WHILE GADGETS like smartphones, netbooks and tablet PCs will be closely followed at this year's Computex here in Taipei, the usual bread-and-butter stuff - PC components - are still here in huge numbers to see. Prior to the opening, we had a quick glimpse of what the news will be among key vendors, and how their overall strategies look to be shaping up.
Intel continues to dominate, and its large pavillion in the new Nangang hall, surrounded by a gazillion component vendors, is witness to that. There will be three major mainboard updates: X58 LGA1366 socket boards offering combinations of the six-core Intel Core i7 980X CPU with Quad SLI and Quad Crossfire support, or microATX size; the last update of P55 mainboards on the LGA1156 socket accomodating unlocked Intel Core i7 875K CPUs, and a similar H55 mainboard update for the Intel Core i5 655K processors.
In the first category, the Gigabyte X58A-UD9 as well as Asus Rampage III Extreme and small Rampage III Gene will be here, and in the second category, a board like the MSI Big Bang that adds the Lucid Logix Hydra200 chipset to support more PCIe lanes and hybrid parallel GPU support will be shown. Even higher up the performance chain - at the very top, that is - you'll see the first showing of the final retail version of the dual CPU EVGA SR2 enthusiasts mainboard, the one that we exclusively benchmarked a month ago. And yes, pretty much all of them have USB3 and SATA3 on board, despite there being no chipset support for these as yet.
Each of these updates is, in a way, the last hurrah of its generation: the X58 chipset is expected to be replaced by the X68, but then the Sandy Bridge generation looms large over it anyway. It'll replace the P55 even earlier, as the first Sandy Bridge launch platform is expected to be replacement for the LGA1156 Lynnfield processors. And, of course, there'll also be the dual CPU platform late in the first quarter of 2011 to replace the dual LGA1366 Xeons as well. So, what you see on this Computex show floor is the last refresh before the Sandy Bridge when it comes to PC mainboard production for Intel CPUs.
As for the AMD side, the recent launch of the Phenom II X6 processors and 890 chipset series propelled the performance and feature set of AMD systems somewhat closer to the top range of Intel offerings - not fast enough yet to offend the Core i7 980X, but good enough to compete against many of the mid-range Lynnfields at least. Most importantly, the mainboard features of the Gigabyte and Asus models I saw match the features and overclocking tweak capabilities seen on the top X58 or P55 boards on the Intel side. Not bad, knowing the downward pricing pressure the AMD boards face due to lower CPU pricing there.
Now, these boards will support the last update of the Intel CPUs pre-Sandy Bridge, as well the last update of AMD Phenom II processors prior to its Bulldozer platform refresh. Both of these major transitions should happen at the end of this year and the beginning of next year, so the current generation CPU updates expected by the vendors include speed bumps one step above the Intel Core i7 980X and related Xeon X5680 to about 3.6GHz; one more bump for the LGA1156 Core i7 to 3.2GHz - we're talking base non-Turbo clock speeds here - as well as AMD Phenom II X6 updates to about 3.6GHz as well. Generally, the most current BIOS updates for the new models seen here should support all of these speedups.
The question here is, should you go ahead with these mainboards now, or keep what you have for another six months or so before the next generation comes out? My view is that, if the performance right now matters to you, updating at this moment is fine. After all, both Sandy Bridge and Bulldozer, being brand new platforms, will pass through a few refreshes of their own fairly early in the 2011 launch year period. So, the initial buys there at the early stage might not be the smartest choices either.
Secondly, this last X58, P55/H55 and AMD 890 board product update showcases what are by now very mature platforms from the point of performance, tuning, features and of course stability. Support for multi-channel DDR3-2000+++ memory, 3-GPU or 4-GPU operation in various configurations with or without Nvidia Nforce bridges, automatic overclocking without burning up the CPU, chipset and memory through excess voltages, and new peripherals like teamed dual port Gigabit Ethernet, USB3 and SATA3 at full bandwidth potential, everything is there. On top of that, the power consumption and system use optimisation has been done thoroughly there as well over the past few rollouts for all of these chipsets, including for the similar AMD 790 series earlier.
Finally, you might see some vendors having this Computex as their last major mainboard and PC component show, too. In parallel with the CPU, chipset and board platform refresh towards the new year, there is some consolidation expected in the PC component industry, with only a few large vendors and few performance niche vendors remaining. The likes of Asus - with Asrock and Pegatron, hopefully not all fighting each other internally within the group - and of course Gigabyte are expected to remain the overall market leaders, while MSI and even Intel's own mainboard division may 'de-emphasise' their presence in this field. In the performance niche, EVGA is expected to stay put with new souped-up offerings, while DFI may instead de-focus from mainboards to the more profitable mainstream embedded work the company does. For the other players like once mighty ECS, or Biostar, one might now see a clear future in the mainboard field, as the competition and margins get tougher by the day. Personally, I hope that the field doesn't get too sparse, as we still need players to keep the market game exciting. µ