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Tom's Hardware Visits Intel's Motherboard Team

Tom's Hardware Visits Intel's Motherboard Team
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We first covered Intel's Hawthorn Farm campus two years ago. A return visit with a video camera gives us the opportunity to film inside and ask some new questions about the company's efforts to design more enthusiast-oriented motherboards.

We had the opportunity to visit Intel’s Hawthorn Farm campus in Hillsboro, Oregon more than two years ago, and that trip yielded a cool picture-based piece walking us through the facility. The highlights of what we saw included radio frequency testing, acoustic measurements, shock and vibration validation, and serious work on voltage regulation circuits. If you missed that story, check out Under The Kimono: Inside Intel's Hidden R&D. It's really an interesting read.

More recently, Intel invited us back for another trip through its facility, this time giving us the opportunity to catch its engineers discussing the company’s technology on camera.

The timing isn’t exactly coincidental. As you’ve likely noticed, we do monthly roundups of the motherboards that sit at the center of your PC. Sometimes these include Intel’s own branded boards; more often, however, they don’t. And yet, Intel is eager to remind us those board designs that come out of Hawthorn Farm aren’t simply reference builds. According to Brian Forbes, the engineering director for Intel’s advanced engineering team, they’re completely different from the qualification platforms used to bring up a new processor or chipset.

And while those boards are already well-respected in business-oriented environments, Brian’s team claims to have the enthusiast market in its sights. But we didn’t hesitate to remind the Intel team that competing vendors are faster to incorporate add-on peripheral interfaces like USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s. Plus, more traditional enthusiast-oriented platforms feature much more complex voltage regulator circuits, potentially enabling better overclocking results.

And that’s where we started our discussion with Mr. Forbes. Motherboard vendors make it a distinct point to tout the intricacy of their voltage regulation circuit, leading to something I call phase inflation. Boards with 12-, 18-, and 24- phase designs continually try to one-up each other. Meanwhile, Intel only uses six or eight phases. So what are the ramifications?

What Makes A VRM Good?

Intel's Brian Forbes Talks About Motherboard Power

Brian explains that his team starts its analysis with a baseline, which is whatever the processor requires in its stock form (for a Gulftown-based chip, for example, that’s 130 watts), to determine the number of phases required just for that. Then, if the board is being groomed for the enthusiast market as some of Intel’s recent platforms have been, the team tries to figure out how far it can be pushed.

“Many times, based on the tuning of the circuitry and our component selection, we’ve been able to get upwards of 210 amps using six or eight phases,” Brian said. “Granted, that requires passive cooling with minimal airflow, which typically comes from your processor’s fan.” During that discussion, it was mentioned that, especially with the unlocked K-series and Extreme Edition parts, the team at Hawthorn Farm has to hit a point where the processor simply cannot run any faster and gets damaged—without affecting the motherboard. Despite what we’ve been programmed to believe, Intel claims that is possible to take an unlocked chip to its breaking point with six- or eight-phase power.

Then Brian got provocative. “When I look at these 12-, 14-, 18-, 24-phase boards, in many instances, it appears those designs are trying to compensate for some type of an engineering ‘gotcha’, where if I throw a little bit more at this, I should be able to get more power. And that might be true for a period. But when you start to get to extreme phases where you need those 24 phases operating in harmony…we haven’t seen it done. We’re using FLIR cameras to capture the thermal effects on each and every device. And what we’ve found 99% of the time is that the board is operating and we’re watching components degrading rapidly over a year or six months, where the thermal limits of those parts get exceeded.”

Now, that’s a significant challenge to the rest of the motherboard industry, which would have us believe that more phases are correspondingly better. Of course, without the measurement equipment Intel uses in its labs, it’s difficult to validate the power delivery of an eight-phase design compared to larger voltage regulation circuits. However, Brian reiterated over and over that his six- or eight-phase design delivers more power than anyone is able to exert on the motherboard, and it does so in a symmetrical way, whereas larger VRs tend to lack balance, causing certain switches to handle a majority of the load and heat up unevenly.

