Motherboard makers craving affordable USB 3.0 solutions

Alternative sources still waiting for certification, but no-one really cares

Once the motherboard makers get ready to launch new models based on upcoming chipsets from AMD (AMD) and Intel (INTC), expect to see a much wider range of USB 3.0 host controllers than we’ve seen to date.  Many of the board makers have grown tired of the limited options they’ve had so far. Despite lack of USB-IF certification we’re starting to see more and more boards use alternative solutions to the predominant one from Renasas (JP:6723).

In the end it seems like the USB 3.0 host controller monopoly has been broken not because of poor quality products or even certification concerns, but simply because of cost limitations. A Renesas µPD720200 USB 3.0 host controller today costs about $5 once it’s fitted to a motherboard with most of the bits that are required for it to work correctly, which is a fair chunk of money as far as a motherboard peripheral controller is concerned. That’s why most of the more affordable motherboard models have had to make do without USB 3.0 or been limited to two ports at the most, while higher end models have had two or in some cases even three host controllers fitted.

Our understanding is that Taiwanese Etron (TT:5351) offers its EJ168 controller for a much more reasonable cost which ends up at less than half of that of Renesas solution once fitted to a motherboard. ASMedia and VLI shouldn’t be much more expensive either and although we only know of one implementation of VLI’s four port host controllers, we’re seeing a lot of models with Etron and ASMedia chips. This is unlikely to change and it once again brings us to the question about how much USB-IF certification counts for.

On an interesting side note, we’re hearing that the Etron controller, despite being a slightly larger chip, outperforms the aging Renesas µPD720200 by quite a fair margin when used with faster SSDs. Although this in itself isn’t really news to us, as Etron was making claims of this all the way back at Computex last year. Expect to see some real competition between the USB 3.0 host controller makers this year, as the motherboard manufacturers are looking for solutions that not only offer better performance, but also cost less. As an added bonus we can also expect to see motherboards with additional ports much lower down the price range than we have so far, something no-one’s likely to complain about.S|A

Updated: 7 April 2011.  corrected “affordable models” to be “higher end models”

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