What Does It Take To Test A Motherboard?
Should You Worry About ESD?
We covered much of this next video in our previous picture story. The follow-up I had, however, was just a bit of personal curiosity. Mainly, how big of an issue is electrostatic discharge today compared to year’s past? I’ve been doing this an awfully long time, and it has been almost a decade since I’ve unknowingly damaged a board and even longer since I’ve worn a wrist-strap handling PC components.
To that question, Brian answered with a story. A couple of years ago, Intel started getting motherboards returned with electrical over-stress damage, which he admitted could be caused by a number of things. After putting together a team and collecting data, it identified a number of components that had external I/O with an end-user (think USB, audio, and FireWire); those were getting fried. They figured out that the previously-required 2 kV protection against direct-pin zap wasn’t enough, and so protection was increased to 3-5 kV.
Then came another challenge to the motherboard industry at large: based on evaluation in Intel’s own lab of its boards and competing platforms, nobody else was passing the ESD tests that Intel’s beefed up platforms were able to pass. That’s not to say other vendors are experiencing more ESD-related failures. However, enhanced protection all around does seem like a practical improvement that other manufacturers’ marketing departments would likely make a much bigger deal about. That doesn’t seem to be Intel’s style (its marketing is still pretty low-key, in our eyes), but don’t be surprised if it becomes a more prominent differentiator in the future.
Inside The Test Lab
Our next stop landed us in Intel’s test lab with Grant Metzgar, senior validation engineer/senior EMC engineer on Brian’s team. Grant walked us through the different validation processes and procedures used to qualify each platform, which of course triggered a number of what I’m sure were sensitive questions.
First, what role does the lab have in making sure Intel’s on-die graphics are working properly? Rather than compatibility-testing games or anything like that, this lab looks at the output quality of the back-panel connectors and checks the routing of differential signaling on those ports.
Even more pressing, what the heck happened with the validation of P67 and H67’s SATA functionality? Brian admits that during the course of testing Intel’s own Cougar Point-based boards, he didn’t see the issue that triggered the stop-shipment. The problem was very difficult to replicate, and first surfaced on a mobile platform, where demanding thermals likely made it detectable in the first place. At the same time, Brian stands by the way Intel addressed that situation. And indeed, we haven’t heard any of Intel’s board partners speak ill of the company’s handling of it.
More exciting was that Grant talked about liquid nitrogen-based testing—something I doubt anyone thought they’d ever hear about from Intel’s own board division. Brian acknowledges that Intel’s history in overclocking is steeped in a more conservative approach. But he’s trying to push the company forward in stages. The next phase, he says, involves an X79 enthusiast board for the LGA 2011-based interface, which will support Sandy Bridge-E-based processors with four memory channels. From the ground-up, he wants this board designed to be LN2-friendly. It’s to sport the highest-rated POSCAPs (a solid electrolytic capacitor with a sintered tantalum anode and semiconductor cathode) with high thermal tolerances and a more open processor interface area to accommodate large pots.
Admittedly a halo product that probably won’t do crazy volume, Brian is more interested in seeing the enthusiasts who’ve been giving Intel feedback on its boards for years finally able to take an über-validated board and then crush overclocking records with it. Brian’s passion about this is evident when he talks about it. And if his team is working on another great option for enthusiasts, well, that’s what we’re all about.