The sorry state of BIOS-level fan speed control

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speed of expansion ports has grown, too, and at least on enthusiast-oriented boards, cheap electrical components have been replaced by ones of purportedly higher quality.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.

Comments closed
    • alimaamoser
    • 9 years ago

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    • lammers
    • 11 years ago

    My mobo BIOS control options sucks for the most part (ECS A770M), but I found the fan speed control option to be very useful. See below for a link to what the options look like.

    §[<http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/ECS/A770M-A/images/b_smartfan.jpg<]§

    • Captain Ned
    • 11 years ago

    Fan speed control was the driving force in my IP35 Pro purchase.

    As for Krogoth’s bitch about uncalibrated sensors, it’s not that difficult to use a real thermometer and calculate a proper offset.

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      I was referring to build-in motherboard sensors. I had found in my experience that sensors on most boards that they were always off by 5-10C. A margin that may be problematic if you want to to do decent fan control without cooking your components.

      Abit seemed to be the only vendor that gave a damm about it. My dead KG7-RAID had a thermal probe right under the socket and emergency thermal shutdown. It was a rarity to find such features on Socket A boards in those days.

      Sticking a thermometer or thermal probe to get an accurate CPU temperature reading is a lot easier said than done. Decent infrared sensors are not exactly cheap.

    • not@home
    • 11 years ago

    I have built hundreds of computers and I have to agree the fan speed control is severely lacking. I have modded the cooling systems in each one to get the right balance of noise and temperature. It unnecessarily adds time to every build. It is time for a revolution.

    • Perezoso
    • 11 years ago

    Fan speed control belongs to the OS, not the BIOS. The stupid BIOS is there to boot the machine. Once it has accomplished that, it should get out of the way.

    The real problem it that ACPI sucks.

    • WasF
    • 11 years ago

    I only bought an Abit IP35 Pro XE for uGuru, just to discover that I will never get uGuru/abitEQ to do what I want (most counter-intuitive piece of s** ever), and that SpeedFan stopped at uGuru 3, not 3.1 that the IP35 Pro XE has.
    All of this few months before Abit went down!!!!!

    Fan speed control (or lack thereof) is delaying my new MB purchase since 8 months now. And with Abit gone, I wonder if I’ll ever buy a new MB..

      • Kulith
      • 11 years ago

      that might very well be the lamest thing that I have ever heard for delaying a motherboard purchase for 8 months.

        • WasF
        • 11 years ago

        You might be chocked to learn that I am far from being the only crazy pal in this situation. I guess you never heard of the Silentists sect..
        Fan speed control is THE major feature I am looking for in a MB.
        If SpeedFan gets to support uGuru 3.1 one day, I will stop following MB/CPU/GPU evolution until my IP35XE breaks, or an equivalent to FanEQ pops up somehow (or fans are no longer needed !)..

          • KarateBob
          • 11 years ago

          Hasn’t anyone heard of a fan controller? Or crap, the hardcore can just splice in a Variable Resistor and use it to adjust their fan speed.

    • clone
    • 11 years ago

    r[

      • Waco
      • 11 years ago

      40 watts? Whatever you’re smoking…pass it over.

    • dpaus
    • 11 years ago

    Agree, and as Krogoth pointed out, make sure there are enough well-calibrated temperature sensors for the controls to be used effectively.

    And now, allow me add my own wish list: for the extra dollar or two it would take, please give us the option of an on-board watch-dog timer! In fact, for the premium boards, give us a 24-port watchdog timer with a hardware output header and a well-defined API for OS-level access. And please! “Hardware output” , not just a silent re-boot!!

    Oh, and don’t call me Shirley!

      • srg86
      • 11 years ago

      As far as I know, the only x86 PCs to ever have Watchdog timers were those with the Microchannel architecture.

    • Anomymous Gerbil
    • 11 years ago

    Not havng looked into it for ages, are there any good hardware fan controls that are more than just a bunch of analogue knobs?

