Intel's Coffee Lake CPUs have been with us since October of last year, and they put the blue team back on a competitive footing after AMD's Ryzen onslaught of multithreaded bang-for-the-buck. Today, Intel unveiled a range of new desktop and mobile CPUs that fill out much of its eighth-generation processor lineup, including several new locked desktop parts.
New chips with more cores are just one ingredient in a competitive recipe, though. Intel has so far required the use of its unlocked Z370 motherboards with every Coffee Lake CPU, whether those chips were multiplier-locked or multiplier-unlocked. For budget builders who wanted a cup of Coffee Lake, that fact forced them to pair relatively inexpensive and multiplier-locked Core i3-8100 and Core i5-8400 CPUs with costly motherboards designed for overclocking the top-end Core i5-8600K and Core i7-8700K. In contrast, AMD's Ryzen CPUs have long enjoyed a full range of compatible AM4 motherboards, from inexpensive A320 models to mainstream enthusiast B350 boards and on to the range-topping X370 chipset. Builders of every stripe could find an AMD motherboard to go with their budget largely from the get-go.
Along with their sensibly-priced companion motherboards, AMD's Ryzen 3 and Ryzen 5 CPUs could still claim competitive performance in a wide enough range of tasks that it was often worth pocketing the savings from building with AMD and putting the extra cash toward other components in a system. That advantage became especially stark recently with the arrival of AMD's enviably balanced Ryzen 3 2200G and Ryzen 5 2400G, whose compelling entry-level gaming performance and affordable mobos left Intel's Core i3-8100 and Core i5-8400 looking a bit high-and-dry for folks looking to build do-it-all budget and midrange systems.
Today, Intel is extending a hand to budget builders eyeing its locked-down chips with motherboards built around the new H370, B360, and H310 chipsets. Motherboards built with these platform controller hubs (PCHs) on board should go a long way towards reducing the platform cost associated with Coffee Lake. By forgoing the ability to overclock CPUs or RAM, they provide more sensible foundations for systems built around locked Intel eighth-generation processors.
Unlike Z370 before it, the silicon that underpins these new products actually brings a few new tricks to the table. For one, the silicon that underlies H370 is the first Intel PCH to offer native, baked-in USB 3.1 Gen 2 support. That fact means motherboard makers no longer need to rely on third-party USB 3.1 Gen 2 controllers from sources like ASMedia to bring high-speed peripheral connectivity to their boards' back panels. As a refresher, USB 3.1 Gen 2-compatible peripherals can transfer data at up to 10 Gb/s.
The other major change in H370 (and B360 and H310) boards regards wireless networking support. Traditionally, Intel wireless adapters integrated controller and radio-frequency elements into a single module that slotted into a standard M.2 E-key slot. To get wireless networking on board, vendors could design their motherboards with dedicated M.2 slots for Wi-Fi modules or leave it to builders to add PCIe or USB Wi-Fi radios to regular old PCIe slots. H370, on the other hand, is the first mainstream desktop chipset to employ Intel's Integrated Connectivity, or CNVi, technology for wireless networking.
CNVi moves the logical or control functions of Intel wireless modules into the platform controller hub itself. With CNVi, manufacturers only need to add a compatible companion RF (or CRF) module to their motherboards to enable wireless networking support. At least with the Gigabyte H370 motherboard we have on hand, CNVi isn't a lock-out for other M.2 Wi-Fi modules, either. A simple BIOS switch tells the board whether to look for a CNVi-compatible CRF module or a regular old M.2 E-key Wi-Fi card.
The highest-end Intel Wireless-AC 9560 Companion RF module shipping aboard Gigabyte's H370 and B360 boards with Wi-Fi enabled supports what Intel and its partners are calling "Gigabit Wi-Fi," courtesy of 802.11ac Wave 2 features like 160 MHz channel widths and MU-MIMO. Intel claims speeds as high as 1.73 Gbps from the Wireless-AC 9560, though that speed will likely choke on the Gigabit Ethernet wired links that are typical of most home networks today. It's worth noting that those speeds will only appear in tandem with compatible 802.11ac Wave 2 networking gear, too. The Wireless-AC 9560 CRF also supports Bluetooth 5.0. Intel claims the next-gen Bluetooth spec has greater range, potentially higher speed, better broadcast capacity for connectionless IoT environments, and easier pairing compared to Bluetooth 4.x, although we'd expect—again—that compatible hardware will be required to take advantage. Lower-end companion RF modules like the Wireless-AC 9462 and Wireless-AC 9461 still support Bluetooth 5.0, but they won't support MU-MIMO or the highest 802.11ac Wave 2 speeds.
Beyond the loss of overclocking support, H370 motherboards don't give up much to Z370 models by comparison. The only other notable difference between H370 and Z370 is that only the overclocking-friendly chipset will support CPU PCIe lane bifurcation for Crossfire and SLI configurations. Given the decreasing utility of multi-GPU configurations, we doubt budget builders will miss the ability to pair up GeForces and Radeons.
Both of Intel's top-end platforms get 30 high-speed I/O lanes (or flex I/O lanes) to spread around. Z370 boards can dedicate up to 24 of those lanes to PCIe 3.0 slots, though, while H370 will only be able to dedicate 20 such lanes to PCIe 3.0 slots. H370 and Z370 boards alike can only host a maximum of six SATA ports from the chipset, though third-party controllers could bolster that number. Like Z370 boards, H370 mobos will support SATA RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10 through Intel's Rapid Storage Technology. Only Z370 boards will be able to RAID PCIe storage devices attached to the CPU, however (a new feature that's rolling out to some Z370 boards as we speak).
B360 and H310 put Coffee Lake within reach of every builder
H370 isn't the end of the story for budget Intel eighth-gen-ready chipsets launching today, though. The B360 and H310 chipsets will give every prospective builder who wants to step up to an eighth-gen CPU a way onto Intel platforms. Those chipsets will both support Intel's CNVi technology to drive compatible companion RF modules, but their capabilities diverge from there.
Compared to H370, the B360 chipset can only offer as many as 12 USB ports, and only six of those can be USB 3.0. Like H370, B360 boards can offer as many as four USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports from their chipsets as H370 boards. B360 only gives mobo manufacturers 24 high-speed I/O lanes to route, of which only 12 can be used as chipset PCIe 3.0 lanes. B360 boards will also lose the ability to RAID SATA devices in any form without an add-on controller of some kind, but they'll still support Intel's Optane Memory devices for hard-drive caching.
With those capabilities, B360 boards will likely serve well for builders who don't need tons of expansion slots or bells and whistles like PCIe RAID support (or any kind of RAID support). At the same time, B360 keeps useful features like Optane Memory and USB 3.1 Gen 2 support, should manufacturers choose to implement it. B360 seems like the value favorite for entry-level eighth-gen systems.
The H310 chipset imposes further limits on PCs built with an eighth-generation Intel CPU. H310 will only support one DIMM per memory channel (for two DIMMs in total) from such a CPU. It won't support Intel's Optane Memory modules for hard-drive caching. It'll only offer 14 high-speed I/O lanes from the chipset. It can only be tapped for 10 USB ports, of which just four can be USB 3.0 ports.
H310 also drops USB 3.1 Gen 2 support entirely. It can only provide four SATA ports, and it can only offer six PCIe 3.0 lanes from the chipset. With these limitations, it's likely that H310 motherboards will power only the most basic of systems and serve as the bargain-basement offering on retailer shelves. Be careful that H310's limitations give you enough breathing room when planning an eighth-gen Intel PC.