In the golden age of motherboards there were dozens of manufacturers and profit margins were nice and healthy. Manufacturers could differentiate themselves based on performance, quality and features. The CPU folks had a different plan in mind. AMD and Intel have been on the road to integration for the past two decades and the motherboard manufacturers have largely suffered because of it.

When the memory controller was in the chipset and there were 3 or 4 competitors in the chipset space, motherboards actually performed differently. These days the memory controllers are integrated onto the CPU die and performance is as high as possible. SATA, audio, ethernet and USB are all either fully integrated into chipsets or only require a small support chip on the motherboard itself. Within the next decade or so these features will move onto the CPU die as well.

My first 430VX motherboard that eventually spawned into AnandTech set me (actually my parents, I was 14) back around $130. Prices haven’t really changed, yet the expectations from end users have gone up. Granted there’s this new ultra high end market that didn’t really exist back then, but the majority of motherboards sold have far more features and don’t cost much more than what they used to.

The pressure is on the motherboard makers to deliver affordable P55 solutions. Without affordable motherboards, Lynnfield will fail - so Intel and end users are both expecting a healthy supply of ~$100 motherboards. As I’m about to show you, doing so is quite difficult.

This is the LGA-1156 socket:

The socket itself costs a couple of dollars, but even that is significantly more than LGA-775. The motherboard makers I spoke with pegged the LGA-775 socket at well under $1 per socket. The bulk of the 1156 socket isn’t the cost of the device, but rather the licensing fee that has to be paid to Intel for each socket. I’ve heard numbers approaching $7 per socket, per board once you include the licensing fees. As volumes go up, the price per socket will go down, but for smaller manufacturers this is a tough pill to swallow. It’s far easier to build an expensive motherboard than it is to build a cheaper one.

Intel realizes this and helps the manufacturers with rebates and marketing assistance. So the license fee ultimately may be lower for some makers but getting specifics on this is impossible. Worries of lawsuits abound :)


Click to Enlarge

For the most part the motherboard makers look at the socket and associated licensing fees as part of the chipset cost. Despite Intel moving the north bridge and memory controller on die, Ibex Peak, otherwise known as the P55 PCH is no cheaper than P45:

Chipset Price
Intel X58 IOH $70
Intel P55 PCH $40
Intel P45 MCH $40
Intel ICH10R $3

 

If you start at $40 for the motherboard, you’ll need to add another $10 for a 6-layer PCB. A 6-layer PCB is necessary if you want to run SLI at this point, otherwise you can get by with a cheaper $5 4-layer PCB. Mentioning SLI also requires validation and support from NVIDIA. That’s $30,000 up front plus an average of $5 per motherboard.

  Low End Mid Range High End
P55 PCH $40 $40 $40
NVIDIA SLI License $5 $5 $5
6 Layer PCB $10 $10 $10
Audio Codec $2 $2 $2
PCIe Gigabit LAN $3.50 $3.50 $7.00
Power Delivery Circuits $12 $16 $23 - $55
Misc PCB Components $8 $12 $15
Heatsinks $6 $10 $25
Labor/Overhead $9 $10 $24
Logistics/Sales $9.50 $13 $18
Total Cost $105 $121.50 $201

 

An audio codec and Gigabit ethernet will together set you back about $5. Figure more for more expensive codecs and another $3.50 if you want dual GigE ports.

P55 motherboards will have a range of 4 to 24-phase power delivery circuitry. Each phase costs about $2 in components although the high end motherboards with high quality MOSFETs/chokes/capacitors will reach $3 per phase for the digital solutions. If we look at Gigabyte’s 24-phase UD6 that would be about $48 just in power delivery circuitry for the motherboard without volume discounts.

The power connectors, switches, LEDs, I/O back panel and other components on the motherboard cost anywhere between $8 and $15 depending on the type of motherboard. Figure $8 for an entry level micro-ATX board and $15 for the highest end boards with slots and ports aplenty.

What about those fancy copper heatpipes and elaborate heatsinks? They start at $6 and go as high as $25 for the really high end motherboards with high-content copper blocks and pipes.

