If you’ve been shopping for a custom computer or a motherboard to build one yourself you’ve probably come across the term “chipset.” They tend to have alphanumeric names like X99, Z170, H110 and 990FX. But what is a chipset, what does it do, and what does it mean for you when you’re considering a motherboard or computer?
A chipset is a vital component of the computer. It connects every part of the motherboard and computer together. It controls communications (I/O or input/output) between the processor, memory, hard drive, graphics and sound cards, network adapters, and other components attached to the motherboard. As these chips do so much important work, they often get hot. On most motherboards you’ll see heatsinks or metal blocks attached to these chips, usually one around the processor, and one towards the bottom by the PCIe slots for video cards, etc.
How do chipsets differ?
If you’ve spent time looking at and comparing motherboards you may have noticed that their prices vary. Some are designed with high performance features for servers or gaming, while others are designed for general office tasks. The features in the motherboard are largely determined by the chipset they use. The chipset determines many things, like what processors may be used, what kind of memory (DDR3 vs DDR4), and how many hard drives or video cards can be installed.
Intel groups their chipsets into categories based on use. X-series chipsets are designed for Intel’s Extreme i7 processors, and use a different processor socket. Only Extreme Intel processors, like the i7-5930K and i7-5960X, will fit into motherboards with the Extreme chipsets like the X99 and X79. What do these chipsets offer? Increased cache size, support for more cores and DDR4 memory. It is important to note that Intel has not yet released any X-series chipsets for their newest processor architecture, Skylake. At the moment, it is a bit of a toss-up between X series chipsets for the older Haswell architecture, or Z-series chipsets for Skylake. The Z series Skylake chipset, the Z170, is compatible with the newest Intel Skylake processors, but only have four slots for DDR4 memory. The currently available X series chipset, the X99 is only compatible with the slightly older Haswell Intel processors, but allows for up to eight slots for DDR4 memory. The best chipset to choose will vary depending on what kind of computer you’re building.
Z170 vs H170 vs H110
The Intel Z-series chipsets are the top-of-the-line performance chipsets for gamers. The Z-series chipsets are unlocked so you can easily overclock your processor, so long as you choose a K variant, like the i7-6700K. The newest Z-series chipset, Z170, is designed for Skylake processors and has support for overclocking, 10 USB 3.0 ports, and has 20 PCIe 3.0 lanes for running multiple graphics cards in SLI or CrossFire. This makes the Z170 the best choice for a high powered custom gaming computer.
Intel’s H-series chipsets are also somewhat gamer-oriented, but lose support for overclocking and running multiple GPUs (graphics processing unit). The H170 has only 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes, and these can’t be divided among multiple graphics cards. It also only has support for 8 USB 3.0 ports. However it does have support for Intel Small Business Advantage and Small Business Basics. Its sibling the H110 has even support for even less USB 3.0 ports, at 4 and only 4 SATA 3.0 ports for hard drives compared to 6 on the H170 and Z170. The H110 also only has two slots for DDR4 memory, compared to 4 in the H170 and Z170.
|PCIe Lanes||20x 3.0||16x 3.0||6x 2.0|
|PCIe Configuration||1×16 or 2×8 or 1×8+2×4||1×16||1×16|
|DDR4 DIMM slots||4||4||2|
Deciding between chipsets
Although choosing a chipset sounds complicated, it really boils down to one question. Will you be overclocking your CPU or running multiple graphics cards? If you will, or would like to have the option to do so down the road, choose the Z170 chipset. Otherwise a H170 or H110 would be a good bet. They all support the latest Intel Skylake processors and DDR4 memory. For a low budget build, consider the H110 chipset. However, if you have a limited budget today, but are planning on upgrading your computer in the future, we recommend selecting a Z170 or H170 chipset. The chipset is a primary component, and typically cannot be upgraded. Doing so would involve buying a new motherboard, and at that point, you may may as well upgrade the processor and other parts of your computer. If you aren’t going to need SLI right now, but want the option in the future, choose the Z170 chipset.
Once you have selected the chipset you want, you can now select a motherboard with that chipset. Motherboard features will vary. Some will have different networking adapters, some will have WiFi while others won’t. Some will have support for the reversible USB Type C, and some may have digital audio. Read our blog post on How to Choose a Motherboard.