Not all that long ago, the CPU contained an execution core, maybe two cores if you were really lucky. And that was it. Everything was onboard and that made your choice of board super critical.
Then AMD wheeled out the Athlon 64 in 2003 and nothing was the same again. The Athlon 64 half-inched the memory controller and a few other functions such as system I/O from the northbridge chip. Since then, the steady creep of migrating features has left the motherboard twiddling its thumbs and thinking up ways to justify its existence.
All Intel's current CPUs, have a memory controller, graphics, PCI Express and more integrated on-die. The end-game here is the system-on-a-chip (SoC), but we're some way off that for PCs. Even if we had reached that point, motherboards would still definitely matter. This is because sockets and wiring cost money, so cheaper boards won't bother with wiring everything up - but that's the future.
In the now, the motherboard still contains some critical features, such as storage interfaces, USB controllers and more. Then factor in things like BIOS quality and functionality and you can forget any notion that mobos no longer matter.
Let's kick off with the assumption we've sold you on the basic notion that motherboards still matter in this brave new age of integration. Then follow that up by dropping a bit of a mind bomb on proceedings.
When it comes to Intel's latest desktop tech, it's actually the platform parts that are arguably more interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the new Intel Haswell family of processors are a bit of a blowout as desktop chips. The CPU part is barely any better than its Ivy Bridge predecessor at stock clock speeds and it looks like its overclock isn't that tasty either.
Yes, Haswell has much improved graphics. The top Iris 5300 graphics with 128MB eDRAM looks particularly intriguing for laptops and maybe even tablets, but integrated graphics on the desktop? Get real. You still want a dedicated GPU if you're even remotely bothered about a spot of gameage.
Which is where motherboards come in. Haswell CPUs may be a bit of a bummer, but they do bring with them the new LGA1150 socket and the new Intel 8 series chipsets. Cue much rejoicing. Well, we say chipsets. The reality is more accurately characterised as merely 'chip'. Namely the platform controller hub or PCH chip. Ye olde northbiridge chip has essentially been assimilated into the CPU.
So what's in the 8 series PCH? Anything exciting? Anything new? Let's begin with the 8 series chipset that's most likely to grab your attention: the Z87 (the replacement for our previous fave, the Z77). The fun starts with up to six native USB 3.0 ports. To that you can add up to 14 USB 2.0 ports.
Then there's a sextet SATA 6Gbps of storage ports. On the one hand, we're grateful for the all-6Gbps spec. On the other, storage throughput is arguably the one area where we're already straining at the leash for more oomph. Pretty much all modern SSDs bump up against the limits of SATA 6Gbps already. Admittedly, drives with PCI express-derived interfaces aren't yet commonplace, but a motherboard ought to be ahead of the curve. You need to have a platform ready and waiting for the latest peripherals, rather than buying a fancy PCI-e SSD and then having to wait for a motherboard to plug it into.
Thus, it's a pity we'll have to hang about at least another couple of years for Intel chipsets and motherboards with native support for something quicker than SATA 6Gbps. Still, you do get Intel Rapid Storage tech with TRIM-enabled RAID functionality. So the overall package is about as SATA as it gets.
There's one other snag with all this native USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps goodness, and that's the feeble DMI 2.0 interface that connects the PCH chip with Haswell CPUs. Yup, it's the same DMI 2.0 interface seen on Intel's last two mainstream platform (you know, the one that maxes out at 20Gbps). Remember, a single USB 3.0 connection can hit 5Gbps. So, that's six of those, six SATA 6Gbps ports and anything non-graphics attached via PCI express (more on that in a moment) sharing 20Gbps. Yeah, that's some fairly major suckage.
Next up, graphics. While the PCI express lanes for graphics are actually in the CPU, it's the mobo chipset that effectively exposes them. In the case of the Z87, you get the lot. So, that's 16 lanes in either 1x 16-lane single-GPU or 2x 8-lane dual GPU configuration.
But hold on; because it's PCI express 3.0, it doubles the bandwidth per lane and means the dual-card graphics on a Z87 board has as much bandwidth as a full dual 16-lane arrangement has with PCI express 2.0. Nice.
Cheap as chipsets
Elsewhere there's Intel HD audio and a gigabit ethernet interface. Oh, and up to eight spare PCI express lanes for peripherals. As for the digital display interfaces, they've actually migrated on the CPU die with Haswell. That said, you'd still find variation in terms of the actual ports motherboard makers choose to hook up. Finally, as with the old Z77, the Z87 is the only chipset in the new 8 series range that gives you full access to overclocking features in the K series chips.
So that's the elevator pitch for the Z87. What about the other new 8-ers? The B and Q variants are for office rigs, systems for deskbound wage slaves in other words. So, we'll ignore those. Instead, it's the H87 and H81 that might just generate a considerable blip on your personal motherboard-buying radar.
So what do you lose out on with the more mainstream motherboard chipsets? Well, both drop multi-GPU support, meaning you can only run a single discrete graphics card. Meanwhile, with the H81, you can only drive two displays off the on-CPU graphics, compared with three for the Z87 and H87 chipsets. Next up, neither the H87 or H81 officially support overclocking - although that hasn't stopped Asus or MSI from offering just that on their H87 motherboards. Although the fear is that this could be turned off by Intel at a later date.
Then there's Intel's Rapid Storage tech complete with RAID support, which isn't available on the H81. Same goes for Intel's quick-booting smart response tech. The H81 also limits USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps connectivity to two ports each. At this stage, the H81 looks like a bit of a chump. It might make for a cheaper mobo, but it scrimps on far too many features for our liking.
What about the H87? If you're dead set against overclocking your chip, then you're going to lose very little. The same goes for grabbing some hot multi-GPU action. The danger, of course, is that you may change your mind in future. If that happens, a Z87 board has you covered, an H87 leaves you cold. It all comes down to how you judge the value proposition.
And what of AMD?
If you've read this far you might be wondering if we even realise AMD exists. All this talk of Intel Haswell processors, Intel 8 Series chipsets, Intel LGA1150 sockets. Intel, Intel, Intel.
But what about poor old AMD, ah? That's a very tricky question. AMD hasn't brought out a truly new chipset in yonks. The current AMD 9 Series chipset has been knocking about since 2011. For high performance variants, the chip at its heart is the SB950. Frankly, it's not an advance over the SB850 that preceded it or the SB750 before that.
None of them, for instance, have native USB 3.0 support. Intriguingly, however, AMD chipsets for its fusion processors or APUs do have USB 3.0 support. Ultimately, that's indicative of where AMD is headed: it's all about APUs. That's why the much-mooted AMD 1000 Series chipsets - including the 1090FX - were expected to appear in 2012, but remain nowhere to be seen.
Hard facts on AMD's current plans are hard to come by, too. Some sources indicate that AMD next major desktop CPU, Steamroller, will be moved to the FM socket family used by its APU products. Then again, some reckon Steamroller will never make it to the desktop. Likewise, in the long run, features like PCI Express 3.0 support become less critical.
If your plan is to integrate the CPU and GPU, you don't need to worry about providing bandwidth to dedicate graphics cards. In fact, AMD's strategy appears to pretty much assume the elimination of the motherboard chipset in favour of a system-on-a-chip based around AMD's fabled HSA architecture.
So, does all this really mean the end of AMD motherboards as we know them? Probably. Does it mean the end of AMD motherboards altogether? We at PCFormat doubt it very much.