Talking Heads: Motherboard Manager Edition, Q4'10, Part 2

Future Opportunities For Motherboard Vendors

Question: As Intel and AMD integrate more functionality into their host processors, what opportunities remain for motherboard vendors to add value?

  • Power consumption management, software features, third-party software bundle for added value, and develop a better usage model for desktops
  • It is true that more and more functionality is being integrated into the CPU. This does not make the construction of a PC any simpler than it was before. Apart from getting the system to function well, users always demand better performance and quality.
  • We think the motherboard design will be become simpler. More and more performance will rely on processors. What motherboard vendors can do is keep providing extra functions distinct from what processors can provide.
  • Delivering high-quality components, innovative technologies, and implementing the latest industrial technologies in our products.
  • I think the most valuable feature for future motherboards is saving power and enhanced performance.
  • We've been worried about this for years and years, since the first chipsets integrated all the onboard logic into two chips. But so many new features and functions have been added to systems over the years as systems become more specialized that motherboards have actually gotten more complex, not less complex. Our boards now have a higher component count than they did 15 years ago. So the opportunity for us to differentiate our products remains high.
  • There will still be room for differentiation to either kick the performance or functionality up another notch from the stock ASIC. 

The fact that hybrids migrate graphic functionality to the processor might not actually change that much. As one person noted, the construction of the motherboard hasn’t gotten any simpler. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are now looking at motherboards that are more complex than ever before.

If you look at Intel's current desktop processor lineup (Clarkdale, Lynnfield, and Gulftown), one of the major things you will notice is that integrated graphics is limited to the entry-level space. It is only part of the Clarkdale and mobile Arrandale parts. This gives motherboard manufacturers some discretion on design. Because there is interface (LGA 1156) overlap between those Intel processor families with built-in graphics and those without, compatible motherboards don’t necessarily feature digital video output (DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort). This goes double for AMD, which sells chipsets that include on-chipset graphics capabilities.

This changes with Sandy Bridge and Llano. If the entire processor lineup now includes graphics, does that mean every motherboard manufacturer is going to provide some sort of output port on their motherboards? Not necessarily. It has been the natural course of things--to see more and more integration first into the chipset and now into the processor. When it comes to integration, the biggest problem for motherboard makers is design control. For example, when native SATA support was provided by chipsets, there was little need for motherboard manufacturers to decide whether or not to include a third-party controller. Even before the IDE-to-SATA transition, we found motherboard manufacturers including SATA support. The same went for high-quality audio and surround sound. 

Previously, when motherboard manufacturers purchased chipsets, they still qualified designs by using the host processor. Moving the graphics engine onto the CPU doesn’t really change this process. In some ways it makes it simpler, because any design problem is going to occur on the implementation of the motherboard design rather than the host processor. But ultimately it is an issue of losing some design control. And while it is going to be harder to ignore onboard video designs, Intel and AMD both understand these concerns. Recently at IDF, Intel talked about the H67 and P67 chipsets. This mirrors what we are seeing in the current generation of chipsets. By dropping a Sandy Bridge-based processor into a P67 motherboard, the on-die graphics engine is completely disabled, including the decode engine. So, all media decode will either be handled by the discrete GPU or the CPU itself. Granted, some people are going to be disappointed that chipset designs can’t help pull 100% double duty due to bandwidth issues, but at the end of this day, the challenges motherboard makers face remain the same.

If nettops and netbooks are any indication of the trend, power consumption is going to be an increasingly important design issue. While Intel and AMD control most of any design's power requirements, motherboard manufacturers still have the ability to tweak those final few percent or add power management that makes for superior products.

On the performance side, motherboard makers still have plenty to tweak. Sure we'll have integrated GPUs set in stone for extended periods delivering middling performance, but we still won't see DX11 on Sandy Bridge. We will naturally see encroachment on the entry-level space as tech trickles down, but we simply don't see hybrid processor architectures evolving quickly enough to keep up with graphics development. This means that bus architecture and overclocking options are still ripe for the pickin'.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • pandemonium_ctp
    Excellent read. I love seeing you guys get real world answers from companies willing to participate. It really shows where the industry is heading.

    This means having a small budget can’t stop you from building a reasonably heavy-duty computer. If you don’t believe us, look at our latest $400 System Builder Marathon configuration.
    Absolutely agree. This is basically where I've been placing my builds for the last 10 years; at the bottom of the price curve where performance hits the sweet spot for price. I alone typify that logic.

