Whenever contemplating a new PC build, or just an upgrade, the motherboard and CPU combo is usually the biggest fumbling point. The choice of motherboard is so integral to everything that it can affect your potential upgrade decisions for years to come. Mess up and you’ll have to fork out money for a totally new motherboard and CPU combo just a few years down the road. Get it right though, and you can keep a motherboard chugging along for years with the latest tech.
Actually drilling down on the upgrade paths is a pain though, and neither AMD nor Intel make it any easier on the average end user. For every person who knows their LGA 1151 from their LGA-2011, there are dozens who don’t. It doesn’t help that we’re dealing with different sockets, chipsets and feature sets, all with an innumerable number of combinations, along with a notoriously difficult naming scheme to get your head around. What’s better, an Intel B250 or a Q270? Can I run SLI with an H270?
It’s all a pain, so we’re going to try to drill down to the absolute basics so you can pick out the best motherboard and CPU upgrade path for 2017 and beyond, providing the best possible PC gaming experience for the smallest cost. By choosing the best path, you can theoretically extend the life of your PC.
Intel Recommended Motherboard and CPU Upgrade Path 2017
For all the money they invest, and the relatively simplified naming structure of their CPUs of late, Intel does not like to make it easy when it comes to understanding potential upgrade paths.
Intel’s latest 8th Coffee Lake chips use the same LGA 1151 socket as 6th Gen Skylake and 7th Gen Kaby Lake. However, just to make things a little more confusing, Coffee Lake chips use a different pin-out meaning they’re incompatible older 100 and 200-series chipsets (Those which support Skylake and Kaby Lake). If you want a Kaby Lake CPU (eg i7-8700K or i5-8400), you’ll need a new 300-series compatible mainboard with LGA 1151 v2 support. If you are using a 6th-gen and upwards CPU, the best you can do on your current mainboard is a 7th-gen Kaby Lake processor. That’s your lot for LGA 1151 v1 support.
Intel has said its next-generation Cannonlake and Ice Lake CPUs will use the LGA 1151 v2 socket, although backwards compatibility with 300-series motherboards has yet to be confirmed. Considering both are process shrinks down to the 10nm node though, this is anything but assured. After Intel dropped backwards compatibility for Coffee Lake, future proofing is not a certainty on Intel chipsets at this point.
For those using older LGA 1150 socket motherboards, such as Haswell or Broadwell CPUs, the best processors you can realistically get in your current motherboard will be the 4th Generation Haswell refreshes such as the Intel Core i5-4690K and the Core i7-4790K. They’re getting quite long in the tooth now though, so unless you find an absolute bargain it’s probably time to look onwards and upwards towards the newer gens.
AMD Recommended Motherboard and CPU Upgrade Path 2017
AMD, in comparison to Intel, have made things mercifully simple. The AM4 platform is their first new (non-SoC) socket since AM3 back in 2009, or the modified AM3+ for Bulldozer in 2011 if you want to be picky about it. Socket AM4 is the first from AMD to support DDR4 memory, and it’s also what you’ll need for all AMD Ryzen 7, Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 3 CPUs. If you want to use the HTPC Ryzen Threadripper processors though, you’ll need a Socket TR4 compatible motherboard.
The good news is that AMD has committed to supporting Socket AM4 for all of its Zen desktop CPUs and APUs until at least 2020. This means if you get a compatible X370 or B350 motherboard, it will be compatible with at least the next two generations of Ryzen processors. To that end, you could conceivably grab a Ryzen CPU now and use it until 2019/2020, before upgrading to the latest ‘Matisse’ Zen 2 CPUs.
For AMD users, now is the moment when you can extract the longest possible lifespan out of a motherboard purchase. The only real caveat here is that DDR5 memory is inbound in 2019, so there won’t be any compatibility with the new memory standard without a motherboard upgrade. However, as we’ve seen with DDR4, the transition can be quite slow and it likely won’t make a dramatic difference to gaming performance.
If you are using an older AM3+ motherboard your choices are much more limited. This caps out with Bulldozer AMD FX-9590. If you want a faster, or newer AMD processor than this, you’ll need an AM4 compliant motherboard.
Manufacturer Socket Compatibility Lifespan Intel LGA 1150 Haswell + Broadwell 2015 Intel LGA 1151 Skylake + Kaby Lake 2017 Intel LGA 1151 v2 Coffee Lake (Cannonlake and Ice Lake TBC) 2018 (2020 if forward compatible) AMD AM3+ Bulldozer + Piledriver 2013 AMD AM4 Summit Ridge + Pinnacle Ridge + Matisse (Zen + Zen 2) ~2020
At the moment, Intel Coffee Lake beats AMD Ryzen's gaming performance hands down. They're also great value processors. In particular the 6-core Intel i5-8400, which is available for less than $200. Opting to go the Intel route isn't quite as simple as that though, and there's no guarantee Intel's future processors will be comparatively with your Z370 motherboard. That's the gamble. Whereas if you go for AMD Ryzen, you're opting for CPUs which aren't quite as good in terms of gaming performance right now, but with the peace of mind in knowing you can upgrade to the latest and greatest CPU two or three years down the line without a problem.
What do you think is the optimal upgrade path for processors? Is it worth going for the best performance now with Intel, or playing the long game with Zen? Share your knowledge below!