Getting the Most Out Of Your Hardware: Motherboard/CPU Utility Roundupby Ryan Smith on December 12, 2007 12:00 AM EST
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Lost but not forgotten, we’re back again with the second part to our guide to software utilities for enthusiast hardware, this time taking a look at the motherboard & CPU side of things. If you missed our previous piece on video card utilities, we’d recommend reading it first as we are going to pick up from where it mostly left off.
As was the case with the video card guide, we seek to establish a guide for advanced/enthusiast users for what makes for good software and what software packages are critical towards getting the most out of your system. As an inherently subjective process we will not be awarding software like we do hardware - enthusiast-level software often is a smorgasbord of features that fails to neatly fall in to categories like hardware - but we will be identifying those notable software packages that are of best design and most use, and what strengths and weaknesses they may possess.
With that said, things are vastly different when looking at motherboard & CPU side of things. While for video cards both AMD and NVIDIA design their entire line of consumer products with support for tweaking, including adding a small amount of hardware to assist in that, this is not the universal case for motherboards (and the CPUs that reside in them). What software-accessible features we see for motherboards are almost always a kludge on the parts of clever programmers and motherboard designers, and frankly it all works out very poorly.
As the largest chipset vendor (an extension of being the largest CPU vendor) much of this is due to the actions of Intel. This isn’t to blame Intel, they haven’t been doing anything evil or wrong, but they are the market leader and as a result exercise a great deal of influence just by what they do or don’t do. In this case they have not gone to any great lengths to allow software access to their chipsets; with the multitude of markets they cater to they’re naturally going to focus on stability and other factors that are of greater importance to more normal computer users. They’re also understandably a bit sheepish on overclocking, a unique problem with CPUs not having nearly as great of a spread in performance as video cards (Q6600 anyone?).
For that matter the rest of the chipset manufacturers have largely followed the status quo set by Intel, with the only notable exceptions so far being actions by NVIDIA and very recently AMD. Since the late Athlon XP days, NVIDIA has offered some software control over their chipsets via their nTune utility. But this functionality is heavily dependent on motherboard manufacturers doing their part to enable such functionality, resulting in the whole mess being very hit & miss – it’s there but it can’t be counted on. NVIDIA’s ESA standard aims to change this, but then again even their own platform wasn’t supposed to be so fragmented in the first place. As it stands we think ESA is a strong bet going forward, but right now it’s still more a dream than reality, and even if everything were to go to plan it will be years until such a level of tweaking abilities became consistent for motherboards as it has for video cards.
Meanwhile AMD has only jumped in to the game this month with their very impressive OverDrive utility. But because it’s quite literally brand new and is only supported on a single chipset so far, it’s not something we can fairly pass judgment on. It’s too early to determine if it will be any more effective than NVIDIA’s nTune, considering only a handful of people have motherboards that can use it at the moment.
This brings us to the current situation, where as of today most motherboards don’t even support software controlled tweaking, and what few do is covered by a hodgepodge collection of utilities from motherboard manufacturers and third parties. Most of us are still limited to the trusty-yet-antiquated CMOS for our tweaking needs.
But this isn’t just an article to talk about how the first-parties have struggled to develop meaningful tweaking utilities. There are several great information and diagnostic utilities that work with virtually all motherboards, virtually essential for any computer enthusiast. While by no means a unified offering, they are as a whole a very powerful toolset that make it possible to get away with such significant CMOS tweaking and will be the focus of today’s article.
With that said, we’ll start with a deeper look at what few first-party software tweaking utilities exist and how they currently stack up before moving on to our much larger look at diagnostic & information utilities.