    I’m thinking of something where instead of manually setting each fan speed as your usage ramps up or down, it would have a switch for”low”, “med” and “max”, and each setting would have a separate speed control for each fan?

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      DIY’ing something like that would be really easy especially if you mean that easch fan has its own switch.

    • Heiwashin
    • 11 years ago

    I don’t have any problem using a front panel controller. I find them to be the most convenient method but i guess not everyone wants them.

      • sativa
      • 11 years ago

      the problem is that you aren’t always at your computer. also, front panel controls don’t help in an enterprise environment.

    • puppetworx
    • 11 years ago

    Word on this article – fan speed is such a pain in the butt to have to deal with and control. Automation would be a major benfit to all and oh so easy to implement.

    • nerdrage
    • 11 years ago

    I’m with you 100%.

    My case is full of Zalman FanMates so I can tweak the speed of each fan. It would be much nicer to have BIOS-level speed support so the fans could automatically switch back and forth between low-load and high-load. As it is now, I have to calibrate all the fans for the worst-case high-load and just deal with the extra noise when I’m at low-load (which is 90% of the time).

    Front-panel controllers aren’t much of a solution because I’d just fire up a game and forget to speed up the fans and then everything would overheat and crash.

    • tinkthank
    • 11 years ago

    Intel developed QST just for this. Unfortunately they only provide the tools to modify the configuration and weightings to authorized integrators.

    • Faceless Clock
    • 11 years ago

    I agree whole-heartedly.

    I as writing a case fan tutorial for a website a month or so ago, and while I was doing research, I realized that fan speed controls are limited as a rule across the industry. I had always figured that it was just me, because I was buying budget boards – It had not occured to me that all major motherboard makers could ignore largely comprehensive fan controls. It seem like such a simple, obvious feature.

    But they have ignored it. It doesn’t make any sense, but unless one of the major mobo makers decides to break ranks with its peers, I don’t expect we’ll see any improvements in this area for years.

    • aztec
    • 11 years ago

    fan control?!!! tell me about it! I have an Intel mobo! and I can only run fans at 12v.

    And I had to buy a new set of fans so that they would be quiet @ 12v

    I sure hope Gigabyte has more control of fan speed as rleated to temps.

    • Sumache
    • 11 years ago

    Ahh uGuru…

    I think a few of Abit’s bios engineers went over to Biostar now. The newer Biostar mobos have the same fan controls as Abit had.

    • Ashbringer
    • 11 years ago

    The problem is with the BIOS itself. Though this wasn’t a problem back in the day when I owned my Asus A7N8X Deluxe 2.0. There were so many modified bios that brought nearly infinite customizations.

    I really wanna see a universal open source BIOS that people can customize to their hearts desire. There are a few projects trying to do this but nothing that can be used to seriously replace the existing BIOS.

    r[

      • cygnus1
      • 11 years ago

      huh, never had a problem with bios based flash utilities

      • Nomgle
      • 11 years ago

      /[

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 11 years ago

    Yea, I totally agree. Even a deaf person can here my stupid fans running and it is driving me nuts! The P5Q Deluxe has fan controls for CPU, chipset and classics and they don’t f***ing work! I tried all the sets and none of the fan speeds ever change! Stupid! It has to be the most easiest thing to do. No? The video cards do. WTF?

    So, I guess I will have to put the fan controller that came with my 6 year old Thermatake case and use that. *Groan* I wanted to do away without all the wires. I guess, I’ll just have to be creative and do a little swearing and get it to work the way I want it to.

    We need our full control over something! It is not women, cats or the government, so it must be our computers!!

    • crabjokeman
    • 11 years ago

    Nice blog post.

    Mobo makers: if you can’t put control for all the fan headers in the BIOS, at least make sure the non-processor fan headers support PWM so that all the fans can be controlled with OS software (like SpeedFan in Windoze or pwmconfig in Linux).