Then there’s assembly, labor and overhead in testing and producing the motherboard. You can count on about 10% of total material cost for an entry level board, 12% for midrange and 15%+ for the high end boards. The lower the volume the higher the overhead; the more testing required, the higher the overhead as well (gotta make sure those $250 boards work right).

The final costs are related to packaging, sales and actually getting the boards to distributors. Figure about 10% per board on average.

All of this roughly adds up to a low end board costing $105 without worrying about profits. It's only through rebates or very large scale manufacturing that a motherboard maker can even come close to making a profit on an entry-level board. Mid range boards are a bit easier to make but my mid range estimates are definitely on the lower end of the spectrum. For the high end you're looking at raw costs over $200, but at those price points it's far easier to turn a profit.

While we'll definitely see P55 motherboards hit the $100 price point, it's worth realizing how difficult that is to do. As P55 matures, these costs will fall (particularly the chipset) but initially it's going to be a tough race to the bottom.

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  • ViRGE - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    SLI is because the manufacturer already ponied up the $30K+ license fee, so they've already paid their fixed cost. They're going to want to spread that cost around as much as possible by making everything SLI capable. Reply
  • blyndy - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    [quote]The bulk of the 1156 socket isn’t the cost of the device, but rather the licensing fee that has to be paid to Intel for each socket.[/quote]Another reason why CPU sockets should be international standards. Ultimately, with signalling fast enough we should see chipless motherboards with no integrated silicon and just functioning as an interconnect by having ~12 PCIe v4/5 slots.

    PS where's the preview button? The quote function doesn't work.
    Reply
  • Sagath - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    Where is the associated cost of R&D into these boards? Electrical Engineers have to be paid to design, redesign, and redesign the redesigns to get these boards out the door.

    I'm sure its hard to put a quantitative price on this, since every extra board that is produced lowers the 'overhead' of these costs. But on the high end boards that are (figuratively) limited quantities, I'm sure this can add up.
    Reply
  • Spoelie - Saturday, August 22, 2009 - link

    BIOS writers? Reply
  • Penti - Saturday, September 5, 2009 - link

    BIOSes and tools are bought from Phoenix or AMI. Makers should do much engineering except there custom layouts and hw settings. It's something that pretty much identical on all boards. AMI and Award aren't huge companies like the ODMs/contract manufacturers are. Costs is likely not large. Reply
  • proneax - Thursday, August 27, 2009 - link

    based on the quality of many BIOS I'm guessing unpaid interns? Reply
  • Rajinder Gill - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    We also need to factor in long term support costs, additional staffing requirements the list goes on. On top of all of this, there has to be a profit margin that makes the whole excercise worthwhile for the vendor.

    I think the per phase costs might be a little off as the capacitors used are subject to volume purchasing (companies tend to use the same value in microfarads across most of the board and product line). Further, the 16 and 24 phase solutions from ASUS and Gigabyte are multiplexed - not even 'real' phases. ASUS use an 8 phase buck controller, employ some phase shifting downstream and then market this as an extreme 16 phase solution. Base switching frequency is 250KHz with an idle ripple in the region of 90mv in some cases (around 50mv) under moderate loads. Gigabyte are employing phase multiplying too. Based upon some slides I've seen recently, it's nothing like 24 phase at all.

    later..
    Reply
  • plonk420 - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    is there a "big list" anywhere of what NB/SB licensing costs? (also TDP) i've been curious about this for quite some time (well, moreso after buying an X58) Reply
  • blyndy - Friday, August 21, 2009 - link

    [quote]The bulk of the 1156 socket isn’t the cost of the device, but rather the licensing fee that has to be paid to Intel for each socket.[/quote]

    Another reason why CPU sockets should be international standards. Ultimately, with signalling fast enough we should see chipless motherboards with no integrated silicon and just functioning as an interconnect by having ~12 PCIe v4/5 slots.

    PS where's the preview button? The quote function doesn't work.
    Reply
  • dawp - Saturday, August 22, 2009 - link

    back in the day, the socket for all processors was the same. didn't matter id the chip was intel, amd or some other maker, they all used the same socket. if i remember right, that changed when cpus went to slots and dropped sockets for a short time. Reply

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