What else do we need?

Posted on 10th Feb 2009 at 16:18 by Richard Swinburne with 19 comments

Richard Swinburne
What else can motherboard manufacturers do to increase the features and sell us new things?

We've got plenty of everything these days: SATA, USB, Gigabit Ethernet, HD sound - it's all "good enough". Motherboard manufacturers are stretching to include energy efficiency wherever they can, and more recently, extreme overclocking and cool designs to draw people into upgrading but for the most part the core hardware levels have remained the same for several years. We're still looking at six to eight USB on the rear I/O, six SATA (sometimes more) on the board and a couple of Gigabit Ethernet sockets.

What have northbridges become? Nothing much - what more can you do with PCI-Express? We've hit two/three/four lanes of x16 or x8 at a squillion MT/s and it's now all pretty normal.

In fact, it's got so normal we rarely even consider buying a PCI or PCI-Express card to upgrade our systems any more. It used to be the case that if you needed sound, you budgeted and bought a soundcard. These days most of us just go "meh, £50-£150 saved and Realteks ALC885 is pretty good for nothing." People are only buying boards with all the features they want simply because they can - to make any money the big guys have one layout and BIOS, then just gently reduce the features and cost while hacking down the number six, five, four, three... and so on.

All the potential space for something is taken for graphics, or potential graphics slots, even though the proportion of multi-GPU users is quite low - the feature has to be included.

And apart from the Energy Efficiency technology - we're also being told that more copper is better, or capacitors that last longer than I'll live are needed. So where do we go from here? We've passed the point of tangible innovation and are just waiting for the bottlenecks to be resolved which, unfortunately are out of the motherboard guys' control.

These are mass storage and software. Solid State is getting there and in the next three to five years we'll see some massive increases, but software will always just suck up ever more resources - whether it's doing more or simply the next generation of Microsoft or Apple (yeah, don't think you're getting off easy) OS.

This is partly why netbooks have taken off so well - it's not just because of the economy - and the "good enough computing" era is here. And while even some of us enthusiasts have fallen in love with these devices - Tim just bought a Samsung NC10 and many of our top articles have been of Atom-based products - that'll still be long time coming for the rest of us. It will get here eventually, even for us gamers. Can it play World of Warcraft, The Sims and the latest FIFA? Yes - OK, job done.

How the PC gaming master race - the hardcore audience - survives and continues to pay for the innovation in graphics cards is anyone's guess (the future in that market is a whole other discussion entirely). The other thing to consider here is whether games developers who used to design games for the hardcore crowd avoid the lights and glamour associated with the consoles (for the next Gears or Call of Duty), the casual market and being acquired by one of the big publishers.

So yeah, motherboards - where do we go next?!?


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steveo_mcg 10th February 2009, 16:42 Quote
MOAR Cowbells?

Its a tough one i've not bought an add on card (bar a gfx card) for years although i keep meaning to buy a asus xonar my on board is very crackly if used with 'phones but on board is good enough most of the time.

Maybe they should focus less on the kitchen sink and make mobo's cheaper even then though the budget end is well stocked... I dunno.
CSMR 10th February 2009, 17:09 Quote
Laptops: don't yet have the same connections you get on a desktop. Waiting for: dual digital out, e-sata. Good grief, you still get VGA on a lot of laptops.
Desktop motherboards: connections are fine; will transition to displayport. Main improvements will be smaller form factors: mini-itx is still rare. Also software: EFI replacing bios
And still lots of important innovation in GPUs, discrete and integrated: process shrinks, general purpose GPU meaning GPU will be even more important than now.
TGImages 10th February 2009, 17:19 Quote
Without knowing or understanding the technical details (i.e. bottlenecks, bus speed, etc. of my idea), I'd like to see a revolution (step backwards) where we buy a case with a backplane. The backplane has a bunch of slots (PCIe 16 or ???) and we simply plug in what we want with one of those cards being the motherboard itself

The idea behind this is an easier way to upgrade. I've always built my own systems with the reason being that I can easily upgrade them. Well, since I don't rebuild systems every 3 months the upgradability has turned out not to be so. By the time I get around to upgrading the socket form factor has changed or the supported # of cores or the memory speed coupled with processor coupled with FSB or the graphic slot/technology. Or there are no IDE ports anymore or...I think you get the idea.

Basically each upgrade involved buying most of a whole new system, not just changing a card. Perhaps on a larger scale, think of a blade server/enclosure. I can pull a blade and put in a better one but the core structure (back plane, power, network interface,) etc. did not change. Usually the storage itself is isolated and doesn't change either.... or changes independently. So, one card could be a storage controller. A cheap card has 4 SATA. A high end one might have SATA, IDE and SCSI all supporting RAID5.

