How to pick the right motherboard for your Intel 12th-gen CPU
Now that Intel has filled out its lineup of kick-ass 12th-generation “Alder Lake” desktop processors—and the 600-series chipsets that go with them—picking the right motherboard is that much more important. Every CPU fits a different situation, and so the mobo you drop it into can help or hinder your goals.
That’s because your motherboard’s chipset determines the capabilities of your PC. And for Alder Lake in particular, you have to pay close attention to the details to make sure you get the feature support you seek. It’s even trickier when cost matters greatly.
So how do you decide between Z690, H670, B660, and H610 motherboards? Easy. Think about them from the perspective of what you want to do with your PC now and in the future. Be sure to augment the following information with the tips outlined in our guide to picking the perfect motherboard, too.
CPU features vs motherboard capabilities
Gordon Mah Ung
First, before we dig into the different motherboard chipsets, let’s cover a quick but important distinction: The technologies that a CPU can support versus those that a motherboard does support. Simply put, your motherboard determines whether or not you can actually take advantage of a CPU’s full capabilities.
This is an important point for Alder Lake motherboards, because not only do chipsets have their own inherent limitations based on segmentation of features, but board vendors can impose more restrictions beyond those, too. You might expect that because your Alder Lake CPU supports PCIe 5 and cutting-edge DDR5 memory, you can just pick a motherboard and call it a day.
Unfortunately that’s not the case, as some mobos will support DDR4 instead of DDR5. Even though 12th-gen processors support both memory specifications, a motherboard will only implement one. A board can even skip PCIe 5 to cut costs, too. For Alder Lake, you must dig into the specs for each particular board you’re considering, especially if you’re expecting your chip’s capability of 16 PCIe 5.0 lanes, four PCIe 4.0 lanes, and support for DDR5-4800 RAM.
For reference, this diagram shows what to expect from an Alder Lake CPU (the part in blue):
Ultimately, the motherboard and chipset you choose could give you the full range of features, or see access to some lopped off. Flexibility on how you can split the PCIe 5 lanes, types of supported USB ports, number of additional PCIe lanes, RAID support, and more are also affected by which chipset and specific board you choose.
We’ll dive into how that shakes out—and which motherboards best match the PC you’re building—according to chipset specs. But always keep in mind that board makers can and will implement further restrictions, as mentioned above.
Z690: The no-compromises choice
- Ideal for: PC enthusiasts, data hoarders, overclockers
- Best with: Core i9 and Core i7 processors, unlocked “K” processors
- Price range: $200 to $900
You want it all? Z690 motherboards provide just that. CPU and memory overclocking, plenty of additional PCIe 4.0 and 3.0 lanes, blistering-fast USB ports—mobos with this chipset offer the ultimate flexibility for PC builds.
This motherboard type is required for anyone who wants to do CPU overclocking: Z690 boards are the only ones that allow users to overclock an Alder Lake processor. You’re restricted to just memory overclocking with the other motherboard chipsets.
For anyone with a locked processor, Z690 motherboards best suit people who can (and will) make use of the many PCIe 4 and PCIe 3 lanes available. Think NVMe drives and expansion cards—any situation where fast storage and specialized functions are needed, like professional video production or streaming. That includes situations where PCIe RAID 0, 1, or 5 setups are necessary. In total, you get 12 PCI 4.0 lanes and 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes.
As for I/O ports and slower storage, Z690 provides up to 14 USB ports, four of which can be USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps), and eight SATA 3.0 ports. You can do RAID 0, 1, or 5 setups with SATA storage, just as with PCIe storage. Communication between your USB accessories and SATA drives and your CPU goes over eight DMI 4.0 lanes, which are twice as fast as the previous generation and newly launched in these 600-series motherboards.
H670: The affordable pick for enthusiasts
- Ideal for: Gamers, content creators, and data hoarders on a budget
- Best with: Core i9 and Core i7 processors
- Price range: $140 to $230
Not everyone can afford a Z690 motherboard—much less wants all those bells and whistles. (Why pay for what you won’t use, after all?) Stepping down to a mobo with the H670 chipset largely gives you many of the features sought by content creators and gamers, while pulling back on those that only a handful need. Given the high price on Z690 boards, many builders will find H670 or B660 boards a better fit for their needs and budgets. While the lowest-cost boards start around $200, the majority currently come in between $230 to $330. The remainder hit even higher prices.
