A memo to motherboard makers
I've been reviewing motherboards for a long time here at TR. Over the years, I've seen a lot of innovative ideas, fantastic designs, and solid products. I've also seen plenty of poor feature implementations, inexplicable design decisions, and unacceptable flaws. Sometimes I wonder what the folks designing boards are thinking, or if they are at all.
Of course, it's easy to be critical. But I don't want to simply bash poor designs; I want to make them better. With that in mind, I've collected my thoughts and compiled some dos and don'ts for motherboard makers looking to appeal to PC enthusiasts.
- Don't castrate a chipset's native features. If Nvidia gives you an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, don't handicap its performance with a crappy 10/100 PHY. That's like slapping a rev limiter on a car that knocks its top speed from 100 mph down to just 10. You've already paid for the integrated GigE controller anyway, and although you might save a few cents on the 10/100 PHY, your board is guaranteed to stand out as one that doesn't fully exploit the chipset's capabilities.
- Dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers are nice, but most folks would probably be better served by an integrated Wi-Fi component rather than second GigE connection. You don't even need to provide fancy access point software; just give us a decent Wi-Fi chip, drivers, and a standard antenna that we can replace if we're really serious about wireless.
- Choose PCI Express x16 slot retention tabs with an understanding that double-wide graphics cards not only exist, but are reasonably common. Retention tabs should be easily accessible even with a dual-slot cooler installed, and there are plenty of designs that reside out of the way on the opposite edge of the slot. Use them.
- Do look for ways to improve audio playback quality by using a riser card to isolate the codec chip from board-level noise. That's a noble pursuit. However, if you can't come up with a solution that delivers measurably better audio quality, don't waste board real estate on a riser slot when you could have gone with a full PCI or PCI Express slot instead. Anyone serious about audio quality will already have a favorite sound card in mind, and chances are your riser isn't going to be better.
- Don't give us 1394b "Firewire 800" unless you're going to do it right. Windows XP's issues with 1394b devices are well-documented, and without proper drivers or Microsoft's hotfix, Firewire performance is actually slower than with 1394a. The Microsoft hotfix and appropriate drivers should be included with the board so users don't have to hunt them down on their own.
- Temperature-controlled fan speeds are just as important—if not more important—than overclocking options. Give us robust fan speed control with the ability to arbitrarily define target temperatures and fan voltages for as many onboard fan headers as you can. Make sure fan speeds ramp in a linear fashion, too; we don't want to be stuck listening to fans annoyingly oscillate between high and low fan speed settings as the system flirts with its fan speed trigger temperature.
- Do appeal to our penchant for lower noise levels by giving us passive chipset cooling, but only if the cooler can actually handle the chipset's heat output. We're really not adverse to active chipset cooling if it works right and is reasonably quiet and reliable, but we don't want to be stuck with a tiny little chipset fan that will spend months developing an annoying, high-pitched whine before it suddenly dies.
- Regardless of whether you use elaborate passive heatpipe coolers or active, fan-equipped designs, don't glue coolers onto the chipset. If your cooler is too loud or doesn't dissipate heat well enough, it should be an easy component for us to replace.
- Don't blemish a board with a multicolored array of expansion ports and slots unless you're actually going to refer to those ports by their color in the manual. There's nothing wrong with intelligent color coding, but if you're not going to bother with a code, don't muddle the board's aesthetic with a rainbow.
- Your board doesn't have to look good unless you're trying to appeal to folks with case windows, but try not to make it look like ass. Browns, pinks, and purples shouldn't be in your palette, and don't even think about using pastels. Color may have nothing to do with your board's performance, but it doesn't hurt to take a little pride in your appearance.
- Windows tweaking and hardware monitoring apps are great, but only if they don't consume an unreasonable amount of system resources. Don't try to dazzle us with overly stylized but ultimately awkward interfaces. A standard Windows interface is far easier to navigate than an oddly-shaped futuristic dashboard that's trying far too hard to look different. If it's easier to navigate your motherboard's BIOS than its Windows tweaking software, your GUI needs some work.
- We're OK with dropping serial and parallel ports. Their time has come. However, if you're going to ditch older legacy ports, do replace them with newer conveniences, such as eSATA and digital S/PDIF ports. Progress implies moving onto something new, not just forgetting something old.
- Post code displays might cost extra to implement, but unless your tech support technicians enjoy deciphering beep codes over the phone or email, you'll probably save money with them in the long run. If you empower users with a list of suggested solutions for various post codes, you might even reduce the number of support calls.
- For the love of god, standardize the pinouts for front panel connectors. Surely you all can come to an agreement on how to arrange the 20 or so pins necessary for front panel connections. Users shouldn't have to plug a handful of individual wires into a board just to hook up a case's power and reset buttons, power and hard drive LEDs, and internal speaker.
- Don't overclock behind our back. If you want to include automatic front-side bus, memory, or graphics card overclocking options in the BIOS, be up front about what they do, and disable them by default. Running system components out of spec is our choice to make, not yours.
- If you're building a high-end board, make sure that a high-end graphics card doesn't block access to onboard ports, such as Serial ATA or IDE. Double-wide designs like those found on the GeForce 7900 GTX and Radeon X1900 XTX are common in high-end systems, and users shouldn't have to sacrifice onboard connectivity just to accommodate them.
- Come up with product names we can pronounce. Seemingly random strings of letters and numbers that all but require a decoder ring to decipher are fine for internal purposes, but they confuse customers. You want people asking for your motherboard by name, don't you?
- If a board fails to post because of an over-aggressive overclock attempt, it should automatically reboot using its fail-safe BIOS defaults. Fiddling with jumpers is the last thing enthusiasts should have to do with a modern motherboard.
That's just off the top of my head, so this isn't a complete manifesto for designing a great enthusiast board. Still, it's a good place to start, and something we'll be encouraging motherboard makers to read. Thoroughly.