New motherboard tech: key advances explained
20th Feb 2011 | 10:00
Overclocking, reduced power consumption and more
The future of motherboards revealed
What kind of motherboard do you have exactly? Do you in fact know much about it?
When specifying a system you probably start with what processor to buy, followed by the graphics card, memory and drives you want. It's at this point you probably pick a suitable board with enough ports and slots to plug it all together.
The trouble is that processors are rapidly gaining functions, and since Intel and AMD make the motherboard chipsets too, what's left for the motherboard techies to work on to create compelling boards?
As long as a board supports the chip and memory combination you've got in mind and has a sufficiency of SATA and USB ports, who cares?
Mobos used to be arcane beasts, and blowing one up wasn't that difficult. Components could be plugged in backwards and there were jumpers and DIP switches that required a manual and some experimenting to work your way around. There were no software utilities to play with and no two boards appeared to be laid out in the same way.
USB 3.0:Intel still hasn't included native USB 3.0 support so NEC rules the roost
These days they are robust, easy to use and designs are mature and fairly uniform. What, then, is there left for them to add to the mix?
Speeding up your system was once a secret craft but is now a major feature of what the manufacturers like to call 'enthusiast' motherboards. And a good job too, given the way the processors are still sold running at less than full tilt. Not attempting to unlock some of that extra oomph would be a criminal waste.
Enthusiast boards from the main players all come with an array of software and hardware tools for the job. These overclocking abilities have long been the major battleground between the top motherboard players, each producing specialist overclocking or gaming boards with suitably grandiose names, often bristling with other specialist silicon and elaborate cooling arrangements.
Asus makes a wonderful claim of being able to permanently unlock up to 37 per cent more performance (which sounds suspiciously like a figure plucked from the air, but whatever) thanks to its TurboV Processing Unit (TPU).
This custom chip moves parts of the processor-intensive overclocking task from the processor to itself. It reduces the loading spike caused by overclocking: "Hit apply and our chip takes the loading away, enabling you to push even further", says Asus. The TurboV software then enables you to overclock within Windows without tedious restarting. "Feel the adrenaline rush of real-time OC", it says here.
The TPU also gives access to automatic overclocking. We tested this in our Asus P7H55-M motherboard review and were not overly impressed with its timidity, but it is fool-proof and stable.
MSI also has a custom chip dedicated to over-clocking through OC Genie, which can operate completely in hardware. This auto-detects the overclocking potential of your processor and memory and you simply push a button on the board and bingo, in about five seconds it has run through the possible timings and voltages available and found the highest stable settings (in theory). MSI reckons that "nobody else has anything quite as good as that." Another one that's great for the overclocking noob.
OC GENIE:MSI's one-button overclocking tool is one of the most effective around
Gigabyte is another major player with a name for overclocking boards, it claims to be "the No.1 motherboard for unlocked performance." Quite. It has an array of software and BIOS goodies and makes great play of its high-quality components, including solid capacitors, ferrite chokes and MOSFETs (metaloxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor).
It's also proud of the fact that its top boards use two ounces of copper, there's even a bizarre YouTube video to illustrate this. Apparently most use about half that.
Getting stable overclocking is partly down to being able to supply steady and accurate power levels, components such as these matter than you start stepping outside design parameters. The top boards from all these players can make a good job of overclocking.
Chips can be unlocked and you've access to all sorts of arcane voltage and frequency multipliers, through the BIOS, custom hardware and specialist software, but as MSI's spokesman confided "It's difficult to say which board is best for overclocking as to a large degree it really depends on the person doing the overclocking. We've tried to make it as easy as possible for people uncomfortable with changing voltage settings."
Basically all the decent boards give you enough tools for playing with voltages, in one way or another, so that it largely comes down to your experience and the quality of the processor and memory how much you can wring from your box.
Playing the green card
The other feature that gets the big shout out is going all green and reducing the power consumption. Lets ignore the obvious irony that this is pulling in the other direction to the other big-sell of overclocking for a moment. The way to save power is to turn things off or down.
A lot of this technology is built around PWM, Pulse Width Modulation. If you remember your basic electric circuits (you do don't you?) then the easy way to reduce current is to add a resistor. If you wanted variable power then you popped in a rheostat. Trouble is this wastes power (in the form of heat).
PWM circuitry basically just switches the power on and off very quickly, effectively reducing overall draw without wasting energy. PWN fans are pretty commonplace now, but the system can be applied to other components.
MSI has its DrMOS, which is a three-in-one MOSFET, which makes great play of reducing temperatures as well as power consumption, although the two do go hand in hand.
Asus has its Energy Processing Unit or EPU chip. This monitors and controls power to all the major components, turning them off or down as it sees fit.
Gigabyte has a similar power saving tech, and another three letter acronym, DES, which stands for Dynamic Energy Saver. This turns off unused voltage regulators. The board can have as many as twelve but rarely uses more than ten under load. DES is one of the better systems as it selectively turns off the voltage regulators individually.
It should be noted that most motherboard's green features are about tapping into the abilities of other components. Controlling a fan, or throttling back an Intel chip for example. It's about the control of parts not required all the time, rather than inherent power reduction - which probably tells us something about the difficulty of reducing the motherboards own power requirements.
There are some wildly optimistic claims made about power saving, and some statistics that are clearly best possible case scenarios - 80 per cent was quoted to us. This is clearly so much balderdash and poppycock. Ten per cent might be more like it.
Decent energy saving – like capable overclocking – requires hardware support and another custom IC on board. We can expect the power-saving capabilities of boards to be pushed further, with many fanfares no doubt, as better control chips are added.
