A lot of people get hung up on what form factor they should pick when choosing a motherboard – the cheaper & smaller mATX, or the slightly more expensive & larger ATX? There are other options to choose from but these 2 are the most commonly used, let’s take a look at which is going to give you a better bang for your buck when building a new gaming PC.
micro ATX vs ATX motherboards: The Basics
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I’m going to take a second – more like a few minutes – to explain the basics of what motherboards are and why they’re important. There’s no point in learning which size is better if you don’t know the basics!
Without turning this into a history lesson, motherboards have been around for a long time but both ATX and the smaller microATX were developed in the mid-late 90s by Intel. ATX was quickly adopted as the “standard” for motherboard design and the rest is history. Fast-forward to now, there are both bigger and smaller motherboard variants like eATX (bigger) and mini-ITX (smaller), but for the purposes of this article, we’ll be focusing on just ATX and micro ATX motherboards as they’re the most commonly used; and the only sizes to consider for most gaming PCs.
So, what is a motherboard? Basically, it’s the hub of your PC. It’s where all information is passed through and it even distributes/regulates power to some components. In new motherboards, it’s also handling your wired internet connection as well as your audio (assuming you don’t have an external DAC or something similar), and even your WiFi on more expensive boards. I could keep going with all of the things your motherboard does, but I think you get the point, it does a lot.
With that in mind, it’s worth noting that not all motherboards are the same. AMD and Intel (the only 2 manufacturers of processors) both have their own proprietary sockets that they use for their different processors; because of this, motherboard manufacturers have to make different motherboards to support the different sockets.
On top of the different sockets, there are also multiple chipsets for each individual socket. Meaning, there’s not just 1 type of motherboard to pick from after you’ve found the ones that support your CPU’s socket, there are often upwards of 3 different chipsets per socket making for a lot of different (or not so different) option to choose from. Talk about confusing!
Now that you know what motherboards do, where the ATX and mATX standards came from, and the differences in sockets and chipsets between CPU manufacturers, I think it’s time to move on!
Motherboard Form Factor
One of the first (and easily the biggest) differences that anyone will notice between an mATX and an ATX motherboard is the size. Most micro-ATX motherboards will often have less available ports and headers than an ATX board, a good example would be how many RAM slots there are – most micro ATX motherboards will usually have 2, ATX motherboards will almost always have 4. This limits how much potential RAM there can be, as more RAM requires more RAM slots.
The type of case you’re going to get also determines the size of the motherboard you can use. Like motherboards, cases come in varying sizes; with that in mind, you have to have the right sized board for your case, or get a case big enough for your board, either or. A mid tower case that supports an ATX motherboard will fit an mATX motherboard as well, but an mATX case will not fit an ATX motherboard (in most cases), etc.
Additionally, a micro atx motherboard typically has less PCIE slots than an ATX. It is smaller, which makes sense, but honestly, it’s not even a problem usually. PCIE slots allow your motherboard to add more components such as GPUs or SSD cards. You typically don’t need many PCIE slots and matx moterhbaords have enough for most gamers.
If you’re planning to build a basic PC to upgrade as you go, an ATX motherboard might be better for you. But, if you’re building a budget gaming PC that you’re just going to use until you need to build a new one, a micro ATX motherboard might help save you a few $ in the short-term. Ultimately it’s up to you, but I often suggest micro ATX motherboards over ATX ones unless the build costs more than $1000.
You also want to consider what kind of features you’re going to need. Some might want a motherboard that’s very reliable when it comes to overclocking, others might need 5.1 or 7.1 audio ports, and some people just want a motherboard that’ll do its job without having to tinker around too much.
Depending on what kind of person you are, there is definitely a motherboard that’ll be perfect for your own personalized needs. Whether that’s RGB lighting, overclocking potential, additional PCIe ports, or whatever it is that you need!
Something to keep in mind is that not all mATX motherboards are for the budget-minded builder, some come with similar high-end features that you would get out of a pricier ATX board. Take the $200 ASUS ROG Maximus VIII as an example of a fully-loaded mATX mobo.