    The industry has always been on a smaller, faster, cheaper trend, and that's never going to change. Netbooks are here to stay, until something smaller, faster, and cheaper replaces them.
    Smartphones/PDA? They've existed for a long time now. The problem is the technology wasn't around to give them the power they needed to do everything a Netbook can do. That is rapidly changing. I hate to say it, but I disagree with Netbooks being a long-term investment. The consumer now is driven by convenience. If my smartphone can be my multimedia outlet, document editor, day planner, browser, camera, accessory portal (ear pieces/headsets, printers, scanners, etc...) and telephone, they why would I want to lug around seperate devices for each of those?

    If you can play 720p and 480p with decent bit-rates for $100 to $200 less, why not? This type of buying decision is naturally going to be a short term phenomenon.
    Very short-term. At the way things are going, that will be one to two years worth of earnings at the most. Hardly worth the R&D IMHO.

    I think the most valuable feature for future motherboards is saving power and enhanced performance.
    This is the bottom line for everything, basically. This motto can not falter.

    The fact that hybrids migrate graphic functionality to the processor might not actually change that much. As one person noted, the construction of the motherboard hasn’t gotten any simpler. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are now looking at motherboards that are more complex than ever before.
    Complexity is definitely the direction the industry has taken. However, I would think if a manufacturer wanted to baseline a board with IGPs, they would do so in terms of finding a way to allow additional discrete GPU and/or CPU installments for those that tinker. I know this has been tried in the past, but I'm not talking about simple onboard graphics processors.

    The baseline board would be for the general consumer and could handle day-to-day tasks found in every household. While additional GPU and CPU configurations that would work in conjuction with the onboard processors appeals to the specializing category. We just need a manufacturer to take that step to allow them to co-exist in the same environment and provide that extra benefit of accessorizing.
  • dennisburke
    The Future Of Motherboads And Their Makers
    The P55 is a great middle of the road platform, and if one graphics card (even two) is enough to wet your whistle, you could'nt ask for more.

    I think brand loyalty comes about by great customer support and innovation, and it doesn't hurt to have a well used and supportive attached forum.

    I've hide my eggs with Intel, WD, Corsair, ASUS, and EVGA for many years now, and they are safe.
  • Onus
    I agree with everything the first poster said, except for one STRONG disagreement; that he is the only one who typifies that logic. "How low can you go" is a recurring theme in every build I do, especially for myself. If I want more future resistance, I'll go a step or three above that, but the base thinking still tends to be at the bottom in terms of cost (including power usage).
    In an economy where it is more important that things last, what I want to see is a focus on durability. Gigabyte advertises this very well, but I find that ASRock has many of the same elements (e.g. all-solid, Japanese caps, ferrite chokes) and costs a lot less.
  • nutriment6464
    fix the manfucaturer graph ;)
  • Th-z
    I am surprised MB makers didn't talk about speeding up the boot process, or UEFI, if it can speed up the boot time. I think really fast boot up is what everybody really wants. Now we can get SSD to speed up the loading for the OS part, but the very first thing when you turn on the computer, you still have to wait couple seconds for the slow BIOS to finish its tests, etc. That's probably the one thing that hasn't improved a lot when comparing to the speed improvement in other components.
  • WarraWarra
    Wow extremely confusing heading for this article.
    Thought it is some software that does what with motherboards ?
    And talking heads music band has got what to do with this ?

    If not for the weird article name the rest is very nice.

    Good to see Toms getting serious about hardware and reality from a users point of view.

  • Stardude82
    I don't know if competition in motherboards has decreased that much.. Zotac and EVGA are new. It's not like the CPU market which went from 4 competitors to 2.
  • palladin9479
    Hm might want to look at that ULV comment in reference to Intel. With such small and highly integrated parts you can't just use a processors wattage requirements but instead use the platforms requirements. In this case I believe Via's Nano processor wins.
  • chumly
    I am impatiently waiting for UEFI as well. I think it would be amazing to have a 4TB single hard drive. BIOS is ancient, it needs an update. I also don't believe that the competition in the market of GPUs is reflected at all in the Motherboard market, especially on the AMD side. Nforce boards are terrible in both price and features. It seriously affects my decision on which new GPU to purchase.
  • dEAne
    I can count on this, thanks tom - more to do.