Ever wondered how a motherboard and its BIOS are designed and made? What makes one a brilliant overclocker and another as stable as a plate of jelly on a bouncy castle? Alex Watson investigates.
The room is cold and featureless. Above our heads, all the ceiling panels have been removed, leaving the silver foil ducting and cable-tied wires of the air-conditioning system visible. This being a central London PR agency, it's impossible to know if the room is half-finished or if this is a deliberate attempt to create an industrial look.
We're here for a presentation from Asus, to be given by two senior members of its motherboard development teams. It turns out to be more of a labs demo and test than a PowerPoint-fest, with the Asus team using voltage meters to prod and probe two motherboards balanced on boxes that they set up to run alongside each other. The two engineers from Asus go into great detail about how the boards and their BIOSes work, and the exposed pipework above us begins to seem rather appropriate.
Presenting the demo are George Chen and Derek Yu. Chen is Director of one of the motherboard R&D departments, and Yu is a Product Manager - and, in effect, the head of Asus' successful Republic of Gamers series of boards. After the demo, both are keen to sit down and talk us through how motherboards are designed. Yu's English is dotted with Californian inflections and a sunny enthusiasm with which he rides roughshod over the usual cludgy terms that are wheeled out to describe motherboards.
'I could care less about product differentiation,' he chuckles. 'When we make motherboards, we're not trying to be competitive with a certain target, or making them just for differentiation or whatever. I just want to do something more. Making a basic motherboard is boring; you plug in a CPU, graphics card, RAM and you're done. The fun part lies in thinking of ways to make contributions to what people can do with the board. Sure, we spend a lot of time making certain that stability, quality, durability and compatibility are all there, but we also have a huge amount of resources going into innovation. We're not trailing anybody on innovation, but every year, we try to figure out what can still be done.' He grabs a Maximus from the top of the box, and places it on the desk, along with its separate audio daughterboard, the SupremeFX. The SupremeFX is a small, badly proportioned card that's far wider than it is long. These unbalanced measurements are exacerbated by the fact that it attaches to the board using a thin, 1x PCI-E connector. It looks like it should have all the stability of a sumo wrestler in high heels.
Yu picks up the SupremeFX, and proceeds to discuss it. 'Every time I have a PCI-E 1x device, it tilts towards the end of the board because it's unbalanced - especially something like this, which has cables for headphones, speakers and microphones pulling it. It really ticks me off when it slips out of the socket, and the sound starts to buzz and click, and you have to stop what you're doing and push it back in. It's annoying, so we added this little notch to the PCB. It makes a massive difference.' He clicks it into place, and starts pushing and prodding the card's backplate. The SupremeFX card hardly moves. 'This is a usage model thing. We want to go beyond making things flashy, or being just two points over our competition in a benchmark.'