New 9-Series Chipsets

The big story today is the new Intel 9-series chipsets, the Z97 and H97, which bring updated platform capabilities. Both of these chipsets follow the same principles as previous chipsets and they are largely identical with a couple of subtle differences. Essentially, the Z97 is more focused toward power users and gamers with its multi-GPU support and CPU overclocking functions.

The Z97 can handle dual GPUs with a x8/x8 bandwidth configuration or three GPUs with an x8/x4/x4 configuration. Other than CPU overclocking functions the Z97 also receives Dynamic Storage Accelerator support whereas the H97 doesn't. The only feature the H97 has that the Z97 doesn't is Intel Small Business Advantage.

Intel's Rapid Storage Technology 13.0 is available on both chipsets and now supports PCIe storage making it up to 67% faster than SATA 6Gb/s.

Both of the chipsets can also drive up to three independent displays assuming the connectivity is present on the motherboard. Moreover, both the chipsets will also feature a total of 14 USB ports (six of which are USB 3.0 capable) as well as six SATA 6 GB/s ports.

However, the big news is the native support for new M.2 PCI-Express based storage devices that promises 67% faster performance than SATA 6Gb/s.

Briefly known as NGFF (next generation form factor after mSATA), M.2 is a specification for internally mounted storage and add-in cards. Initially designed for mobile devices the M.2 interface has found its way into desktop computers and the new Z97 and H97 chipsets will play a big role in speeding up its adoption.

M.2 is intended to replace mSATA, which used the PCI Express Mini Card physical layout. Having a smaller and more flexible physical specification, together with more advanced features, the M.2 is more suitable for solid-state storage applications in general, especially when used in small devices like ultrabooks or tablets.

Apart from SSDs, the M.2 interface can also support add-in cards such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, near field communication (NFC), digital radio, Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) and wireless WAN (WWAN) for example.

The M.2 specification provides four PCI Express lanes and one SATA 6Gb/s port, all in the same connector. This enables the use of both PCI Express and SATA storage devices in form of M.2 cards as the SATA and PCI-Express protocols are not inter-compatible. This means that the M.2 connector can plug in both PCI-Express-based and SATA-based SSDs, but is generally PCI-Express-based only. That said M.2 SATA SSDs and M.2 PCI-Express SSDs will exist.

When it comes to the cards themselves they will differ in length with the standards being 30, 42, 60, 80 and 110mm. This means motherboard makers including M.2 on their Z97 or H97 boards need to include multiple mounting points to support this vast range of lengths.

The width of the cards should be universal as the specification calls for them to be 22mm wide but it is possible to go as wide as 30mm. The M.2 cards can also be double sided allowing SSDs to hold more NAND flash modules for greater capacities.