An open letter to Gigabyte, Asus, Asrock…

An open letter to Motherboard manufacturers, specifically Gigabyte because they’re my favorite, and I have very little hope for Asus after their Z77 and first wave Z87 boards…

Why do you hate the micro-ATX format so much? And why do you hate thunderbolt?

Gigabyte released three Z77 boards with thunderbolt (and zero at launch for Z87, though a couple have been promised) and the only mATX board was utter trash, and never available in the USA. Why?

(Oh the irony after my mac pro posts, right? Thunderbolt is still a great technology for home users, I just think it’s incredibly presumptuous, condescending and downright stupid for Apple to push it as the only expansion option on a “Pro” class workstation. Thunderbolt is not a viable alternative to internal pci-express expansion.)

Anyway, back to my open letter. Motherboard makers, how hard is it (be honest now!) to make a micro-ATX motherboard with the following:

  1. Decent VRM (all-digital, at least 8 true phases for CPU, preferably IR3550 60A powIRstages.) Honestly Gigabyte is already an industry leader here, just don’t skimp on the VRM because the board is mATX.
  2. Dual thunderbolt ports (falcon ridge/TB 2.0 would be ideal, but 1.0 is fine for most users today.)
  3. Usable pcie slot layout (top to bottom: x16, x1, x16, x1) with a PLX 8747 chip for the x16 slots. I’m aware that the PLX chip is overkill, it’s here to future-proof the board for upcoming/next-gen GPU’s (e.g. AMD 8000 and Nvidia 800 series) in case they finally saturate/surpass pcie 3.0 x8 link speeds, in which case I’ll take the latency hit from the PLX chip. Huge bonus if they can implement auto-sensing to disable the PLX chip if only one GPU is installed, but it must be without adding a dead/unusable pcie slot. Micro-ATX boards can’t afford to lose pcie slots for the kind of switching implementation used on the Z77X-UP7 or new Z87X-OC-Force boards.
  4. Decent quality, isolated audio design (e.g. Gigabyte AmpUp!, etc.) but please just use Realtek ALC898 or ALC1150 codecs. Seriously, go back to the implementation used on the GA-Z77X-UP5-TH; that was probably the best on-board audio ever, so add a headphone amp with an op-amp socket to it.
  5. Intel brand Ethernet/NIC only. Killer might make for great marketing to the “gamer” audience, but for 99% of users, it’s not any better than intel, and can cause compatibility problems with Linux and OSX.
  6. No extra third-party USB 3.0 controllers. Instead, use USB 3.0 hubs like you did on the GA-Z77X-UP5-TH; this again is to ensure easy compatibility with Linux, OSX, etc.
  7. No extra third-party SATA controllers, and no eSATA either (that’s why we have thunderbolt!) Six native SATA 6Gbps ports from the Z87 chipset is fine, don’t waste money on extra SATA, instead spend that on…
  8. Better fan/cooling support. I want to see only PWM fan headers, and all with independent BIOS control. Be sure to include at least 5 headers, though 6 or 7 would be ideal. This is huge for anyone that runs multiple Operating Systems since the included software fan control utilities are almost never released for Linux or OSX, and third-party tools don’t always work, leaving only BIOS control.
  9. For back panel I/O, please don’t include a VGA port, nobody should be using that anymore, so don’t encourage it. Instead, include 1x HDMI, 1x DVI, and the two thunderbolt ports. A HUGE bonus would be some kind of display-port input (two ports to match the dual thunderbolt) to feed discrete GPU signals to the thunderbolt ports, but I understand this might cause problems with intel’s certification. (Apparently only apple is allowed to route disgrete GPU signals over thunderbolt, yay double-standards!)
  10. Also on the back panel, please include clear CMOS, dual-bios-switch, and boot-to-bios buttons. These are handy for a lot of reasons, and when you suddenly need them, it’s a royal pain to have to open your case for board-mounted switches. This can be exacerbated for mATX users, since the downside to most small cases is cramped internals, possibly blocked by GPU’s or other expansion cards, drives, etc.
  11. Please include some kind of USB BIOS flashing/updating method akin to Asus’s “USB Bios Flashback.”
  12. This one is really a personal preference (arguably with limited market) but why not include pcie x1 riser cables in the box so people can actually use the slots that would be blocked by most GPU’s today?
  13. And please for the love of God, do this all on a board with a non-garish color scheme. For Gigabyte, how about an matx board with the new GA-Z87X-UD4H color scheme?

The board doesn’t need to be cheap either, don’t skimp on features or quality to keep cost down. There’s clearly a market for high-end, feature rich mATX boards, and a board with the above features could retail in the $250+ USD price bracket, and still sell, especially if they managed to implement some of the obscure suggestions like PLX auto-sensing, or displayport input for discrete GPU signals over thunderbolt. I’d buy it, and I’m sure a lot of others would too.

Hell, put the board on kick-starter if you really need to gauge market interest, I’ll personally pledge right now to back it up to $300 USD.

The GA-Z87X-UD4H board I mentioned above. Imagine an mATX version of that, but with dual-thunderbolt ports, better audio, better fan control/cooling support, and a PLX bridge to better future-proof the board for forthcoming next-gen GPU’s in SLI/Crossfire.

EDIT: I’d even take the Asus z87 Gryphon board if their “ThunderboltEX/Dual” card wasn’t turning into vaporware (likely due to intel denying them official certification.) So come on Asus, give us a Gryphon with Dual thunderbolt ports, but don’t just trash the bottom slot completely when you route the pcie lanes to the thunderbolt controller; find a way to at least give us an x1 slot there.

And lastly, an ASRock option. I don’t care for the color, but trash the on-board mini-pcie/msata/ngff slots, add dual-thunderbolt, and find a way to keep at least an x1 slot on the bottom, and I’d take it.

Really my point is that there’s plenty of companies today making highly, HIGHLY specialized micro-ATX motherboards, but they all hate thunderbolt for some reason.

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