The other aspect I would like to see is in terms of power draw however that's mostly CPU and graphic card dependent, not so much on the motherboard.
ch424 10th February 2009, 17:37 Quote
smaller, cheaper, lower power, better integrated graphics (that still has a long way to go), faster boot-up times (my old computer took longer to POST and faff about waiting for the RAID chip than it took to start Vista, and this new one isn't much better), higher quality sound, wake-on-LAN

and so on...
thehippoz 10th February 2009, 17:42 Quote
well if you do alot of video work.. you'll need a pretty good rig or else you'll be waiting for encodes to finish and wasting your time.. that's about the only reason you need a quad core imo (only realistic reason) well maybe 3d renders but very few do that.. gaming on the top end cards is fine with what's out currently

not sure what mb makers could do other than cater to the ln2 crowd.. your right on the realtec on board audio.. it's good enough in most rigs- things can get smaller and more power efficient.. a system builder can put together a quality rig, but most of the dingles buy pre-built still even today.. it's hard to say what they could do in this economy- it used to be they could be like nvidia and be just good enough to stay on top

maybe they could stick in addin cards like all-in-one card readers.. or throw in a decent heatsink to go with the board- those are things alot of people buy anyway when building a rig- they'll throw out the stock cooler or buy oem on the cpu

this economy thought think everyones screwed expect seniors who are drawing pensions
UrbanMarine 10th February 2009, 17:58 Quote
Has anyone ever thought of custom chipsets? Same installation as a cpu.
notatoad 10th February 2009, 18:35 Quote
i want less on a motherboard, not moar. my dream motherboard has no crappy raid controller, just straight SATA ports, no floppy port, no IDE port, no serial port, no PS/2 port, no crossfire, no SLi, and no USB ports that take up PCI slots. and i want better cable management. sata ports, internal usb headers, and power connectors all lined up along the edge of the mobo on 90deg connectors. and no stupid 4-pin connector up in the far corner.

oh, and a more standardized layout so you can actually cool all the parts on the mobo that need to be cooled with aftermarket coolers.
Deadwolf 10th February 2009, 18:45 Quote
Nexxo 10th February 2009, 18:47 Quote
Smaller motherboards, with small slot-in daughterboards for the desired functions. Think laptop expansion cards. The whole thing cradled in an integral aluminium heatsink frame with bolt-on sockets for heatsink fins, waterblocks or peltier devices.
Phil Rhodes 10th February 2009, 19:50 Quote
Choice of colour schemes. I've seen boards in black, blue, red, yellow, green, and a combination I can only describe as Duplo - do a Google image search for "gigabyte motherboard" and you'll soon be shrieking my eyes, my eyes.

One of the most stylish PCs I ever saw was a black chassis with almost entirely dark green or black boards in it, illuminated by occasional traces of blue light. Vastly nicer in than all this Joseph-and-the-technicolor-graphics-card drivel we get at the mo.
kt3946 10th February 2009, 21:23 Quote
For all of you asking for 'add-in' cards, the fact of the matter is, in reality, it actually costs *more* for those.

While it allows you to economize individual preferences, aka purchase what you want, but because a whole manufacturing line needs to be dedicated to manufacturing each card, in addition to testing, packaging, etc. The total price would increase substantially. So it's kind of like shooting yourself in the foot there.

So, addin modules. No.

What I think *would* work, would be better integration of options.

Instead of throwing 2+ SATA controllers, plus another 3+ USB controllers, etc. with 5+ extra chips on the board to manage, push back on the secondary chip-manufacturers to integrate more of their products (single die chip with 8SATA ports + 12 USB ports), to push mfg costs down.

REAL on board RAID w/caching would be nice also. As in, a real on-die XOR engine at least... not this BIOS garbage which only works when the OS is stable... It's nothing for SiliconImage to put a die together with a few SATA ports, and XOR engine and the like. Look at the Adaptec RAID cards, only one chip (with on chip memory for caching)... in most cases.

In addition, smaller more integrated design. Currently we're still sitting on the ATX/mATX form factor which while works, isn't as ideal as it should be. Airflow is still an issue with the backplane, BTX was failed from the start. We need a new motherboard layout that economizes the layout allowing for shorter mem traces, better latency, and easier airflow around the power and chipset circuit frameworks. If it means coming up with some new motherboard architecture, so be it. We could use it.

Also, as a secondary line, it'd be nice to see some of that heavy integration technology being put into notebooks make the consumer build-your-own markets. I'd love to build mini systems off of something akin to the ITX design (but I want two slots, not one).
iwod 11th February 2009, 02:05 Quote
Well None. In terms of innovation and technological advancement. We have been pretty slow in the past few years.

There are a lot they can if you are stricty talking about Motherborad only. They do not have control of the chipset. No control of Ethernet Chip, No control of Audio Codec, They have virtually no control of anything.

Built in Ethernet, Audio Codec, Hasn't improved a bit. Does any one uses 7. 1 Channel Speakers? Personally i dont know of any. But if they could just make a much better Quality Audio Codec with 2.1 Channel sound?

Yes, Motherbroad dont have much to do any more.

P.S They dont have control on BIOS , OpenFirmware or UEFI either....
Xtrafresh 11th February 2009, 13:52 Quote
One thing i can think of as a modder is that i'd like to see some wilder and more exotic form factors. A PC built into a pillar with a radius of 10cm anyone?

