Intel's next-generation Sandy Bridge processors are due out in early 2011. This latest "tock" in the company's tick-tock approach to CPU development will spin a fresh microarchitecture on the 32-nano fabrication process in use since Westmere debuted last year. Arriving alongside Sandy Bridge is a family of 6-series core-logic chipsets. These new chipsets will fuel a torrent of motherboards decked out with Sandy Bridge's updated LGA1155 socket.
With Sandy Bridge's arrival imminent, motherboard makers are eager to talk about what they've lined up to meet Intel's new hotness. Early last week, I flew down to San Jose for a look at what Asus has in store for Sandy Bridge. I saw much at this so-called technical summit, little of which I'm at liberty to share. There are, however, a number of details concerning Asus' upcoming 6-series motherboards that I can talk about. Some of them are rather interesting.
Before delving into specifics, I should note that Asus is readying 17 different 6-series motherboards for Sandy Bridge. Amazingly, that's substantially fewer than the company rolled out the last time Intel introduced a new CPU platform. Asus is trying to simplify its lineup, and 17 models still leaves plenty of room for diversity. Of the 17, 10 will be based on the P67 chipset, which won't work with Sandy Bridge's integrated graphics. Six boards will use the graphics-ready H67 chipset, while one is slated to incorporate its business-focused twin, the Q67.
The most indulgent mobo in this new collection is easily the Maximus IV Extreme, which is the latest addition to Asus' Republic of Gamers line. Among the luxuries included with this flagship P67 model is a new temperature sensor tucked into the CPU socket. This sensor measures the CPU pin temperature, and you won't find it on any of the other boards. That's just one of a number of features that specifically target the hard-core overclocking crowd—you know, the folks who set benchmark records and chill CPUs to sub-zero temperatures using vats of liquid nitrogen.
In addition to lavishing users with overclocking extras, this ROG board taps the Gigabit Ethernet networking Intel builds into its core-logic chipsets. Most motherboard makers ignore this "free" GigE controller in favor of standalone Realtek chips, which we've long suspected are cheaper to implement. Asus confirmed that to be true, but it's nonetheless committed to using Intel networking solutions on more of its motherboards.
While the ROG camp focuses on overclocking, Asus' recently introduced TUF line caters to folks looking for better reliability. Sandy Bridge will venture into TUF territory with the Sabertooth P67, which retains the five-year warranty and military-grade electrical components of its P55 and X58 forebears. According to Asus, these higher-grade components help TUF boards survive the more rigorous "server grade" testing they undergo. These tests involve higher temperature and humidity levels than are used to stress Asus' standard fare, and they also include sub-zero scenarios that aren't applied to other boards. On top of that, TUF boards are put through a "thermal shock" test that oscillates the temperature between extremes of -40 and 85°C.
In keeping with the military theme, Asus drapes the Sabertooth P67 with a layer of bulletproof Kevlar dubbed the Tactical Jacket. Ok, so it's not Kevlar. Or bulletproof. But it's purportedly not just for show, either. The Tactical Jacket is a plastic piece designed to direct airflow over various onboard components. Beneath its flat exterior lies a network of channels that pipes airflow generated by a CPU cooler to auxiliary peripheral chips that would otherwise have to rely on ambient convection.
To complement this shroud, the Sabertooth is loaded with more than half a dozen additional temperature sensors, all of which can be monitored from Windows. Those sensors will surely come in handy to confirm whether the Tactical Jacket actually works or if it's just for show. I'll be able to tell you soon enough, I hope. Rest assured that I already know the answer, and that I'm quite eager to get one of these boards in-house to test myself.
While the ROG and TUF entries in Asus' 6-series mobo lineup are easily the most distinctive, they're far from the only offerings. No fewer than eight different motherboards bear the P8P67 name, including a high-end Deluxe model, microATX variants, and even a workstation-oriented WS flavor. In keeping with current trends, USB 3.0 is spread all over these boards. Some feature as many as four SuperSpeed ports thanks to a pair of two-port NEC controllers or a single ASMedia chip.
According to Asus head of global sales Jackie Hsu, the ASMedia controller will be officially USB certified very soon. ASMedia is an Asus subsidiary, and the motherboard maker is eager to start using the chip as soon as it's endorsed by the USB-IF standards body. I was told by numerous Asus representatives that the ASMedia chip has superior performance to the NEC silicon, a claim we're eager to verify.
Since it would be handy to have access to some of those USB 3.0 ports up front, the range-topping P8P67 Deluxe will ship with a breakout box that puts a couple of SuperSpeed ports in a 3.5" external drive bay. This drive-bay insert plugs into the motherboard with a single connector, so you won't have to worry about dealing with a mess of individual pins.
Each and every one of the ATX models in Asus' 6-series lineup features a new VRM system dubbed Digi+ VRM. As the name implies, digital VRMs are used throughout. Rather than being governed by the CPU, VRM behavior is dictated by Asus' EPU microcontroller, which scales the number of power phases up and down and monitors the temperature of the power regulation circuitry. This system is said to have lower latency than analog designs, allowing for faster phase switching and more efficient power delivery.
Digi+ VRM can power the CPU with just a single power phase or ramp up to as many as 16 on the high-end models. Users will be able to tweak the VRM frequency in 10MHz steps. They'll also be able to adjust the load-line calibration, which prevents the CPU voltage from dipping under load, using a Windows utility that won't require rebooting for changes to take effect.
Although less exotic than digital VRMs, another element to Asus' new 6-series motherboards is a slight change to the fiber weave that makes up the circuit board. Normally, traces run parallel or at right angles to the direction of the fiber weave. With its new boards, Asus is keeping the same weave pattern, but rotating it slightly so that the traces don't run along the same lines. This change decreases the size of the gaps that the traces must traverse, resulting in better signal delivery, according to Asus.
Motherboard makers are always looking for new ways to differentiate their products, and Bluetooth looks like a big focus for Asus' 6-series mobos. Each and every ATX board has Bluetooth onboard, and so do a number of the smaller-form-factor designs. Thanks to Asus' BT Go! software, users will be able to overclock their systems with compatible Bluetooth phones, synchronize contact lists, and transfer data. You'll be able to connect Bluetooth peripherals, too.
Asus has a handful of microATX boards ready for Sandy Bridge, including models based on the P67 and H67 chipsets. The latter board will sport an array of display outputs that hook into the CPU's new integrated graphics component, which looks to be much improved over Intel's previous efforts on that front.
I tried to pay more attention to the microATX offerings, but I was entirely too distracted by the P8P67-I. This Mini-ITX midget packs everything but the kitchen sink. PCI Express x16 slot? Check. USB 3.0, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth connectivity? Check. 6Gbps SATA ports and dual digital video outputs? Check. Heck, the board even has a PS/2 port, eSATA, and a digital S/PDIF audio out. The only compromise seems to be the use of laptop-style SO-DIMM slots, a necessary evil to save board real estate for all those integrated peripherals.
As we always do when talking to motherboard makers, we brought up the issue of fan speed control and, specifically, the fact that Asus' latest implementations haven't worked with three-pin DC fans. That should be rectified with these new 6-series boards, which will intelligently control fan speeds with both DC and four-pin PWM fans. You'll be able to adjust fan profiles via the usual Windows app and in the BIOS. TR regulars will recall that Asus is doing things differently on the BIOS front, and I wish I could elaborate. I really, really do. But I'm sworn to silence, at least for now.
I can share one more tidbit, though. There has always been some debate in tech circles over how to pronounce the Asus name. Not too long ago, Asus set the record straight that ah-soos was the correct pronunciation. The company has since changed its mind and is now going with eh-soos. So, there you have it.