|The State of Intel Desktop Motherboards|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by Olin Coles|
|Saturday, 08 January 2011|
The State of Intel Desktop Motherboards
How an industry leader remains at a disadvantage in the market they created.
The view from the top is very nice, but the price of admission is an unpleasant reminder of what it takes to lead an industry. Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), formerly known as Integrated Electronics Corporation, is the world leader in computing innovation. Intel designs and builds the essential technologies that serve as the foundation for the entire planet's computing devices. With very few serious competitors in the microprocessor segment, Intel enjoys a dominant lead over an entire industry. Strangely enough, the sentiment runs opposite when you analyze their motherboard segment.
Very recently Benchmark Reviews tested the Intel Sandy Bridge processor series that was launched for mainstream consumers. Supplementing our processor launch, we also published articles on the Intel desktop motherboards DP67BG and DH67BL and also featured the ASUS P8P67 and P8P67 EVO motherboards. Most visitors positively welcomed the new technology, and made plans to purchase Sandy Bridge products as they became available. In the various discussions around the web, community members asked which motherboard brand offered the best solution. More often than not, those asking for advice listed brands such as ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, ASRock, and Biostar. This had me wondering: why not Intel?
Apparently there's a major misconception when it comes to the desktop motherboards Intel sends to the media. Despite the inaccurate description by some media, Intel's desktop motherboards are not 'reference designs' at all. They are actually retail-boxed motherboards that sell side by side with the other brands, and not simply a product used as the starting point for other manufacturers to build from. After further research, it seems that many of our own readers have discounted these Intel motherboard reviews and somehow considered them less important than those solutions offered by Intel's partners.
There's a lot of irony here, because Intel's desktop motherboards are generally much less expensive then other products with similar features and specifications. The qualification process for Intel-integrated components ensure that desktop users get the stability and longevity of server-quality hardware. In fact, since Intel offers the industry's best warranty policy and customer service record, it seems to me that it would be easy for them to seize the leadership role in the motherboard segment as well. Nevertheless, they remain at a disadvantage to their competitors. Because Intel is the industry leader for so many technology innovations, everyone watches them.
Intel's business partners, who are also eventually become their competitors, look up to them (as well as each other) for feature concepts that can implemented on an upcoming product line. Using the Sandy Bridge series motherboards as an example, Intel had to start the engineering phase of their H/P67-Express products followed by hardware qualification and later present designs to their partners in preparation for a new business cycle. This allows their partners to observe the native functionality, and implement (often superficial) features beyond this to create brand identity. Intel then goes on to sell their fully-tested and qualified motherboards on the retail market, while their partners release products of their own with even more bells and whistles.
It's true what they say about perception: it's reality. It doesn't matter that performance between each and every Intel P67-Express motherboard will always be within 5% of each other; consumers will believe that bigger heatsinks and a higher price tag will promise them more product than another. Competitive overclocking aside, casual computer builders fall into this marketing trap and completely dismiss entire brands because of their price or appearance. But what do you get for your money?
In our review of the ASUS P8P67 EVO motherboard, I focused most of my attention on proprietary features and functionality. In many ways, you could say I played into the marketing propaganda, and forgot that these items also add potential instability to the system or incompatibility with Operating System drivers and other software. I did, just like you will, forget that the motherboard industry includes Intel first and foremost... not as a 'reference' alternative. In the end, if Intel really wants to secure the leading position among motherboard manufacturers it will come down to product pricing.
ASUS is currently the market leader in motherboard sales, followed by Gigabyte, then Intel, and MSI. The recent Sandy Bridge launch has really caused some manufacturers to think outside of the box, while others simply filled the box with dozens of similarly-featured options. ASUS traditionally offers a value line of products, then mainstream, followed by performance, and finally an enthusiast series. Gigabyte attempts to compete by matching segments with some of their own products, but their prices have occasionally been higher than the leading solution. MSI differentiates itself by only concentrating on the enthusiast segment, as evidenced by the launch of their P67A Big Bang Marshal motherboard at the 2011 CES.
For Intel to win this segment, they must successfully complete three difficult tasks: 1) convince consumers that they're as good or better than the competition, 2) continue to offer aggressively priced motherboards, 3) deliver features not available from their partners. Without taking a firm position with their business partners, they will have no choice but to continue accepting defeat in the motherboard market.