Naturally, we’re skeptics. We wanted some sort of example to show that these boards, with their less-complex VRs, can do what Intel says they can do. A member of Brian’s team pulled out his testing notes as proof. The DP67BG (a P67-based platform) was able to take a K-series chip topped with the XTS100H heat sink up to 5.1 GHz at 1.5 V stably. The same setup hit 5.4 GHz at 1.6 V and could get into Windows, but wasn’t able to run the same long-term Prime95 load without crashing. As a point of comparison, we usually don't go much past 1.35 V in our own air-cooled efforts. The fact that Intel is pushing so high is a good indicator of what its boards can take, even if you wouldn't want to operate your CPU up there for extended periods. Using more extreme measures (what I assume to be phase-change, given his -25 degree Celsius notes), the config saw 5.9 GHz at around 1.8 V before crashing. However it ran stably at 5.4 GHz.

Using the DX58SO2 board (which fixes the shortcomings of Intel’s first X58 Express-based board, including its four memory slots) and a Core i7, the same engineer jotted down stable speeds of up to 4.5 GHz at 1.425 V running Prime95 and unstable clocks of up to 5.1 GHz at 1.6 V—on air cooling. The P67 board had been pushed to memory speeds as high as 2133 MT/s, while the newer X58 platform saw 2400 MT/s using XMP profiles.

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  • 2 Hide
    TheProfosist , June 17, 2011 10:09 AM
    great to hear. my P3 intel board was crazy stable. i have stuck with asus since the P4 era but ill turn some of my attention back to intel now.
  • 0 Hide
    compton , June 17, 2011 10:24 AM
    I just got a new DP67BGb3 and I'm diggin it. I had a great P4 Intel board, the D865PERL with sata, optical and coaxial digital audio out, and several other nice features -- except for overclocking. The board is still good 8 years later. The DP67BG feels like more of a successor to that, except for the overclocking and the Extreme Skull (which is actually kind cool -- I likes it). Some of the early criticisms of the board in January are no longer valid (like cold boot problems with 1600mhz ect). I very much appreciate the care and thought Intel put into the board and hope that they keep up the high level of excellence as represented by the DX58SO2 and DP67BG.
  • 9 Hide
    ivaroeines , June 17, 2011 11:03 AM
    I think the multi phased(8+) motherboards is more about marketing than a stability thing, we(the normal consumer) tend go for motherboards with many phases in the belief that their better than one with few phases.

    Intel is in a lucky spot, they are so well off that they dont have to compete, they can just work on a product till its ready and rock solid, and their products just become awesome and Intel become even more well off.
  • 0 Hide
    JackFrost860 , June 17, 2011 11:37 AM
    does that mean the 24 phase Gigabyte boards are compensating for a sh*t design ;) 
  • 4 Hide
    ojas , June 17, 2011 11:58 AM
    ivaroeines...Intel is in a lucky spot, they are so well off that they dont have to compete, they can just work on a product till its ready and rock solid, and their products just become awesome and Intel become even more well off.


    yeah pretty cool ppl...i remember reading that they entered the SSD market just for the sake of improving SSDs...respect these guys a lot, really...

    greghome...never had a Intel branded board fail in 10 years


    neither have I...very stable products...
  • 6 Hide
    Onus , June 17, 2011 12:45 PM
    ivaroeinesI think the multi phased(8+) motherboards is more about marketing than a stability thing, we(the normal consumer) tend go for motherboards with many phases in the belief that their better than one with few phases.

    Once you get past 3-4 phases, I agree. Two few phases doing too much work (including the poor balancing of many phases that Intel mentions) could cause failures. Varying the number of operating phases based on load does apparently yield some energy savings, although that shouldn't take more than 4-6 to implement either.
    ivaroeinesIntel is in a lucky spot, they are so well off that they dont have to compete, they can just work on a product till its ready and rock solid, and their products just become awesome and Intel become even more well off.