- Motherboards that can be folded at certain places for easy portability or foldable laptops?
- Flexible socets that allow expansion cards and/or cables to be installed in better orientations?
-Motherboard-based cable design features, like a hole where the 8-pin power connector comes though, or an 8-pin power connector on the back?
- A motherboard with integrated RAID processor?
- Breakout-cable connectors for 4 HDDs on one cable?
- Frontpanel screens with all kinds of functionality?
- Onboard FM-transmitters, so audio can be sent to any place in the house?
- Dedicated oudio output channels so i can put on radio for the living room while having game sounds on my headset?
- Dedicated small operating systems allowing a system to boot in NAS-mode or FM tuner mode?
- Integrated TV-tuner?
- USB stored BIOS profiles for easy overclocking?

I could go on. There's a lot to do if you are willing to innovate. You are right about one thing though: more of the same is becoming pointless at the moment.
Xtrafresh 11th February 2009, 13:53 Quote
oops, doublepost. plz delete
Ross1 15th February 2009, 04:17 Quote
Im kinda looking around at a new mobo.....
-basically a minimum of 10 sata ports. (okay, i have a fair number of hard drives)
-the 24 pin power connection cannot be in the freaking middle of the board, have to climb over the GPU or cpu cooler is retarded.
-decent PCI slot placement. pci-e x1 at the top, then pci-e x16, the next slot isnt important because its probably covered by the gpu cooler.... the other pci-e x16 should have two slots inbetween, have 1 old pci right at the end of the board.
-dual gbit lan (the back panel should also have a digital coaxial out)
-I know for x58 the northbridge is less important, but when you see so many different heatsinks used for it on various boards, it would be nice if there was some sort of standard spec so an aftermarket NB cooler could be fitted on the majority of mobos.
-enough space around the cpu that you can get a fan on your scythe ninja without it touching the ram or NB heatsink.
SouperAndy 16th February 2009, 00:52 Quote
After building my new system (UD3P), I noticed that a spent 5x more time on the cable management than actually putting things together!

Why can't the motherboard builders / case manufacturers produce a set of guidelines for the approximate locations for some of the connections?

Therefore, for things like the FP audio connectors, internal USB / FW ports & even some of the SATA ports could be placed on the back of the board with cutouts in the mobo tray to allow access?! Same thing goes for Graphics Cards, if the extra power connections were more intelligently placed, cable management would be 100% easier.

I would also like to see versions of motherboards with LESS features, for any new system I build I know that I will not be using IDE or the floppy connectors... I'd prefer the manufacturer to concentrate on the placement / optimisation of the standard ports (SATA, PCIEx, etc).
naokaji 16th February 2009, 09:17 Quote
The things I can think of they could add (or change / drop):

Add a real raid controller (and some cache with it)
Drop ide, floppy, ps2, serial
Change mounting system for cpu coolers, I'm thinking about one universal backplate that fits all coolers at the back of the mainboard, then ship all coolers just with 4 screws to attach it.
There is like one mainboard with EFI, time for the rest of them to follow.
Increase space between cpu and ram, no matter if G.Skill Pi, OCZ Reaper or Corsair Dominator... on most boards they will make trouble with big cpu coolers.
More highend Matx mainboards, since pretty much everything is on the mainboard allready most people just have a single graphicscard in the top pci-e slot, so why do we have so many other slots on the majority of boards?
Risky 16th February 2009, 09:30 Quote
Unfortunately at the moment the manufacturers seem to think that an "Enthusiast" board has to have every feature they can find jammed in so we have on-board sound, raid, christmas lights, toaster etc.... This seems strage as these are exactly the people that will buy add-in cards for all this stuff.

I'd like to see a overclocking board with all the flim-flam thrown out and cut down to the minimum. So not add in Raid, Fireware and why not go the whole hog and go PCIe only. You can still make a kitchen-sink board for those that want it, but with this approach you could target overclockers etc at a lower price point.
Pookeyhead 16th February 2009, 09:44 Quote
If manufacturers insist on adding everything to a board, why not make it decent stuff? I'm sick of on-board sound for instance: It's crap. The amount of digital noise you get when listening to quiet passages of music with headphones is terrible. It's been the same on every board I've had in the past 10 tears. My X-Fi card gives very noticeably better sound and no noise whatsoever (that can be heard anyway).

If they must add a RAID controller, why add one that would be so crap in RAID 5 when compared to dedicated card controllers?

IMO most of the tat they shoehorn in would be better on a budget board where people want an all in one solution. Every enthusiast I know would want the ability to choose the best as add-in cards later.

I would want a board that has a straight forward SATA controller for 4 to 6 disks, a straight forward USB controller, a couple of gigabit ports, a good overclocking BIOS. Decent components for power regulation etc. Clean, LOGICAL layout. No IDE, no Floppy, no on-board sound, no stupid media players built in to BIOS, and the option of having a water cooled version with blocks already mounted on the chipset.

Although it will never happen, I always thought it would be cool if there was a new form factor that allowed for connectors on the BACK of the board to completely hide cables... that's just wishful thinking though, as it requires an agreed form factor.

With the price of new Skt1366 boards, I would welcome a stripped out, minimum spec performance board.
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