What else do we need?
February 10, 2009 // 4:18 p.m.
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?!?