Heart of the PC - 10 Years of Motherboards



If one were to compare the personal computer to the human body, then the brain is naturally the CPU which does all the number crunching. As the common platform where all your PC components are attached to, the motherboard is analogous to the heart of the machine. It is therefore the most important component of your system and the final arbiter of whether you can plug your latest devices and other add-on cards and have them working fine.

While the concept of the motherboard may have its roots in the 1980s, the past ten years have obviously seen its fair share of developments. Most of the changes are inevitable and are determined not by motherboard manufacturers, but by industry giants like Intel that design and build the reference chipsets for its processors. Changes in the processor design, like a new socket with a different number of pins will affect the motherboards too. In that sense, this segment is subject to the changing whims of the PC industry and many of the changes we'll be seeing are related to it. However, while the core logic used by manufacturers may be the same from one vendor to another, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to innovate and distinguish themselves.

At the start of 1998, the reigning processor then was the Intel Pentium II and one of the best chipsets ever released to complement this processor was the Intel 440BX. With a front-side bus (FSB) ranging from 66 to 100MHz, motherboards built on this chipset supported four memory banks for a total of 1GB of SDRAM memory. It used the AGP slot (Accelerated Graphics Port) for discrete graphics, supported the PCI 2.1 standard and interfaced with hard drives using ATA/66 in UDMA Mode 2.

One of the earliest jumperless motherboards from abit, this abit BX6 was one of the many boards that were using Intel's highly popular 440BX chipset. Meant for enthusiasts, this board could go up to 133MHz FSB (unofficially) and came with abit's famous SoftMenu II.

Fast forward ten years later and the latest mainstream Intel P45 chipset has a FSB that goes up to 1333MHz (or higher) and the AGP port had long given way to the version 1.0 predecessor before the current PCI Express 2.0 format. While PATA was still supported through a third party solution, Intel had done away with this interface and its successor, SATA was the de facto standard for interfacing with storage drives. The memory technology standard was also very different from the single channel, single data rate of SDRAM as one can now choose between DDR2 or DDR3 implementations of the P45 chipset. As for the ISA I/O bus on the 440BX, this had been obsolete for many years and fully replaced by PCI and PCIe.

A typical motherboard using the latest Intel P45 chipset circa 2008. Despite the ten-year difference, overclocking and other tweaks are still done through the BIOS while the layout has remained relatively unchanged.

As you may have noticed from our short description, the basic format and layout of a motherboard have largely remained the same. It is recognizably a motherboard, whether you have a modern version or a relic from ten years ago. The ATX form factor and its variants have survived the years mostly intact and while the names have changed, the functionality of the motherboard has not. There is still an I/O bus for communications between the processor and the other devices connected to the motherboard. Dedicated channels exist for the hard drive and the graphics card and even ten years ago, they had USB ports, albeit of the 1.0 variety.

The concept of a Northbridge (typically a memory and graphics controller hub) and Southbridge (I/O hub) to handle different communication tasks has been around for a while now. And though the newer chipsets may not have them as a mandatory feature, motherboards have continued to provide support for legacy devices like the communication ports, floppy drive and PS/2 to name but a few.

Of course, that's not to say that nothing has really changed. For one, modern motherboards have extensive tweaking options available in BIOS. While there were already 'soft' BIOS prior to 1998 (QDI comes to mind with its SpeedEasy jumper-free technology), it was made famous by overclocking pioneers like abit and its SoftMenu, where users could adjust their settings for overclocking purposes inside the BIOS instead of fiddling with jumpers. This concept has by now spread to practically every aspect of the motherboard and is used by all vendors.

We haven't really come very far in ten years as software monitoring tools like this have existed for quite a while and they are as similar in functionality as modern versions. Perhaps the newer versions have a nicer GUI.

One could of course attribute this trend to overclocking enthusiasts and in some way, it's true that many of the extensive tweaks are meant for overclocking, like core and memory voltages. Others however are could be prompted by power users and generally useful for all, such as the ability to flash the BIOS using a utility accessed directly from the BIOS. In fact, the BIOS has become the playground for vendors eager to flex their engineering prowess, with the addition of new and proprietary features.

Over the years, we have also seen the integration of various peripherals onto the motherboard. Again, this is not new as the motherboard has usually included some integrated peripherals, from your onboard audio to Ethernet LAN. Arguably, the modern motherboard is more fully featured than boards of ten years ago, though this can really depend on what price segment one looks at. At the high-end segment, we have seen some extreme configurations where the vendor seemed to have included every conceivable possible onboard peripheral.

Besides the powerful and comprehensive modern BIOS, the modern motherboard is usually designed with a multi-phase power distribution system, in part from the greater power efficiencies compared to a single phase solution and also because the motherboard has grown in complexity and their thermal and power ratings has increased, making it essential to have multi-phase power designs. On a similar note, the printed circuit board (PCB) of the typical motherboard is also usually multi-layered as the complexity of the board necessitates these layers for the required signal traces and partly because some motherboard vendors have jumped on this issue in their marketing to distinguish their products from competitors.

Indeed, quality and reliability are key factors that consumers have demanded over the years and motherboard vendors have jumped onto this trend, leading to an industry-wide practice. For instance, Gigabyte was one of the first to introduce only solid capacitors for its motherboard, which are rated to have a longer lifespan than electrolytic ones. Shortly after that, this use of solid capacitors was observed happening on motherboards issued by other vendors, especially since Gigabyte had followed this move with a marketing campaign touting its use of solid capacitors. Now, it's almost a norm to find solid capacitors on motherboards, more so if it's from one of the bigger brand names.

These industry trends can count on a new 'green' movement that has sprung up in recent years. Aided by multi-phase power designs that are responsive to changes in workloads and are able to adjust the voltages accordingly, vendors have taken every opportunity to tout the energy and thermal advantages of their particular boards. Newer forms of cooling the warmer parts of the motherboard (the Northbridge and Southbridge) have been introduced. While early boards could rely simply on passive heatsinks to do the job, later motherboards came with heatsinks reinforced with small fans.

An extreme example of a large passive motherboard cooler from DFI.

Although the power draw for PCs has generally increased, depending on the chipset, passive cooling has not entirely died out, though some of the heatsinks have grown to become elaborate, heat-pipe based, full copper structures that can dissipate more heat than its simple ancestors. Obviously, for the overclocking crowd, liquid cooling has always been an option and vendors too have responded with designs that cater to this niche.

Compared to the motherboards that we witnessed in 1998, the last decade has rightly seen great innovative leaps in technology. Some of the tweaks that enthusiasts use on a daily basis now would be unimaginable to a similar crowd ten years ago. We have no doubts that with the changes in CPU technology, there will be more to come in the future. For now, enjoy our picks for some of the more important motherboard developments in the past ten years.