There’s no denying that many consumers when choosing a motherboard, focus on things like RAM slots, M.2 slots, and additional functionality. However, there’s one more aspect that you want to pay attention to. This is especially true if you’re using demanding CPUs that draw a lot of power, and that’s the VRM section.
VRM stands for a Voltage Regulator Module and is a rather important part of the motherboard. This is the component that ensures your processor and GPU receive clean power, as much as they need, all while keeping the voltage consistent.
The VRM section has three components that work together. These are the MOSFETs, the chokes, and the capacitors. Controlling them all is an integrated circuit, sometimes known as a PWM controller, that keeps them all running well. That controller determines the voltage outputs, and most of the controllers can control two voltage levels independent of each other. When you have a PWM circuit running at higher frequencies, you are reducing power loss, which results in a more efficient motherboard.
The first and most important job the VRM has is converting your power supply’s 12-volt power, to a voltage that’s usable for your components. For the CPU, this is usually between 1.1v and 1.3v. Sure, this might sound like a simple task. But the electronics found inside your CPU can be easily shorted if the voltage is not right. The CPU also needs precision, which means that the required voltage must be delivered consistently. Even though the VRM’s task might sound like a simple converter, it’s a critical component.
One thing to note is that not only motherboards have VRM sections – some modern midrange and higher-end GPUs also have a VRM section. We’ll discuss cooling later on. However, you should know that GPU VRM sections tend to get very hot. This is because the GPUs demand a lot more power than the CPU in many cases. The way they work is identical to a motherboard’s VRM section. They receive the power from the power supply, and regulate it to a voltage level that’s reasonable for the GPU.
When you’re shopping for a new motherboard, you will often find the VRM section advertised as “8+3” or “12+1”, or a similar number. This might get confusing if you don’t know what that means. The numbers indicate the number of phases, but more is not always better.
The number before the plus is how many phases are dedicated to the CPU. However, if you see more than 8 here, you might be looking at a motherboard that uses a doubler. A doubler multiplies the benefit of the existing phases, without the need to build additional physical phases. Sure, a single phase with a doubler isn’t as effective as two separate phases. But it’s a cheaper way of getting some electrical improvements. You will even see some manufacturers, like Gigabyte, that advertise phases that are wired in parallel, as separate phases. It’s actually a single phase, but duplicated, with synced electrical signals instead of staggered. In its simplest form, this is false advertising and something to be careful about.
There’s also the number after the plus. These are the additional phases that the VRM uses to power and control other motherboard components. These are things such as the RAM modules for example.
When it comes to an entry-level or a midrange CPU, even the most basic VRM section can do its job well. It will easily deliver sufficient power and keep the CPU running reliably. However, when you’re looking at a higher-end CPU, especially if you intend to overclock it, the VRM section becomes a lot more important.
If this is the case, you should get a motherboard that has a high-quality VRM section. We’ll talk about cooling later on, but you want good cooling, and you also want high quality, reliable components. The ones where there’s most variation are the chokes and the capacitors. When it comes to capacitors, you should go for leak-resistant ones. In motherboard sales language, you’ll find them as “Japanese Capacitors”, “Dark Capacitors”, or “Solid Capacitors”. When you’re looking at the chokes, SFC, or super-ferrite chokes are what you need, or even “Premium Alloy Chokes”.
Again, as you get a more powerful CPU, this becomes even more important. It’s more difficult to deliver more power in a stable, reliable, and precise manner. Therefore, make sure you pick a motherboard that has a good VRM section for this.
As we mentioned when discussing the GPU’s VRM section, all of this control and power regulation generates quite a bit of heat. This is why the VRM section requires some kind of cooling, especially in more demanding scenarios. And depending on the motherboard and its intended use, you’ll come across both passive and active cooling solutions.
Of course, some motherboards don’t offer any VRM cooling. These are usually the ones that don’t allow you to overclock your CPU. But if you want something that’s a bit higher quality, you should aim for at least passive cooling. You’ll recognize the passive cooling solutions because they’re usually fin-shaped, and cover the entire VRM section on the motherboard. Those fins dissipate the heat generated by the MOSFETs, which helps keep the power delivery reliable and helps durability.
Now, if you’re going to build a high-end system, and overclock it, some more extreme scenarios could use an active VRM cooling solution. This is done by integrating small fans into the heatsinks on the VRM. They help pull cool air over the heatsink and help significantly with cooling. But honestly, unless you’re going for extremely demanding components, you probably don’t need this.
In any case, for any build that has midrange, or better components, it’s advisable to get a motherboard with good VRM cooling, whether it’s passive or active. This will help quite a bit with durability, and prevent VRM overheating, which could be problematic.
The answer to this actually depends on what kind of system you’re building. The general rule of thumb is that for low powered systems with components that aren’t too demanding, you can put the VRM section lower on the list of priorities. Your CPU won’t draw that much power, and even a lower end VRM will do the job well.
However, if you’re going to overclock your CPU, or if you’re going to use a CPU that has a high TDP number, you definitely want a good VRM section. Fortunately, most midrange and all high-end motherboards tend to have this covered. You will even come across some entry level motherboards, like MSI’s B450 Tomahawk MAX, that have excellent and highly praised VRM sections, too.
At the end of the day, if you can afford it, by all means go for a high quality VRM section. But if you’re building a budget rig and don’t intend on pushing it hard, feel free to save a bit of money by not paying too much attention to that. And of course, by all means check out our guide on the best motherboards for Intel and AMD to see a few great options.