    Thanks

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 11 years ago

      I second!! And third! And fourth!

    • Grayscale
    • 11 years ago

    Tell me about it. I just build a system with a Gigabyte GA-MA790GP-UD4H in an Antec Sonata III. The system fan uses a four pin molex connector, and the motherboard doesn’t even /[

    • derFunkenstein
    • 11 years ago

    I always preferred setting fan speeds via some sort of manual switch. The cabling inside the case can be a freakin rat’s nest, though.

    I’d just start up some sort of DC app (SETI@home has been my pref), crank the fans all down to minimum, and watch the temps in some sort of monitoring applet like Everest. I’d just turn up fans as heat built and within an hour or two you generally had some settings that were the bare minimum speed and noise. Then I’d take that 5.25″ bay and slide it back and mount it to the rear screw holes of the bay and reinstall the blank bay cover. voila!

    I’m still a tinkerer at heart. I guess I could get behind BIOS-level fanspeed control if I could also control the motherboard’s settings within Windows. Every Mac we own has smcFanControl2 installed so I can do the same sort of thing with a software control, and that’s the kind of control that AFAIK doesn’t exist in Windows.

      • nerdrage
      • 11 years ago

      It does exist, it’s called SpeedFan. If you have a mobo with the proper support (hardware + SMBus) it works well. The problem is that the hardware support on the mobo is very inconsistent and mostly non-existent.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 11 years ago

        That’s why I want it from the mobo manufacturer – it just works (in theory).

    • El_MUERkO
    • 11 years ago

    I took the plunge when buying a new case and got an ESA one in the hopes of a fully automated cooling solution, unfortunately it never took off and none of the parts I now have in my machine support it 🙁

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    I never understood the appeal of BIOS-level fan control. They only work well if the on-board sensors are calibrated right.

    IMO, if you are serious about fan speed control just a get a hardware solution.

    • GFC
    • 11 years ago

    I agree 100%, if they can make 99 options for memory timings (which probably most of us don’t even know what 90% of those options do), why they can’t let us adjust the fan speed the way we want?

    • Mourmain
    • 11 years ago

    The answer is probably that stuff like memory timings won’t damage anything, but bad fan settings might. And the motherboard makers probably couldn’t be bothered with the complaints.

    Maybe.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      You mixed those up. Bad memory timings are the shortest route to physically damaged chips, while bad fan control will usually only result in a warmer computer, and the worst case is some quickly fixable failure.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        Did you really just say that incorrect memory timings will physically damage memory chips?

          • Pax-UX
          • 11 years ago

          I’ve just read it, yes he did.

        • nerdrage
        • 11 years ago

        And last I checked, the shortest route to physical damage in a PC was heat, not memory timings.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      I’m sticking with my ‘it would cost a few cents (or maybe even close to a dollar!) in parts’ reasoning.

    • Palek
    • 11 years ago

    While I am not familiar with BIOS programming I imagine that implementing linear fan speed control with hysteresis should not be that difficult. Are there any systems that do this already? I don’t think anything else is needed…

    • Pax-UX
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve had 3 Shuttles all with “Smart Fan” enabled, while limited to 4 different speed grades, it more then fulfills my requirements, this is my living room media PC and is never doing anything overly intensive. Generally I don’t like the idea of having software control my fans, even on a Laptop there’s always a temp monitoring program running and I’ve an external tray with 2 fans to cool the underside, to try and limit laptop fan burnout.

    Fans just aren’t sexy, OK I’ll admit it, they’re a little bit sexy, plus on my gaming PC there’s a proper FAN controller so I can set them up the way I want. ATI’s 4870X2 fan controls are awesome and I’ve two settings: Idea & Gaming, but for something like the system, easy access is important and the ability to change everything; so on the front of my case there’s switches & turning n00bs controlling everything. I like to be the master of my fans!

