This is Intel's 9 Series chipset

One foot in the past, another in the future
— 2:01 AM on May 11, 2014

So, this is a bit weird. Today marks the official introduction of Intel's 9 Series chipset. Motherboards based on the chip have been selling for weeks, and we've even reviewed one of 'em, but the press embargo for the chipset didn't lift until just now. Go figure.

This chipset launch is unusual in another way, too. As far as I can tell, it's the first time Intel has introduced a new core-logic platform without an updated CPU alongside it. The recent Haswell Refresh is little more than a speed bump for last year's silicon, so it doesn't count.

There are more refreshed Haswell CPUs on the way, including a Devil's Canyon variant with an improved thermal interface material optimized for overclocking. Intel tells us this K-series chip may not be compatible with some 8-series motherboards, suggesting Devil's Canyon could include other changes under the hood. Tweaking the TIM alone seems unlikely to affect mobo compatibility, though we're told most Z87 boards should work with the chip.

Support for Devil's Canyon is enshrined in the 9 Series chipset. So is compatibility with Broadwell, Intel's next-gen desktop CPU. Broadwell is a die-shrunk version of Haswell built on 14-nm fabrication technology. The first Broadwell chips for the LGA1150 desktop socket are expected late this year or early next, and they should plug into 9-series motherboards without issue. They won't work with older 8-series products, though.

In addition to supporting current and future CPU generations, the 9 Series chipset is equipped to handle existing and next-gen storage devices. Two of the chipset's eight PCI Express Gen2 lanes can be devoted to a PCIe SSD accessible through Intel's Rapid Storage Technology driver. The driver allows PCIe SSDs to act as the primary boot device, to serve as a cache for Smart Response Technology, and to benefit from Dynamic Storage Accelerator. That last feature, DSA, aims to prevent CPU power-saving measures from hampering storage performance. The only catch is that PCIe SSDs are barred from participating in RAID arrays managed by the chipset.

Among the 9-series motherboards we've seen thus far, the chipset's PCIe SSD connectivity manifests in two physical interfaces: M.2 and SATA Express. Mobo makers can offer both, but the interfaces are tied to the same Gen2 lanes in the chipset, so they can't be used simultaneously. The dual-lane, Gen2 link offers 1GB/s of bandwidth in each direction, providing a nice upgrade over 6Gbps SATA. It's not wide enough to fully exploit four-lane PCIe SSDs like Samsung's XP941, though, and it can't match the Gen3 speeds supported by the M.2 and SATAe standards.

PCIe SSDs are only restricted to the chipset's dual-lane link if they want to interface with Intel's RST software. Drives can also connect via the chipset's remaining PCIe lanes and through the CPU's Gen3 PCIe controller. Indeed, ASRock already has a Z97 board with an "Ultra M.2" slot attached to four Gen3 lanes in the CPU. PCIe SSDs that bypass the RST-specific chipset link will need to bring their own drivers or rely on the PCIe SSD support built into Windows 8.1.

According to all the SSD makers we've talked to, PCIe SSDs currently have few tangible benefits on the desktop. They'll be faster in benchmarks, for sure, but 4K video editing seems to be the only real-world application that really benefits from the extra speed. I wouldn't worry about the 9 Series' dedicated Gen2 lanes hindering storage performance for desktop users.

The M.2 and SATA Express interfaces go both ways; they're compatible with Serial ATA drives via AHCI and with PCIe drives via NVM Express, or NVMe. Intel recommends that M.2 implementations support both PCIe and SATA SSDs, but motherboard makers have some freedom on that front. We've already seen 9-series boards with PCIe-only M.2 slots. Board makers can also provide SATA-only M.2 slots via the chipset's Serial ATA controller.

Combining Serial ATA and PCI Express in the same physical interface is the whole point behind SATA Express, so expect all 9-series SATAe implementations to support both kinds of drives. The connector is actually made up of dual SATA ports plus a third little plug that sits to the left. You can read more about SATA Express in this early look at a prototype SATAe drive.

Existing Serial ATA drives plug right into the SATA Express port, making backward compatibility a breeze. However, because the SATAe environment is built on PCI Express, legacy drives actually talk to the system via the chipset's Serial ATA controller. That SATA controller appears to be pretty much unchanged from the last generation. It has six 6Gbps ports and supports RAID 0, 1, 10, and 5 arrays. SSDs configured in RAID 0 arrays will also work with the TRIM command used to clear unused flash pages.

Right now, striping a couple of SATA SSDs in RAID 0 may be the most sensible high-speed storage option for the 9 Series chipset. PCIe SSDs based on the M.2 standard are still relatively rare, and SATA Express devices are pretty much nonexistent. Asus is working on a RAID-infused SATA Express device, though, and we've heard that WD also has something coming on the SATAe front. More PCIe-based M.2 SSDs are on the way, too. The 9 Series chipset may not have a lot of PCIe SSD options today, but it's at least ready for future products.

The 9 Series chipset requires the latest RST 13 driver to work with PCIe SSDs. That driver includes a couple of other enhancements, including an updated version of SRT caching that cooperates closely with hybrid SSHDs. The caching scheme now has a "Hybrid Hinting" feature that provides information on which data is best put in the SSHD's onboard flash rather than on its mechanical platters. In another new twist, SRT caching can be combined with Rapid Start resume acceleration on SSDs as small as 16GB. I expect that means we're going to see SRT-optimized hybrid drives with 16GB flash caches.

Although the RST 13 driver is being released with the 9 Series chipset, it will also trickle down to older Intel chipsets, complete with the caching improvements mentioned above. The driver's support for PCIe SSDs is exclusive to the 9 Series chipset, though.

We've covered the big-ticket items so far, but the 9 Series chipset has one other addition worth mentioning: Device Protection Technology with Boot Guard. This optional, security-oriented feature guards against malware and viruses that target the boot block. It can be used with or without a Trusted Platform Module, and it's likely to appeal to corporate types more than PC enthusiasts.

There are Z97 and H97 flavors of the 9 Series chipset. Overclockers will want the Z97, which unlocks the multiplier control available in K-series CPUs. The Z97 also allows the processor's PCIe lanes to be divvied up for CrossFire and SLI configs. Those lanes are normally reserved for a single expansion slot, but with the Z97, motherboard makers have the option of supporting dual-x8 and x8/x4/x4 setups. The last of the Z97's perks is Dynamic Storage Accelerator, which we've mentioned already.

While the Z97 is aimed squarely at enthusiasts, the H97 targets a wider swath of the market that includes businesses and everyday consumers. The only feature unique to this mass-market chipset is support for Intel's Small Business Advantage platform.

Surprisingly, Intel says it has no plans for additional variations of the 9 Series chipset. Replacements for lower-end chipsets like the H81 and B85 apparently aren't in the cards, at least right now. The company is, however, rumored to be readying an X99 chipset for its upcoming Haswell-E processor. Expect to see boards based on that chipset later this year.

In the meantime, the 9 Series chipset serves as a sort of bridge between old and new generations. It looks to the future while keeping one foot planted firmly in the past, allowing motherboard makers to offer products that support a wide range of current and future CPUs and storage devices.TR

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Tags: Motherboards Chipsets