    That IS how Intel competes; they just need to do a better job of letting people know that. Read the comments here though to see word-of-mouth at work; I'll add my agreement that the Intel boards I've owned have been very stable.
  • -4 Hide
    fball922 , June 17, 2011 1:13 PM
    Surprised Tom's would post this after that embarrassing advertorial on Intel motherboards.
  • 4 Hide
    eyemaster , June 17, 2011 3:36 PM
    Articles such as this make me show more respect towards the work the companies (in this case, Intel) put into products they sell.

    Very nice, I like.
  • 3 Hide
    cangelini , June 17, 2011 4:18 PM
    fball922Surprised Tom's would post this after that embarrassing advertorial on Intel motherboards.


    This story--an editorial opportunity--had nothing to do with the advertorial that went up. I've already expressed my disagreement with the fact that was even posted to \articles\ (even though it's clearly labeled as a sponsored piece).
  • 1 Hide
    boiler1990 , June 17, 2011 4:29 PM
    ceh4702My last motherboard was an integrated 720p HD Video motherboard. It works great in dual display so we can watch Korean historical videos online. I have gotten to the point where almost no american TV is worth watching. My biggest problem is Microsoft operating systems and IE being a substandard video blocking product.


    There are American-made TVs? ;) 


    Back on subject - getting to visit Intel's lab must be just wholly awesome. Some of my professors at Purdue worked with them on some research a little while back, and I think that's how they're developing the 22nm and smaller transistors.
  • 1 Hide
    king_maliken , June 17, 2011 5:04 PM
    boiler1990There are American-made TVs? Back on subject - getting to visit Intel's lab must be just wholly awesome. Some of my professors at Purdue worked with them on some research a little while back, and I think that's how they're developing the 22nm and smaller transistors.

    They've had these transistors in the works for quite a while now, and they successfully made smaller chips by using these transistors...
    Onto this article; I personally really liked it, and must confess that I would love to have their job.
  • -3 Hide
    joshyboy82 , June 17, 2011 7:02 PM
    So I open the embedded video and it barely loads at 360p on a 22mb broadband connection. I hit the source link to youtube and it istantly fully loaded? Web fail.
  • 2 Hide
    razor512 , June 17, 2011 7:21 PM
    On some boards the additional phases is to reduce heat as it is cheaper to add an extra phase than it is to add a heatsink (when you consider pure production cost) The downside is since the phases are not 100% efficient, you increase overall power consumption)

    It is also largely marketing. People like higher numbers. To the average user, they may thing "I don't know what that is but this board has more of it than the other board for the same price"

    When I get these types of board, I run it without the side panel for the forst few hours while running a CUDA accelerated password cracker (mainly because it maxes the CPU and GPU the entire time and gets hotter temperatures than even prime95)

    I then use the thermal probe that came with my multimeter, then place it against each of the phase chips (my msi board had no heatsinks on them)

    I then monitor the temperatures, and what I found was that each phase had about the same temperature so the power was being shared evenly, especially with a CPU using well over 140 watts since it is overclocked (Phenom II x4 965 overclocked)

    So not sure about all other boards but in my case with the msi board, the crazy amount of phases was to avoid the production cost of adding heatsinks to the phases.
  • 1 Hide
    djridonkulus , June 17, 2011 8:19 PM
    Newb question:

    Why does Intel use Prime95 and not IntelBurnTest?

    I was told IBT works the cpu harder and produces more heat than Prime95 does, and it even does it faster, completing a pass in under 5 minutes as opposed to P95's hours.

    Please enlighten me.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , June 17, 2011 9:10 PM
    Good question Dj, I'll ask the guys over there about it.
  • 0 Hide
    thechief73 , June 17, 2011 10:27 PM
    Awesome article... I love the strait from the horse's mouth aspect of it, and not just a second hand overlook. Now can we get the same thing on Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI? Please =) Though this might require quite a bit more traveling than taking a trip to Intel.
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