The sorry state of BIOS-level fan speed control

— 11:51 PM on April 2, 2009

I'm constantly amazed by the pace at which technology improves. Take what's happened in, oh, the last six years, for example. We've gone from space-heater Prescotts and single-core Athlon 64s to surprisingly competent Phenom IIs and incredibly powerful Core i7s packing up to four cores each. In the graphics world, GPUs have discarded traditionally inflexible pixel pipelines in favor of massively parallel processor arrays with general-purpose computing capabilities and truly awe-inspiring performance. Hard drive capacities have increased tenfold, bringing faster transfer rates ahead of a growing tide of SSDs that redefine quick access times.

Even motherboards have evolved before our eyes. In just six years, we've replaced AGP with PCI Express, as point-to-point interconnects slowly take over from bus-based connectivity. The number and speed of expansion ports has grown, too, and at least on enthusiast-oriented boards, cheap electrical components have been replaced by ones of purportedly higher quality.

The motherboard BIOS has become a lot better in the last six years, too. You didn't get integrated flashing utilities and support for multiple configuration profiles back then, but those features are commonplace today. Once-rare memory timing, voltage, and overclocking controls have also become all but ubiquitous on mid-range and high-end motherboards, and they're even available on plenty of budget models.

I've been reviewing enthusiast-oriented motherboards for close to eight years now, and I'm stunned by level of control we now have over system variables. Clock speeds can be manipulated with practically limitless range in ultra-fine 1MHz increments, a whole host of system voltages can be tuned by fractions of a millivolt, and there are enough memory timing options on offer to make even a seasoned tweaker's head spin.

So why does BIOS-level fan speed control suck?

Take the big three motherboard makers, for example. MSI's BIOSes are currently the best of the breed on this front, offering automatic fan speed control for the processor, with the ability to set a temperature target and minimum fan speed. Automatic fan speed control doesn't apply to the system fans, though; you can only choose between a handful of static speeds. Asus supports temperature-based fan speed control for both processor and system fans, but you're limited to choosing one of three preset profiles that cannot be modified. At least that's more choice than is offered by Gigabyte's BIOSes, whose fan speed control options are essentially limited to on/off switches that don't give users any control over how aggressive fan speeds ramp up in respond to rising CPU or system temperatures.

For those who have only ever owned a motherboard from the big three, these basic fan speed controls might be acceptable. But surely, Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI can do better. After all, Abit did more than six years ago with uGuru—the finest collection of BIOS-level system monitoring and fan speed controls we've seen to date.

uGuru fan speed control circa 2004

uGuru's temperature-based fan speed controls were simple yet powerful. Users could set a reference temperature for each fan, typically choosing between CPU, motherboard, and chipset sensors. They were then free to set not only high and low temperature ranges, but also corresponding fan voltages. These generous fan speed controls weren't restricted to just the processor fan, either; individual controls were available for each and every onboard fan header.

Even the best of today's fan speed controls are a joke by comparison, and with Abit's days as a motherboard maker finished, so is uGuru. That's really a shame, because running a quiet, efficient, well-cooled system has only become increasingly important to PC enthusiasts. uGuru made it trivial to set up a stealthily silent system that would only spin up its army of fans when absolutely necessary. And because everything was run through the BIOS, fan speed controls were OS-independent, too.

Now I know that fan speed control isn't sexy. But then neither is the ability to finely tune the voltage fed to a north bridge chip's PCI Express controller. Modern BIOSes lavish users with far more system clock speed, voltage, and memory timing options than even the vast majority of PC enthusiasts actually need, while delivering only the most basic control over fan speed profiles that should be considered every bit as important.

Surely, it can't be too difficult to allow users to set independent temperature targets, reference temperatures, and voltage ranges for each and every onboard fan header. So how 'bout it Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, and others? Think you can bring BIOS-level fan speed control up to, oh, where Abit had it six years ago? I'd rather have that than more control over increasingly obscure memory timings, voltage options I'll never touch, and sky-high clock speeds I'd need liquid nitrogen to reach.

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