      • Anonymous Coward
      • 11 years ago

      My Shuttle will actually overheat (and crash) when gaming if the fan control is left on automatic. When the room is warm, I have to set to a higher, fixed, fan speed in the BIOS. I thought older ones let the user set a temperature at which to up the fan speed but mine is not so fancy.

      Also my PBook G4 can sometimes crash if the poor little CPU works too hard without air movement around the body, and my Lenovo T61p from work overheats its GPU so fast its not funny (at all). The fan speed control apparently doesn’t event consider CPU temperature. Very badly done.

    • crazybus
    • 11 years ago

    I gave up and just 7v modded any fan in my system that spun faster than 1000rpm.

    • GTVic
    • 11 years ago

    The real question is, why haven’t they done away with the BIOS altogether?

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      How can you advance to the next thing when the current one is lacking not by design?

      • WillBach
      • 11 years ago

      Lack of 32-bit Windows support for EFI? I could be wrong, I’d be happy to hear from someone who knows more about EFI.

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Bottom line Cost……

      I suspect the upcoming 2TiB MBR limit will end-up being the driving force that make motherboard guys adopt EFI.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Ohmygosh, lots of blogs on TR now! I like it.

    And yeah it really shouldn’t be too hard to provide simple speed control by voltage percentage with a few choices, that should really be standard. Advanced temperature-based control with varying speed should be an advanced option selling point. PWM doesn’t cut it because not all fans are PWM. It won’t happen because it probably adds a few cents in parts to each mobo.

    Personally I prefer static speed settings. In all of my own builds I either choose a fan that has the right speed out of the box or do some sort of fan controlling. Fan speed oscillating up and down bothers me more than components getting a little warm within their operating range.

    • Lazier_Said
    • 11 years ago

    That uGuru screenshot succinctly illustrates its greatest failing: the adjustable voltage range for primary headers is only 8-12V (at least in the AN8 and AN9 incarnations that I have worked with.)

    Fine granularity and adjustable trigger options are wasted with a 4V range. Any fan that is silent at 8V moves hardly any air at 12V either. Setting a higher threshhold temperature so the fan keeps kicking on and off is even more annoying than a 8V hum.

      • Cyco-Dude
      • 11 years ago

      actually, you can set the otes fan headers as low as 6.5v. also, you can set what temp the fan headers respond to (i.e. you can have the otes fans set to the cpu temp, and can then set your cpu fan as low as 6.5v). you aren’t wrong though – it wouldn’t be that hard to have a more adjustable range. the issue of fans hanging around a high temp setting and cycling on and off can be avoided by tweaking the threashold temp a bit, but as another person pointed out a linear fan spin-up as opposed to a simple high / low would be much better.

    • Cyco-Dude
    • 11 years ago

    i thought dfi had pretty good fan control? i’ve never owned one so i wouldn’t know first-hand. i’m still on my abit an8-ultra with said uGuru fan control.

      • Dashak
      • 11 years ago

      I’m on a dfi nf4 ultra-d. bios give you a shutdown temp for three presets (60, 65, and 70C), cpufan fully on if cputemp > (options for 25 to 75C), fully off, fan2 fully on if pwmtemp > (same options), fully off, and nb fan ib uf nb temp > (same options). Also show voltage for atx +3.3v, +5.0v, +12v, +5vsb. Shows temps for those three areas and their fan speeds.

      • CheetoPet
      • 11 years ago

      Theres a lot of room for improvement on my current LT X48 DFI board. 6 fan headers but only settings for 4 of them in the bios, and your only options are a very vague temp min & max’s. Doesn’t work well as I’m watercooling anyway. Had an Asus before this & was a-ok with its BIOS options to set fans to 70% – 100% their rated speed.

    • BobbinThreadbare
    • 11 years ago

    I’m enjoying my Abit AB9pro.

    Other than the pink bios, what were they thinking on that one? I’m embarrassed every time someone sees it.

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    q[

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