Your budget is something that should be considered when picking out your motherboard. Generally speaking, if you build costs less than $1000, you probably shouldn’t be spending much more than $100-$110 on your motherboard, otherwise, you’re just wasting resources that would be better off dedicated elsewhere. Like I’ve already mentioned, you can get mATX motherboards for considerably cheaper than ATX boards most of the time and this is without a doubt my recommended route.
Seeing as how a lot of mATX motherboards are coming with 4 slots for RAM these days, there’s even more reason to go that way instead of ATX in most cases. One of the biggest downsides with mATX boards was that they would only ever come with 2 slots for RAM, making RAM upgrades a pain. But, since that’s changed, mATX boards have quickly become the standard.
That all said, if you’re planning on doing a lot of upgrades to your PC in terms of a multi-GPU setup and/or liquid cooling, then you will definitely want to spend a bit more on your board right away, opposed to having to upgrade your motherboard down the line. The latter would ultimately cost you much more in the long run.
A note on cases
Because mATX and ATX motherboards are sized differently, it would be a fair to assume that there’s going to be different cases for either – and there are. If you’re concerned with saving as much space as you can, then an mATX motherboard inside of an mATX case would do that for you; some mATX cases will even accommodate big graphics cards and good aftermarket CPU coolers. The Thermaltake H15 is an example of a great, but inexpensive mATX case option.
You don’t necessarily have to use an mATX case if you’re going to use an mATX motherboard, though, most mid-tower ATX cases will have mounts for the smaller mATX mobo. There’s really no downside to using an mATX motherboard inside of an ATX case, if can save a few bucks without sacrificing the features you need by going mATX over ATX, do it! Or, if you want the flexibility and functionality of a full ATX board without the bulk of a traditional ATX case, buying a slim and compact ATX case is another option.
Airflow is something else you should keep in mind when picking your case, especially when you’re building a gaming PC with air cooling. You definitely don’t want to pick a case that doesn’t have good ventilation; what you do want is front fan mounts and a rear fan mount at the very least, picking a case with an opening on the top is even better.
How to pick the right motherboard
When it comes down to picking the right motherboard and ultimately choosing mATX vs ATX, it boils down to the features that you need and how much you’re willing to spend. If you want to keep your build compact by using an mATX case and an mATX motherboard, but you also want to retain a lot of the ATX features, then be prepared to spend a bit more.
Once you’ve determined the size you’re going for, your next step is to determine the processor you’re going to use + the socket and chipset best suited for it. If you’re unsure of which processor to use, check out my list of the best CPUs to use for your gaming PC. By this time, you should also have a good idea of which case you’re going to be using.
After you’ve determined the socket and chipset you’re looking for, it’s time to consider the features you need. Do you need 7.1 audio? Do you need on board WiFi? Do you need an extra PCIe slot for a WiFi adapter? Extra fan headers? 2 or 4 slots for RAM? RGB lighting? Multi-GPU support? These are all things you should be considering to make sure you pick the right motherboard.
Not all motherboards are the same and simply buying the cheapest option isn’t the best choice in most cases, that’s why it pays to do your research and know what you need beforehand!
Although there are a few other form-factors outside of micro-ATX and ATX, these are the 2 most popular sizes of motherboards that are used in gaming PC builds. Both mATX and ATX motherboards have their individual pros and cons, mATX boards are great for saving space but often skimp on features, ATX boards have lots of features but cost a bit more.
Which form-factor you eventually decide on is entirely up to your plans for your build and how much you have in your budget. At the end of the day, both ATX and mATX motherboards serve their purposes, neither one is measurably better than the other assuming they’re offering the same features.
There’s no performance difference between an mATX or ATX motherboard, no difference in overclocking capabilities (on comparable boards), and ultimately no reason to choose one over the other outside of your own personal needs!
Just make sure that your motherboard supports your processor’s socket and runs on the appropriate chipset, and also make sure that your motherboard and case will be compatible together!
If you have any questions, comments, or anything else, feel free to leave them below!