When looking at a motherboard specification, you cannot help but notice the chipset version. In fact, most motherboards are named based on their chipset. So what is motherboard chipset?
The quick and dirty definition of a motherboard chipset is that it is a traffic control and communications center that manages the transfer of data between the core components including the processor, memory and the peripherals. The model and the version further determines the components that will be compatible with the motherboard.
The chipset also determines if the computer can be overclocked and to what extent on top of dictating future system expansion options.
The three criteria laid out above are essential to consider when looking to acquire a new chipset, and this article lays out why, but first, a brief history of this component.
A Brief History of Motherboard Chipsets
The early days of computing saw implementations that involved a large number of discrete integrated circuits.
The implications of this; a separate chip for each component, that is, one for the keyboard, a separate one for the mouse, another for graphics, and so on.
It is easy to see the design flaw in this implementation, and it proved very inefficient in the real world, creating the need for a system that integrates these disparate chips into fewer chips.
Also Read: What is LPX Motherboard?
Introduction of Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) Protocol
The introduction of the Peripheral Component Interconnect bus perpetrated the bridges design.
This new design implemented a northbridge and a southbridge with two chips, each with particular purposes and duties.
As implied by the name, the northbridge was located on the top of the motherboard, opposite the southbridge.
This new chip had a direct connection to the central processing unit and higher speed components like the PCI Express controller and RAM had to use the northbridge if they wanted to communicate with the CPU.
The southbridge handled onboard audio and networking, USB ports, SATA and IDE connectors, PCI bus slots, and other low-speed components.
If these components wanted to communicate with the CPU, they had to go through it, then the northbridge before finally reaching the CPU. The word “chipset” came as a consequence of the fact that it was indeed a set of chips.
Contemporary PCI Express
Today’s design is an improvement of the bridges design but is hardly a set of chips since many components are now directly handled by and integrated within the CPU.
In this implementation, higher speed functionalities were moved into the CPU and the rest into a second chip that looks more like the southbridge chip mentioned above.
This implementation reduced the number of hops lower speed components had to make before reaching the CPU. Another effect is reduced latency, making for a more responsive system.
So What is Motherboard Chipset?
As stated above, the chipset is very important because it determines a system’s overclock ability, expansion options, and component compatibility and version.
We will discuss them in order.
The buses in a chipset determine how much expansion room is available on a system.
These buses connect both peripherals and system components to the motherboard. Motherboards generally have external and internal buses.
The primary internal bus is called a Peripheral Component Interconnect Express bus. This bus uses lanes to facilitate communication between the CPU and multiple internal components such as network controller, audio controllers, USB controller etc.
For clarification, a lane is made up of a couple of pairs of connections, one to send and the other to receive data. A 1xPCIe then has four wires, a 2x eight, etc.
In this case, more wires equal to more data transferring ability. The number of lanes available for use depends on the lanes on the motherboard and the CPUs bandwidth capacity.
Overclocking is making a CPU and memory run at speeds higher than its design specification. Overclocking is usually used to improve performance without monetary costs.
Now, overclocking increases heat output hence higher power usage, which leads to instability and decreased component lifespans. The costs avoided by overclocking will be incurred on bigger fans and heatsinks.
Other caveats are: overclocking is ideal for certain CPUs, and only certain chipsets allow for or can be enabled with special firmware.
For instance, the best CPUs to overclock are Intel and AMD models with K in their names. If overclocking is an absolute requirement, one can check their BIOS or UEFI for the controls that come with chipsets that allow for it.
A Look Into Different Chipsets
We implied earlier that Intel chips are among the few that come with the best properties on the market.
Intel supplies multiple types of motherboards, and it may seem like a drag trying to determine which to buy.
The company launched the Z370 in 2017 then proceeded to flesh out the full 300-series lineup, featuring an extensive array of motherboards complete with new features lacking in Z370.
That was not all, though, as they soon introduced Z390 boards simultaneously with their 9th-gen processors.
We will look at the H310, B360, H370, Z370, and Z390 chipsets.
Intel Z Series
The gold standard for these chips is made up of the Z390 and Z370 motherboards.
For instance, they are the only ones that support CPU and memory overclocking. They come with the highest number of RAID storage options, potential USB ports, and PCIe lanes, offering the most high-speed Input-Output lanes.
These superior numbers allow manufacturers to add more features as they like. The following description of the Intel chipsets starts with the Z390 motherboards.
Intel H Series
H370 motherboards are best suited for more settled users who don’t like tinkering with the hardware.
Unlike the Z390 and Z370, they do not come with support for all Rapid storage technology features, multiple graphics card setups, and, most of all, overclocking.
Intel B Series
B360 motherboards are where the underwhelm begins; almost non-existent RAID support, fewer PCIe and HSIO lanes, and fewer USB ports.
Optane Memory support and USB 3.1 Gen. 2 ports seem to make for excellent consolations, making them a utility for mainstream computers.
H310 motherboards are a far cry from the gold standard; there is no support for either Optane Memory technology or PCI-E 3.0., just the slower PCI-e 2.0. Its memory configuration supports one DIMM per channel, a reduction in the overall bandwidth. There are also no RAID options.
300 Series in General
H310, B360, H370, and Z390 chipsets come integrated with support for the 10Gbs USB 3.1 Gen. 2 ports.
The implications of this are much faster tech on affordable motherboards but fewer HSIO lanes. These series 300 boards implement most wireless networking functionalities in the platform controller hub.
The extra hardware adds to the cost of the motherboard, so one should not expect to see Wi-Fi support on all H370, B360, and H310 boards, especially the cheaper options.
H310, B360, H370, and Z390 boards come with standby features that save energy by letting the computer sleep when it has been inactive for a certain period of time and resumes quickly upon reuse.
So what is motherboard chipset? It is basically the most important component of a motherboard itself. It is the critical piece that helps in transferring and communication data with the rest of the components.
Modern computers have come a long way from the original disparate-chip implementation.
Current implementations hardly feature a set of chips since all functionalities are implemented on one chip.
The bridge design was the precursor to the current design. The chipset a system runs is important because it determines what parts it is compatible with, expansion options, and overclock ability.
An in-depth look at some of the most significant chipsets produced by Intel reveals the improvements and best uses for each.
Few instances require overclocking, and so one should research the chip they run before attempting to overclock because sometimes the benefits derived do not upset the cost incurred.
Specific chips address cases that require overclocking, and research is needed to find out the best to use.