Like Z690, H670 supports up to 12 PCI 4.0 lanes, eight SATA 3.0 ports, and RAID 0, 1, 5 for both PCIe and SATA drives. That means you can connect plenty of expansion cards and storage to a H670 motherboard. Same too for USB accessories: H670 also caps out at a maximum of 14 USB ports.
Also just as with Z690, you also get eight DMI 4.0 lanes that each provide 16GT/s, or twice the speed of DMI 3.0. Or in other words, H670 offers the same bandwidth for data sent to and from the SATA drives and the I/O ports.
Where you start to see cuts is support for overclocking—with Z690 is only type of motherboard that support CPU overclocking. H670 only allows memory overclocking. You also get just two ultra-fast USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps) ports, compared to Z690’s four. And the number of PCIe 3.0 lanes drops to 12, or four less than Z690.
For most builders, the decision will typically fall between a H670 or a B660 board. H670 cuts corners in a far less tangible way, so it better suits higher-end builds. You get plenty of cutting-edge tech without paying dearly for them.
B660: The affordable pick for enthusiasts
- Ideal for: Moderate and budget gaming PCs
- Best with: Core i5 and Core i3 processors
- Price range: $95 to $240
Dropping down to a B660 motherboard from H670 brings a tangible change in available features. Some get paired back, while others disappear. Even the amount of bandwidth shrinks for data going between your CPU and your I/O ports or slower storage.
But as bad as that might sound, for many PC builders, B660 is still a sound choice. It just doesn’t supplement the number of PCIe 5.0 and 4.0 lanes provided by your Alder Lake CPU as much as motherboards with more expensive chipsets. Accordingly, it’s more of a budget choice for gaming builds.
So what do you get? Memory overclocking remains on the table, for starters. The main cuts are to the number of PCIe and SATA ports. B660 offers up to six PCIe 4.0 lanes, eight PCIe 3.0 lanes, and four SATA 3.0 ports, meaning you can’t add as many expansion cards or storage drives to your PC as with a H670 or Z690 board. You’re also limited to a slower RAID setup, as RAID 0, 1, and 5 are only supported for SATA drives.
Intel doesn’t trim as much when it comes to number of USB ports—you get up to 12, or two fewer than the more expensive 600-series motherboards. Like H670, two can be blistering-fast USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps). The primary difference between B660 and H670 is the number of DMI 4.0 lanes that link your CPU to those I/O ports and any SATA drives. You get just four, or half as many as H670.
These sound like deep sacrifices, but in reality, most gaming builds don’t end up using tons of PCIe lanes nor saturating DMI lanes. The majority of such PCs have a GPU, an M.2 drive for fast storage, perhaps another SATA drive or two for large files, and a handful of USB accessories. If you don’t think you’ll ever broadly expand beyond that, this board should comfortably last the life of the PC.
H610: The affordable pick for enthusiasts
- Ideal for: Office PCs, ultra-budget gaming PCs
- Best with: Core i3 processors
- Price range: $100 to $120*
(*H610 boards are only just starting to roll out, so a wider range of prices should later emerge.)
Budget builders may think that H610 is the obvious choice for them—and that’s true, if you’re building a modest PC for office work. But gamers with little spare cash should fully know the limitations of motherboards with this chipset, as it can constrain future upgrades.
The biggest of those restrictions is no support for memory overclocking. Chances of seeing DDR5 H610 boards are very low, so that means you’re stuck with DDR4-3200 as your maximum speed. These mobos are restricted to just two slots for RAM as well.
H610 motherboards also don’t offer any additional PCI 4.0 lanes, and the amount of PCIe 3.0 lanes dwindles to eight. You do get four SATA 3.0 ports though, the same as with B660. As for USB ports, the maximum amount is 10, with a cap of just two USB 3.2 Gen 2×1 (10Gbps) as the fastest available.
Overall, you should have enough faster PCIe lanes to still run a modern GPU and PCIe-NVMe M.2 drive, thanks to the Alder Lake CPU that’ll go into this motherboard. And there are still enough PCIe 3.0 lanes for expansion cards like Wi-Fi adapters.
But you’re largely stuck in place with regard to later upgrades. H610 boards aren’t implementing Alder Lake’s PCIe 5.0 lanes, but rather stepping them down to PCI 4.0—and the low cost of these boards means you won’t see PCIe 5.0 versions any time soon (if ever). In combination with the lack of memory overclocking and fewer DIMM slots, you can’t squeeze extra life out of this build with minor upgrades to storage and RAM in the far distant future.
So if you think you can happily chug along with an H610 system as it is today, then it can be a fine choice. Just be sure of that before settling on this chipset.