A roadmap for next-generation mobo firmware


— 10:43 AM on October 13, 2011

Later this week, I embark on a super-secret mission to Silicon Valley to get a sneak peek at Asus' upcoming X79 motherboards. At a similar preview event for Sandy Bridge motherboards last year, I got my first hands-on time with the UEFI—that is, the better, more flexible BIOS replacement—that went on to outclass everything in the industry. Asus will probably have a few new UEFI tricks to show off this time around, and I'm curious to see what's in store. I also have some rather specific thoughts on what should be incorporated in new firmware implementations. When you've been reviewing motherboards for more than a decade, you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about such things—and have a somewhat inflated sense of the value of your opinions.

The BIOS was never that exciting, but its UEFI replacement has the potential to make motherboards much sexier than they've ever been before. Mobos have never been that sexy, but bear with me, because contemporary motherboards seem destined to continue offering largely equivalent hardware configurations, performance characteristics, and overclocking potential, making the quality of their firmware one of few things that set them apart from one another.

The most obvious new element the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface brings to the table is support for graphical user interfaces, complete with mouse input. You'd think mouse support would be easy to get right, but I've suffered through some truly horrendous implementations plagued by painfully imprecise tracking, seizure-inducing cursor flickering, and frustratingly inconsistent button behavior. Before letting artists loose on a GUI, motherboard makers need to do a better job of nailing the basic input mechanisms.

Asus' UEFI has had excellent mouse support from the beginning, and that's one of the reasons we've liked it so much. Another is the fact that the interface is snappy and responsive. If old-school BIOSes can effortlessly flip between menus and options instantaneously, then so should their UEFI successors.

I'm a little conflicted when it comes to how the user interface is presented visually. Part of me likes the fact that Asus' UEFI has an "advanced" mode that follows the same menu structure and layout familiar from years of the company's BIOSes. This UI still has a stylish skin, and it's easy to navigate quickly with either the keyboard or the mouse. I love the fact that variables like clock speeds, voltages, and memory timings can be keyed in directly.

While years of poking around in BIOSes makes me particularly comfortable in Asus' advanced mode, the one-page "EZ" mode provides a taste of what's possible if old conventions are left behind completely. I'm not sure I'd want to get rid of a simple menu system entirely—that's probably not realistic given the sheer number of configuration options included in an enthusiast-focused UEFI. However, it would be nice to see commonly used functions accessible through a more user-friendly interface.

Some parts of the UEFI's job description are ripe for a graphical upgrade. Take fan speed controls, for example. (You didn't think I'd get through a motherboard-related post without mentioning that, did you?) The best way to define how a fan will respond to changes in temperature is to plot a profile with speed on one axis and temperature on the other. Rather than asking users to key in or select specific values for the start and end points on this curve, a graphical interface could allow those points to be adjusted with the mouse. Asus' Fan Xpert software for Windows is a pretty good blueprint.

Ideally, users should be able to manipulate several points along the fan curve to define its shape precisely. Each onboard fan header should get its own profile, and the temperature-based speed control needs to work with both DC (three-pin) and PWM (four-pin) fans.

There's still loads of room to improve even the basic functionality of motherboard fan controls, but the selection of available overclocking and memory tweaking options is pretty solid among the top-tier players. Firmware engineers have spent years piling on clock, multiplier, voltage, and timing controls, and a subset of these could benefit from being consolidated on a single screen with a jazzed-up interface, mouse-friendly sliders, and real-time monitoring to confirm changes.

When overclocking a system, it's nice to be able to test for stability without risking the integrity of your Windows install. This isn't a new idea; DFI integrated Memtest86+ into the BIOS of select LANParty boards as early as 2005. Launching Memtest required a reboot, but I suspect UEFIs can do better. The new firmware standard is supposed to have robust application support, and I'd like to see CPU and memory stress tests combined with some basic system monitoring. Users should be able to switch easily between the overclocking controls and an integrated burn-in test without ever leaving the firmware menu.

Adding stress tests to the UEFI wouldn't just serve the manual overclocking crowd. UEFI-based auto-tuning schemes could benefit from being able to test for stability after each incremental step up in clock speed. You'll still want to confirm the stability of your final configuration in Windows, but the UEFI could take you right to that point without wasting time loading the OS after every reboot.

Even folks running at stock speeds could benefit from additional UEFI applications. Take integrated flashing utilities, for example. Dating back to the BIOS era, they've required that new firmware be loaded off a storage device provided by the user. UEFI-based versions should be able to reach out over the Internet and grab the latest firmware themselves.

Want to go further outside the box? Try an integrated web browser. I don't see much value in casual surfing through the UEFI, but a browser could allow folks setting up new systems to download the latest drivers to a thumb drive. Throw in some basic diagnostic tools, too, and a robust file manager capable of rescuing important files if the Windows install gets hosed. A lot of PC enthusiasts perform these tasks with secondary PCs or bootable flash drives, but the UEFI should be able to handle them without outside assistance.

I'm getting a sense of deja vu, probably because I called for a similar suite of applications to appear on motherboards via lightweight Linux distributions installed on integrated flash drives. Using the UEFI strikes me as a more elegant solution, especially since it doesn't require additional onboard storage.

I'm optimistic some of the items on my UEFI wish list will appear on X79 boards. Asus continues to refine its already excellent firmware, MSI has promised big changes in its next-gen firmware, and Gigabyte is readying its first effort after seeing (and hearing me go on about) the successes and failures of early designs. I can only hope all the motherboard makers are listening—not only to me, but also to you. So, how would you like to see UEFIs improved?

   
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