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PCIe 3.0 mainboards start to tip up

Are we there yet?
Tue Jul 05 2011, 16:14

MOTHERBOARD VENDORS Asrock, and more recently MSI, have announced their latest flagship motherboards, which carry Intel's Z68 chipset that meets the PCIe 3.0 standard.

PCI Express 3.0 brings a few changes that will have a huge impact, in particular when it comes to storage and graphics, the two greatest bandwidth hogs on the farm. The new PCIe 3.0 specification will initially double data throughput on the PC I/O bus interface, from the current 5 gigatransfers per second in PCIe 2.0 to 10 gigatransfers per second, or from an aggregate 16GB/s to 32GB/s, if you want something more measurable. Skimming through the PCI-SIG PCIe 3.0 specifications, this is a gain in efficiency rather than a simple doubling of features. Less overhead, improved signalling, that sort of thing.

With Intel's delay of PCIe 3.0 enabled chips - Ivy Bridge, in this case - and a huge demand for bandwidth, both Asrock and MSI have come forward with PCIe 3.0 motherboards. However, despite having added the necessary signaling and switching chips required to make PCIe 3.0 happen, they will still ask you to plug in an Ivy Bridge CPU to enable the full benefits of the PCIe 3.0 interface. You know, the kind of benefits that will only be available in the second quarter of 2012.

This somehow falls into the camp of 'future-proofing'. Future-proofing is an age-old marketing gimmick used by just about any company peddling its wares. It implies that you're buying something right now for a feature that will give you free benefits sometime down the line.

In the CPU and motherboard market it's been used to good measure by AMD with its socket policy, where - unless a huge architectural change is in order - a new family of CPUs will be backward compatible with the previous socket at the cost of a BIOS upgrade, and so forth. You needn't buy a £250 motherboard to later move on from a socket AM2 to AM2+ CPU or from socket AM2+ to AM3 CPU.

We rang up MSI to get some clarification on the matter. Our local MSI rep told us that while it is PCIe 3.0 it isn't quite like having the real thing, and he wouldn't focus too much on the feature as the main selling point. What MSI has done, in fact, is add a PCIe 3.0 chipset to the motherboard that, while it isn't quite in the same league as Ivy Bridge PCIe 3.0 support, has provided it with some 14 per cent performance gains in benchmarks like OCZ's Revodrive, so it seems it's worth it if you're barmy about SSD. MSI has no information in hand with regards to graphics performance improvement.

We don't want to knock the technical achievement side of things. Both Asrock and MSI did some serious work on these motherboards. Both models, the Asrock Fatal1ty Z68 Professional Gen3 and MSI Z68A-GD80 (G3), have been equipped with everything you might want. Asrock has even gone so far as adding an extra PCIe 2.0 controller chip to give you eight extra PCIe 2.0 lanes. However, the key selling point - as per the press releases - would be the PCIe 3.0 feature itself. But that won't fully perform until you buy an Ivy Bridge CPU sometime in the future, at which point you'll ask yourself, "Why?"

In this case you're buying a quasi-PCIe 3.0 until the real thing comes along, and when the real thing does come along you might question whether you really needed the kit in the first place.

The fact of the matter is that Ivy Bridge will handle the PCIe 3.0 interface directly, so the full benefits of PCIe 3.0 will be enabled when you plug one in. This means that even if you're the daring high-roller who likes to buy the latest and greatest, you'll still be stuck in second gear until Ivy Bridge comes along, at which time official support for PCIe 3.0 will begin. We can't wait to ask the shop assistant at the local PCWorld store. µ

 

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