Modern BIOS’s, too much junk in the trunk?
There is a news story making the rounds about motherboard manufacturers and their issues updating older motherboards to support AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series CPU’s. I’ll talk about that of course, but that’s not what I’m on about for this editorial. The main crux of this editorial centers around how socket longevity isn’t always a good thing and the issue making the rounds about BIOS chip sizes is a symptom of a larger problem.
The problem being, forced platform longevity isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s definitely not good for motherboard manufacturers and it’s not even necessarily the best thing for consumers.
The Issue at Hand
Essentially, some socket AM4 motherboards have BIOS ROMs that are too small to accommodate the massive amount of microcode that’s required for broad CPU compatibility. There are just under 60 some odd CPU’s for socket AM4 at the time of this writing. We’ve seen CPU sockets like AM3/AM3+ which had nearly three times as many CPU’s that were supported when that socket finally went end of life or EOL as they say in the industry. So why is this an issue? Its complicated but it stems from the fact that modern UEFI implementations are significantly more complex and require larger EEPROM chips than the BIOS of old.
One major reason for this due to the stylish and even outright gaudy graphical user interfaces found in a modern UEFI BIOS. There are often tons of clickable menus with fancy displays and animations to go along with that. You also sometimes get additional tools which serve very little purpose, but are added in anyway.
Things like the board explorer in MSI’s offerings aren’t all that useful unless you need to reference your configuration and have no idea what the system contains. There are features like a built in secure erase that are useful and provide added value, while others really don’t. EZ mode menus, board explorers, and some other things I’ve seen are fine, but are really fat that can be trimmed pretty easily and not be missed.
You don’t often think about it, but a modern UEFI has all sorts of things we take for granted. Fan control profiles, informative text when you highlight a setting telling you what that setting is and how to use it and so on. RAID functionality, PXE boot capabilities and more require support in the BIOS.
We don’t often think about those features that we don’t use daily. More importantly, modern CPU’s have additional features that require a great deal more code for full functionality. Specifically, AMD’s Ryzen CPU’s have Precision Boost 2, Precision Boost overdrive and a whole list of features that have to be supported in BIOS in order to function. In order for a motherboard to work properly with a CPU, it has to have code to enable support for each and every processor that could possibly be installed in that socket.
The fact is, back in the day, you had CPU’s that only differed in clock multiplier, bus speed and possibly voltage. Otherwise, the CPU’s in a given family were all identical. When new families would come out, they were often close enough in design that they’d still work, but the name string would be wrong.
These days, CPU’s have different core counts, TDP’s, and support for different features such as Hyperthreading or AMD’s SMT and a ton of other potential differences. If you look at AMD’s Ryzen 3000 series CPUs, they are vastly different from their predecessors. There is also a massive increase in BIOS features for overclocking these CPU’s so its not entirely surprising that the size of the BIOS ROMs increased to support them.
The other piece of the puzzle is that motherboard manufacturers have decisions to make when designing and building a motherboard. What size BIOS ROM to use is just one of them. Most motherboard makers tend to use a 128Mbit or 16MB BIOS ROM. There are 256Mbit (32MB) BIOS ROMs out there but this adds to the cost of the motherboard.
Unfortunately, with AMD having spent the last ten years as a budget brand, the 300 and 400 series chipsets from AMD weren’t always treated like premium offerings compared to Intel’s Z270 or Z390. Therefore, you often see cost cutting on the AMD side that wouldn’t necessarily happen as often on Intel motherboards.
People often complained at the cost difference between a premium X470 motherboard vs. Intel’s Z390, citing that the latter cost too damn much. Despite all the rumblings of Intel’s unchecked greed, you do often get what you pay for. There are potentially (but not always) things on those higher priced Intel motherboards that drove the costs up. You get what you pay for as they say.