Should size be the new battleground in the motherboard market?
Posted on 8th Jun 2012 at 13:14 by Paul Goodhead with 67 comments
It’s a statement that’s likely to have the marketing managers from the big brands up in arms, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the thought had crossed their own minds more than once too.
I say this because we’re simply getting far less surprises when we review motherboards these days. Feature sets are becoming formulaic, with each manufacturer grabbing from the same bag of tried and tested nick-nacks. Some of these features are useful of course, but we’re not seeing the same kind of innovation as we used to. Naturally there are exceptions, but as an industry, pace seems to have slowed.
It’s not just features either, as motherboards are becoming more homogenous in terms of performance and layout too. A lot even look the same, red and black anybody? No, ok, blue and black it is instead then.
I’d say that Intel needs to share some of the blame here, as it’s eroded one of the areas in which we saw differentiation in the past - overclockability. The fact that all overclocking is done on the CPU multiplier with LGA1155 processors means the motherboard is relatively uninvolved. This is great for consumers - overclocking has never been easier or more fruitful - but it’s a headache for manufacturers.
If you think this all seems petty so far, then just consider what’s left to a manufacturer which wants to differentiate itself in a homogeneous market. That’s right, price. Now, I’m sure a price war sounds good if you’re in the market for a new PC, but it’s hardly the sign of a healthy industry. Margins drop, units shipped becomes the only statistic that matters, and all but the largest producers fall by the way side.
So what’s an company to do then? Well, I’d like to suggest that they may want differentiate themselves by producing better small boards. In truth it’s not an original idea, Asus already makes the excellent m-ATX Gene boards for example, and it’s new P8Z77-I Deluxe looks to bring full 10 phase VRM design to the ITX form factor for the first time. What I’m saying however is that this type of product should be a focus for a manufacturer, rather than just a frivolous sideline.
After all, there is little need for modern PCs to be as large as they are, especially as we see high end products, such as the Nvidia GTX 670 and Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors, getting smaller and more power efficient.
Many modern full ATX boards even display patches of unused PCB, areas that simply aren’t necessary and are only there because of the size the board needs to be to sport a full seven expansion slots. I mean, who even uses their full seven expansion slots? Yes, I’m sure some do, but only a small minority - you can’t tell me most people wouldn’t get on just as well with four?
I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the idea of smaller but still quick and feature rich motherboards appealing either. Our own Antony Leather has been documenting a mini-ITX build over the past few months, and the comments on our Z77 mini-ITX motherboard roundup were overwhelmingly positive too.
There seems to be rewards there for the manufacturer that really captures the smaller end of the market then, either through clever design or through new features. Unfortunately I'm just not sure that they're ready to give up their obsession with the ATX form factor quite yet.