There are limits of course, there is only so much you can turn off.
BIOS 2.0 - Unified Extensible Firmware Interface
The new Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) looks like it is finally going to become mainstream on PCs (it has been around on Macs and servers for yonks). If you get one of the new Intel P67 boards for Sandy Bridge then you'll encounter it.
UEFI:UEFI BIOS pretties up the blue screen we have all come to loathe
UEFI looks very different to the blue screen BIOS we've come to know, you can use a mouse for a start and it has colourful screens.
UEFI is largely written in C rather than Assembler (although at the core there is a little to get things going) and is a completely different proposition to the traditional BIOS, which is expecting to see a 16-bit processor with 1MB of memory and dates from the IBM AT.
Technically the big gain is the new Globally Unique IDentifier Partition Table or GPT for short. This enables you to boot from drives over 2.19GB, about time because drives long since passed that landmark. This is the one big immediate practical benefit.
UEFI can be easily extended: it is in effect a miniature OS of its own that isn't tied to any specific hardware. It can have hardware drivers, utilities, diagnostic tools and all sorts added in.
You could, for example, run a system back-up utility from within UEFI and also access a network. It can load code from attached hardware, so your graphics card could add a screen into the BIOS for direct control, for example.
The UEFI is one area where the board guys can, at relatively little expense, add value by enabling easy access to all the features, set-up profiles and so forth. It can go a little too far though, the first version we saw from MSI included the game Breakout on it, bizarre. Still MSI promises that it'll be continuing to "spice up the BIOS".
Enter the P67
Given that motherboard features are so directly linked to the main chipset, the release of a new set of silicon from Intel is a big deal, and means a whole new set of boards all round.
P67 HEAVEN:The current top P67 motherboard, Asus Maximus IV Extreme
Intel's latest is the H67/P67, is a sixth generation chipset designed for the Sandy Bridge processor. The H67 is the budget version, or 'affordable' as the marketing people have it, while the P67 is more fully-featured offering.
The good news includes two SATA 6Gbps ports to accompany the four SATA 3Gbps ports. Plus, for the P67 at least, two PCI-E x8 slots. You'll also get UEFI, of primary importance if you want to run nice big hard drives as boot devices. Still no USB 3.0 though, although you do get up to 14 USB 2.0 ports, which should just about be enough we think. It's up to the manufacturers then to add the extra silicon for USB 3.0.
Intel has decided to severely limit overclocking on Sandy Bridge, with just about everything locked to the base clock including USB, SATA, DMI and PCI-E. This base clock is generated by the P67 chipset, so you don't get an external clock the board guys can program directly. Plus, since everything is locked together, turning it up can cause unexpected consequences, apparently even a modest increase can cause the USB or SATA to fail. Ouch.
There will be a K-Series version that will have an unlocked CPU multiplier, but for most versions it will be locked down.
Early results with the K-series have at least been promising, 5GHz has been widely reported. This lockdown is bad news for the board guys, overclocking is where they can score points with you and off each other. So obviously it has to be done, and it will. No motherboard manufacturer can afford to be left behind in the overclocking arms race.
Getting an unlocked multiplier on all versions looks like the best option, leaving the base clock alone and avoiding complicated asynchronous systems which may or may not work. We shall see, as Intel has claimed to lock chips before, only to earn our gratitude by not implementing it (as with Lynnfield).
Intel appears to swing backwards and forwards on overclocking, one minute it releases chips you can easily pump-up, and the next it tries to call a halt to the whole game. Intel wouldn't want to send the overclockers running to AMD would it? This is the commonly used threate by irate overclocker on forums at least.
Motherboards come with impressive lists of features, complete with logos and fancy names, but in fact there is precious little between the best offerings aimed at the desktop market. Each manufacturer watches for new developments and trends and when one produces something extra, the others aren't far behind.
This is what you would expect from a mature technology market: Intense competition, rapid turn-over of technology, which requires continuous investment, and the economies of scale have cut the number of big players in the general PC market to a handful. If any fall too far behind the curve then they will soon fall out of the running altogether.
All in all
As MSI puts it: "We've got to the point now where we've thought of most things people want to do with their boards, and now we are trying to make those functions easier to use, and more efficient."
MILITARY CLASS:The different mobo capacitors, and assorted silicon, makes for a rich battleground
Asus sings a similar tune: "With the current level of technology available in the chipsets provided by the chip vendors, it's becoming increasingly difficult for motherboard manufacturers to offer differentiating factors."
Basically AMD and Intel control the processor, the motherboard chipsets and the board layout. Adding features over and above those available via the main chipset means adding new silicon to the board, and that means expense. You can't get too fancy or you'll price yourself out of the running, but you can't afford to be left out either.
For the serious tweaker then the same differences in overclocking technologies is of interest, some are better here or there, but for much of the market boards have become remarkably uniform.
So where can we go from here? Motherboards will always have to carry the BIOS and physically connect everything and supply the power. For some sections of the market we have increased integration, bunging everything onto the board to make complete systems by just adding a processor and drives and off you go.
Other boards, aimed more at the enthusiast, will always stress flexibility and the ability to be customised and configured as required. There will always be a market for the insane LED-strewn gaming board, carrying extra, and expensive, silicon.
And there we have it, a handful of top manufactures trying hard to differentiate themselves with little to work on, and a lot to lose if they fall behind. Each new chipset sends them all back to the labs, and if any feature looks decent then they all implement a version of it.
The market is fierce, but it has kept those left in it sharp. Which is good news for us, as they compete to produce the best tools to squeeze every last performance point out of what's on offer.
First published in PC Format Issue 249
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