supply while boosting it over a longer period of time. Most motherboards we looked at, including the ones linked above, as well as Gigabyte’s Z690 Gaming X DDR4, ASRock Z690 Steel Legend, and Asus Prime Z690-P, Z690-P D4, and Prime Z690M-Plus D4 all have one remarkable appearance VRM heat sinks above and to the left of the processor socket, which protrude over the ports. Others, like the ASRock Z690 Phantom Gaming 4 and the Z690 Pro RS, have smaller VRM heat sinks that may not handle a top-end Core i9-12900K or processor overclock.
Step into the $ 300 range and Wi-Fi / Bluetooth cards will become the standard feature. On boards like the Gigabyte Z690 Aero G DDR4 or the Asus Prime Z690-A you can sometimes find more rear USB ports (including a second USB-C port). DDR5 support is still relatively rare, however: both the Prime Z690-A and Gigabyte Z690 Aorus Pro support DDR5, but most of the others are still using DDR4. In this price range you will also find one of the few mini ITX Z690 boards that is suitable for small workstations or gaming builds: Gigabytes Z690I Aorus Ultra DDR4. This category of boards also tends to contain a few more VRM modules and even larger, more elaborate heat sinks for both the VRMs and the M.2 SSD slots.
There are Z690 motherboards out there well over $ 300, from the $ 350 Asus ROG Strix Z690-G Gaming WiFi (the more you pay, the longer the name I think) to the $ 600 MSI MEG Z690 ACE to from the US $ 900 Gigabyte Z690 Aorus Xtreme to the US $ 1,100 Asus Rog Maximus Z690 Extreme, which costs as much as a decent gaming PC before the chip ran out.
Enlarge / At $ 1,100, the eye-catching Asus ROG Maximus Z690 Extreme costs as much as a beautiful laptop alone.
Some of these boards have their selling points, such as integrated Thunderbolt 4 instead of just a header, even more VRMs and sophisticated VRM cooling setups with fins and heat pipes. But much of what you pay for in this price range is style; glowing LED lights are becoming even more common, and stylized heat sinks with a logo cover almost the entire board.
Most people don’t have to spend that much on a board and should better put that money into the processor, RAM, or any other GPU they can find. Our test setup supplied by Intel uses an MSI MPG Z690 Carbon at a comparatively low price of 400 US dollars. But these expensive motherboard options are out there if you have special needs, or prefer a specific look, and you have money to burn.
The DDR5 tax
Enlarge / If you can actually find DDR5 RAM for sale, you are paying much more for the extra speed.
In our Alder Lake test, Intel was able to do its best with DDR5 RAM, which offers additional memory bandwidth that allows Intel to get a little more performance out of its chips (especially for multithreaded tasks). The fact is, however, you are now paying a lot more to put together a desktop with DDR5, both when you buy the motherboards (which have a small extra cost over the cheapest DDR4 versions) and the RAM itself.
Let’s compare some DDR4 3200 and DDR5 4800 RAM prices for reference as these are the fastest speeds officially listed on Intel’s Alder Lake product pages.
A 16GB Crucial DDR5 4800 memory kit is currently around $ 137, compared to $ 72 for a Crucial DDR4 3200 memory kit (and this isn’t the cheapest DDR4 option; I just thought it would be fairest Compare RAM kits from the same manufacturers). The same kits in 32GB capacities are priced at $ 274 for DDR5 and $ 153 for DDR4. For 64GB, look for $ 548 for the Crucial DDR5 kit or $ 363 for the DDR4 (and while the Crucial kit is the cheapest 64GB DDR5 kit out there, 64GB DDR4 kits from different manufacturers with similar speeds and timings had to be for around $ 250).
What’s worse is that every single DDR5 memory kit at Newegg sells out, so it can be difficult for you to buy no matter what you’re willing to pay. We used Newegg for most of our research here, but the situation is the same with retailers like Amazon and B&H as well.
If you’re buying Alder Lake on a budget, you might be able to fill that price and performance gap a bit by buying a DDR4 3600 or 4000 kit at a small premium over the DDR4 3200 and using the XMP setting in your BIOS to to do this the RAM will run at its rated speed once installed. It won’t close the void, in part because DDR5 also uses more memory channels than DDR4, but it should give you slightly better multithreaded performance without dealing with pricing and storage issues. There are kits out there that are faster than DDR4 4000, but they are not much cheaper than DDR5.
We cannot easily predict how the DDR5 supply will look in the future, as no one can currently predict anything with sufficient accuracy in terms of chip availability. But if it looks like there have been memory transitions in the past, we can assume that availability, prices, and speed will gradually decline over time, as a consumer-level product actually hits the market, the DDR5 used. This availability will continue to improve as soon as AMD switches to DDR5 and as soon as CPUs and chipsets of the lower generation of the 12th generation with DDR5 support become more widely available. Speeds will increase too, widening the gap between the highest DDR4 speeds and the lowest DDR5 speeds. But we would expect all of this to take at least a year or two.
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