informa
/
4 min read
article

Best Bits: Motherboard Integration as Profit Center, Part 1

PC makers like what moving functions such as audio and video from add-in cards to the motherboard does for their bottom line. Should you?
I’ve ranted against integrated motherboard components for more years than I care to admit. Luckily, or perhaps showing some wisdom as I age, my list of absolutes has shrunk as the years have passed and I’ve been willing to modulate my opinion to account for innovation and ingenuity. Still, motherboard integration remains high on my watch list.

Some things were obviously and immediately logical: Taking disk interfaces and I/O ports off stand-alone cards and gluing them to the motherboard made perfect sense -- at least it did once we got off the cassette standard. So did integrating keyboard, mouse, serial, parallel, USB, FireWire, and any other ports needed for input/output (I/O). Let’s face it, a computer without any means of getting data in or out of it hardly fits the honest concept of a computer. And what some smart college-boy designer probably figured out was that while you’d lose some money by not being able to charge extra for those things, putting them on the motherboard made them cheaper to produce. The overall result was that you could charge a wee bit more for the computer, less than it would cost with the stand-alone attachments, and end up selling more computers because they were cheaper and perceived to be a better value.

(And smart consumers went for the deal because they reasoned that having all the extra stuff created by the same manufacturer as the computer and integrated into the system meant they’d hopefully have fewer problems and finger-pointing if something went bad. Seasoned consumers are typically value and blame oriented.)

My first real argument with this whole integration deal was when sound was added. For $15 (or so) of components, resin, flux, and solder, sound was available without the need for an $80 (or more) add-in card. That would surely revolutionize motherboards! In a word, nah. At that point, Creative’s Sound Blaster had become the de facto standard for computer audio and the attempts at duplicating its abilities were feeble at best, a castrato in comparison.

Naturally it was meant to lower the overall purchase price but, in reality, consumers often waited about a week so they wouldn’t feel silly for doing it, and then went out and bought a sound card. Aside from now making the computer more expensive, the additional problem was that not every motherboard manufacturer had figured out how to lock out the integrated audio correctly when a stand-alone sound card was added. There was also the annoying existence of reasonably priced 4:1 speaker systems that required 2 audio outputs while the motherboards only had one. And gaming, without a kick-bass subwoofer, was like kissing your sister. Oh the horror!

That’s changed. Thankfully, it’s swung so far in the other direction that Creative is seriously exploring ways to get its audio chips on motherboards rather than invent more odd names for its cards that don’t sell as well as they should. But that now brings us to video.

Back around the turn of the millennium, someone thought that a sub-$1,000 PC would be a great idea. (You have to be kind to the folk of that era. Most also thought the new calendar millennium began in 2000 and not, when it actually did, in 2001. It seemed to be a time of faulty logic all around.) So, after stripping almost everything from a PC but the case, actually chopping the memory content down to Microsoft’s claimed minimum (Ha!), they decided that, as had integrated sound, integrated video would help them meet their goal.

It did, but scrolling down a screen became a graphic version of peristalsis. Worse still, gaming, the steroid of computing, was impossible in that environment. Many of the day’s pundits openly mocked the arrangement but when push came to computer manufacturers’ shove reviewers often retreated to the safety of the opinion panacea, “It’s more than adequate for web surfing, e-mail, and typical computer chores.” Balderdash.

Nor is that my final word on integrated video. We’ll pick it up from there next time.

Bill O'Brien can be blamed for more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology topics. With his writing partner, Alice Hill, Bill co-authored "The Hard Edge," the longest-running (1992 to 2004) technology column penned by a techno duo. For more, go to www.technudge.com.