Musing on the state of motherboards

Manufacturers routinely ask us what we think of their current products and what we'd like to see from future ones. Sometimes, I get the impression that they're genuinely interested in our input. Other times, I feel like my girlfriend is asking me what she should wear. My suggestion of a particular tank top, short jean skirt, and knee-high American Apparel socks—you know the ones I'm talking about—inevitably falls on deaf ears. She's only interested in my opinion if it aligns with an outfit already on her mind. And that's never it.

We don't hold our opinions back here at TR. So, when an email hit my inbox a couple of weeks ago asking for a wish list of features for a new enthusiast board based on Intel's upcoming Z68 chipset, the wheels started turning. Before long, I began to feel an old-man rant brewing. As someone who's been reviewing motherboards at TR for nearly a decade, I'd like to think that I have a few morsels of wisdom that might be useful to the powers that be in the motherboard business.

This has all happened before, of course. I penned a memo to motherboard makers more than four years ago, and I'm emboldened by the fact that most of my demands appear to have been met, if only by coincidence. There are, however, a handful of issues that have persisted despite my whining. So, let's beat up on a couple of dead horses before moving on to fresh meat.

We begin with my favorite pet project: BIOS-level fan speed controls. The vast majority of even high-end motherboards are stuck with rudimentary fan-control intelligence and precious few configuration options, especially for auxiliary fan headers that often have zero speed control at all. Contrast that with an overflowing bounty of frankly excessive voltage and overclocking options, and one is left wondering if motherboard makers really think there are more enthusiasts engaged in sub-zero overclocking than are trying to strike the perfect balance between cooling performance and noise levels. Someone's been huffing the liquid nitrogen at those overclocking contests.

If Zotac can fit Wi-Fi on a Mini-ITX board, why can't everyone else with full-size ATX?

Another problem I had with motherboards of old was the prevalence of models with dual GigE jacks but no built-in wireless connectivity. Boards with a single Gigabit Ethernet port are more common these days. The second port hasn't been replaced by Wi-Fi, though; it's just gone. I'd wager that all but a handful of enthusiasts have a wireless router in their homes. Why should they need an add-in card or USB adapter to use it? Bluetooth might as well be included, too—I bet it gets more action than the seventh and eighth SATA ports tied to omnipresent auxiliary storage controllers.

The last bit of unfinished business from my original memo concerns how gracefully motherboards recover from a failed overclocking attempt. Most of the time, they'll attempt a reboot or two before springing back to life with the last collection of settings that worked. Bravo! However, things don't always go smoothly, and users are sometimes forced to reset the BIOS manually. Doing so usually involves digging around inside the case to flip an onboard jumper. Seriously? You'll let me overclock remotely with my iPhone, but I have to dig around inside the musty confines of my overstuffed enclosure because your BIOS's auto-recovery scheme failed? I see plenty of room in pretty much every port cluster for a BIOS reset switch. Look:

All the latest in cluster connectivity and still loads of room for a CMOS reset button

I also see a lot of USB 2.0 ports built into modern core-logic chipsets—probably more than most folks need with the advent of USB 3.0. We can afford to lose one of them to an onboard flash drive loaded with a Linux-based OS much like Asus' original Express Gate implementation. Keep Express Gate's web browser so that users can easily download the latest BIOS and drivers before a fresh build. Add a monitoring app and some stress-testing software, allowing tweakers to dial in the perfect overclock without the risk of corrupting their OS. Finally, throw in a file browser to aid system recovery in the event that the OS does get hosed. If all of that can be squeezed into a UEFI BIOS, even better.

Generally, I suggest that people with halfway-decent headphones or speakers (anything nicer than a set of iPod earbuds, pretty much) invest in a budget sound card like Asus' excellent Xonar DG. There is merit to onboard audio in certain circumstances, though. If you happen to be running speakers or a receiver with a digital input, most motherboards can pass along a pristine digital bitstream via their S/PDIF outputs. Unless the motherboard is capable of encoding multichannel bitstreams on the fly, however, multichannel digital output is limited to the pre-encoded audio tracks that accompany movies.

Surround-sound audio is nice to have when you're gaming, and you don't necessarily want to lose it if you have to put on headphones when your significant other complains about the volume of your late-night gang bangs—in Bulletstorm, of course. Virtualization schemes do a reasonable job of simulating surround-sound environments with stereo headphones, and I can't wrap my head around why this isn't a more popular feature among the growing crop of supposedly gamer-oriented mobos. The Realtek audio codecs virtually guaranteed to appear on enthusiast boards have optional software support for real-time multichannel encoding and surround-sound headphone virtualization, yet few mobo makers take advantage. They should.

If these military-class components are ultra durable, why only three years of warranty coverage?

The quality of onboard components like capacitors, chokes, and MOSFETs has received more attention in recent years. Some of these parts have exotic unobtanium cores, while others meet stringent military standards for overall goodness. Motherboard makers love talking about 'em, whether it's claiming to be first to use a particular MOSFET design, boasting wildly about hard-to-quantify improvements in overclocking stability, or waxing on about improved durability. Yet even with components we're led to believe are capable of surviving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, enthusiast boards typically carry a measly three years of warranty coverage. Weak.

Premium hard drives come with five-year warranties. Ditto for PSUs, some of which can be found with even longer coverage. Graphics cards from a handful of manufacturers are sold with lifetime warranties, and some of those extend through the first resale. Sure, there are a million more things to go wrong on a motherboard, but Asus is confident enough to offer five years of coverage with its new Sabertooth line. If other motherboards are as reliable and durable as the manufacturers claim, longer warranties should follow.

All the cool kids are wearing black and blue this spring. Bask in the generic sameness!

One could argue that motherboards look a lot better now than they did a few years ago. Gone are the neon hues, multicolored port arrays, and general lack of taste that typified enthusiast models of old. However, I'm starting to notice an alarming trend toward virtually identical black-and-blue color palettes. When we rounded up Sandy Bridge mobos from Asus, Intel, MSI, and Gigabyte earlier this year, it was hard to tell them apart without looking at the manufacturer names silk-screened on the circuit boards.

These attempts at aesthetic sameness often fall short of the mark when viewed in a vacuum, too. We've seen chipset and VRM coolers whose colors don't match, racing stripes that don't line up, and ornate heatsinks seemingly machined to chew off the maximum amount of flesh when you're tightening a CPU cooler's retention screws. Chicks don't dig those kinds of scars.

I'm hardly advocating a return to the days of day-glow designs. Designers should be able to come up with their own sense of style without looking over their shoulders to see what everyone else is wearing, though. To be fair, as someone who hasn't had a case window in years, I really don't care all that much about a motherboard's appearance. However, if there's going to be some visual flair, I'd favor distinctiveness over a failure of originality. Is that really asking too much?

Is any of this?

I know I've been going on for a while now, but I don't think I've been unreasonable. The motherboards we have today may be marvels of engineering, but they could certainly be refined to better serve my needs the needs of PC enthusiasts. So, how about it, mobo makers? Can you at least put on the socks?

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