Choosing the right motherboard for an HTPC build is an important decision. In a gaming PC or normal desktop the motherboard, while still important, isn’t critical. If the integrated graphics isn’t what you wanted, or you need some extra cooling, it isn’t hard to add extra components to solve those problems. That isn’t always possible in an HTPC build, however, so finding the right HTPC motherboard takes some consideration. The three motherboards here are good quick recommendations for HTPC builders. There is one recommendation each for AM3, LGA775, and LGA1156 boards, so pick the one which is compatible with the processor you’d like to use.
Best LGA775 HTPC Motherboard: Zotac GF9300-D-E
If you’re looking for a board that will be good for a mini-ITX HTPC build, you’ve found it. While the Zotac GF9300-D-E is less than 7 inchs by 7 inches in size, it offers almost as many feature as full-size ATX motherboards. It is stunning what they’ve managed to fit onto such a small motherboard. Support for all modern LGA775 processors? Check. Geforce 9300 graphics capable of running HD video without issue? Check. A full array of ports including 6 USB, 1 eSATA, and S/PDIF out? Check. Integrated wireless? Sure, why the hell not?
In fact, the only thing this board gives up in comparison to most ATX motherboards is room for memory and expansion cards. Zotac has managed to fit a fully functional 16x PCI Express slot onto the board, but thats it for card expansion, and memory is limited to 8GB. Of course, that’s far more than anyone is going to need on an HTPC motherboard, so only the limited number of expansion slots is a potentially serious issue. The price is also high, at $139.99, which is more than many ATX boards. But there really isn’t any competition for the Zotac. Of all the Mini-ITX motherboards – including those for all the other CPU sockets that are popular – the Zotac GF9300-D-E is the only one I’d actually use in an HTPC build.
Best P55 HTPC Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-P55M-UD2
While more expensive overall than many LGA775 builds, P55 has a lot to offer HTPC builders. The new Core i5/i7 processors are outrageously power efficient. The integration of the northbridge onto the CPU also frees up a lot of room on the motherboard, resulting in a less cramped layout. These factors together make P55 based motherboards among the best HTPC motherboards, and this will be reinforced in early 2010 as the new 32nm Core i5 and Core i3 processors are released.
There are already several P55 motherboards available around the $100 dollar mark, but of them the Gigabyte GA-P55M-UD2 gets the nod as the best HTPC motherboard. There are several reasons for this. One is the audio, which uses the Realtek audio found in most Gigabyte motherboards. This is a superior solution to most on-board audio options. The GA-P55M-UD2 also has an excellent layout. As stated, P55 motherboards are less cramped due to the northbridge being pushed onto the CPU, and this really shows on the GA-P55M-UD2.
The GA-P55M-UD2 also has a full array of ports, including 10 USB, 1 IEEE 1394a, 1 eSATA and S/PDIF out ports. Onboard USB and IEEE 1394a is available for connection to a PC case’s front panel. None of these features nessicarily superior, but there are some competitors which do not incorporate all of them. Granted, the GA-P55M-UD2 costs between $10 and $20 bucks more than cheaper Foxconn and ASRock alternatives, but I think the GA-P55M-UD2 is worth the extra cash. A word of warning, though – like all P55 motherboards, the integrated graphics are extremely poor, so be sure to budget for a video card like a Radeon 4350.
Best AM3 HTPC Motherboard: Foxconn A7DA-S 3.0
While Intel retains the lead when it comes to high-end processors, AMD is a good option for an HTPC build. Products like the low-cost Athlon II Quad Cores have a lot to offer HTPC builders, and they are supported by a line-up of HTPC motherboards which are, generally speaking, superior to the motherboards which can be used with Intel processors.
The main advantage of the AMD motherboards comes from their superior integrated graphics. The Foxconn A7DA-S 3.0 is based off the 790GX chipset, which offers Radeon HD3300 graphics as standard. Although insufficient for most gaming applications, the HD3300 integrated GPU is perfect for an HTPC. It has the power to run any high-definition video and it supports MPEG-2, VC-1, and H.264 playback. It is also HDCP compliant. Yet it is at the same time a very cool, power efficient GPU, which means that the Foxconn A7DA-S 3.0 does not consume a huge amount of power and does not become unreasonably hot.
The Foxconn A7DA-S 3.0′s other features are nothing to scoff at, however. The board includes Realtek audio, HDMI out, and offers two PCI Express slots. It is a good value, too, as it usually goes for around $100 bucks. The only real problem with the Foxconn board is that it is a full ATX board and won’t fit in many HTPC cases. Those who must have an mATX HTPC motherboard should consider the Biostar TA790GX XE, which does not support DDR3 but is otherwise similar.