Nvidia revealed its Enthusiast System Architecture specification back in November, promising to consolidate hardware monitoring and control with a single communication protocol. The ESA spec is an open, royalty-free standard that has already been put before the USB-if governing body for approval. ESA certainly isn't free of flaws, but it's the best attempt we've seen at holistic hardware monitoring, and one that's already bearing fruit. ESA-compliant power supply units, motherboards, cooling systems, and enclosures are already on the market, and Nvidia's ESA software control panel is very slick indeed.
Software is especially important for ESA because it aggregates everything one might want to know about the state of supported hardware within a system. Nvidia has done an excellent job with its first ESA System Utility, giving users a flexible dashboard that can be configured to keep tabs on whatever system variables they deem most important.
ESA's hardware-monitoring dashboard is particularly handy when setting up a new system because it allows you to track fan speeds and temperatures during burn-in stress testing. With that valuable information, one can easily zero in a cooling configuration that strikes a perfect balance between low noise levels and system temperatures.
Of course, it's also nice to be able to glance at the dashboard to see how your system is handling day-to-day tasks. That would be the first place I'd look if my system inexpicably slowed to a crawl, began spinning up its fans, or sarted thrashing the hard drive.
If you're already sitting at the Windows desktop, the ESA dashboard is but a mouse click away. Better yet, if you have screen real estate to spare, you can keep the dashboard open at all times. But what if you're immersed in a gaming session? Games are arguably the most demanding tasks you can throw at a system, generating the kinds of combined processor and graphics loads that would make me want to check things like core and memory utilization, temperature levels, and fan speeds. However, games are best enjoyed full-screen, leaving little real estate for an ESA dashboard. You really need to have a second screen (alt-tabbing is hardly graceful), although not one that's so big that it becomes a distraction from your primary display.
When gaming, it would be really nice to have access to an ESA dashboard independent of the system's display. A small screen that could be mounted anywhere you please. Something like, perhaps, a little SideShow device.
Introduced with Windows Vista, SideShow devices are essentially external display modules with input capabilities. They're quite unobtrustive, measuring as small as 4" x 2.5" x 0.75" for the example Asus bundled with its Vista Edition motherboards last year. Despite its diminutive proportions, that SideShow device packed a 2.5" diagonal screen with a 320x240 display resolution. QVGA is hardly a high enough resolution for standard desktop applications, but it's more than enough pixels for a numerical display of various system variables, or even graphs that track them over time. This functionality is already built into Nvidia's ESA system monitor software—all it needs is support for SideShow displays.
With a simple directional pad and a couple of additional buttons—inputs already present in the SideShow devices we've seen—one could easily cycle through different dashboard displays. Users could even be given a measure of basic control over certain system variables. I certainly wouldn't mind being able to tweak fan speeds while gaming. Using a SideShow device to switch between system configuration profiles would be pretty slick, too.
SideShow is currently a Vista-only affair, but then so is ESA. The two also share a USB interface, so marrying the two shouldn't be difficult.
We've already seen SideShow devices bundled with some Asus otherboards, so there's precedent on that front, too. Nvidia should be able to whip up an external display for its made-for-retail motherboard reference designs, giving them not only a unique feature in a market where originality is hard to come by, but advancing the ESA platform as a whole. How 'bout it Nvidia; can you make this happen?