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The Intel Z490 Chipset

Due to the new increased power requirements of the top-end 10 core Intel processors, Intel has changed the socket once again, moving from the LGA115x family onto LGA1200. The physical dimensions of the CPU package have not changed, and all LGA115x coolers will work in the new sockets, but it does mean that these new processors won’t work in old motherboards. Instead, we get a new family of 400 series, with the flagship Z490 being at the forefront of all the motherboard manufacturers’ marketing materials/

From Intel, the key difference for MT29F2G08ABAEAWPE comes in networking. Integrated into the Z490 chipset is an Intel Wi-Fi 6 CNVi which allows motherboard vendors to integrate its AX200 wireless solutions directly from the chipset with a CRF module. On Z390, this was limited to 802.11ac / Wi-Fi 5, but Intel has stepped up its game with Wi-Fi 6. Motherboard vendors still need to purchase the CRF. In a similar vein, the chipset now supports a 2.5 gigabit ethernet connection through single PCIe 3.0 x1 lane, however this requires purchase of an Intel I225 network controller. Other controllers require using a PCIe lane.

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The Z490 chipset and Intel 10th Generation Comet Lake desktop processors have a total combined PCIe count of 40, which is 16 from the CPU and 24 from the chipset. What’s interesting is how similar the Z490 and Z390 chipsets are in terms of specifications, which adds the question of why Intel has opted for a new socket, on what is effectively a refresh of its 14 nm process node.

Intel retains the support of its Optane memory modules and uses dual-channel memory, up to DDR4-2933 with Core i9 and Core i7 parts, or DDR4-2666 with all other processors. The Z490 chipset also retains the same 30 HSIO used for any PCIe add-in card or controller, such as USB controllers, ethernet ports, sound cards, RAID cards, etc. Motherboard vendors use controllers such as the ASMedia ASM3242 chip to offer USB 3.2 G2 and 20 Gbps connectivity. This effectively allows vendors to implement fast Type-C connectivity.

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The Z490 chipset supports overclocking with Intel’s unlocked processors, which was expected. While it is not recommended to overclock the clock generator (BCLK) as it’s tied into multiple areas where stability is a large factor, Intel has enabled support for DMI and PEG overclocking which has now been separated out to have no effect on SATA ports and such.

After looking through the specification sheets of all the Z490 options, there was one obvious sticking point to all the press materials. The motherboard manufacturers all had to build their systems for processors that didn’t exist yet. Those that mention they contain PCIe 4.0 also mention Rocket Lake processors, which are what we assume to be Intel’s next-generation (11th Gen?) hardware. These processors will also have the same LGA1200 socket as these motherboards but clearly will have access to some form of PCIe 4.0 compatibility.

This means that the motherboards have to be built with Rocket Lake in mind. That being said, we assume that Rocket Lake hasn’t even been built yet – or at least, even the early stage silicon is probably not ready. This means that the motherboard vendors have to work on specifications and standards provided by Intel, some of which could possibly change by release, but also some of these specifications could drastically vary from Comet Lake (10th Gen) to Rocket Lake (11th Gen?).

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We already know that PCIe 4.0 is a differentiating factor, but what about the number of PCIe lanes? Comet Lake only supports 16 lanes from the processor, and so most of these Z490 boards are built with that in mind. But if Rocket Lake supports more, say 20 PCIe lanes from the processor, then that leaves four lanes to add an M.2.

In order to support this M.2 slot from the CPU on Z490, the motherboard vendors have to put in the required switches such that the slot works on both Comet Lake in PCIe 3.0 mode and Rocket Lake in PCIe 4.0 mode. Either that or disable the slot completely for Comet Lake, because it would end up reducing the main PCIe slot to an x8 due to bifurcation.

This is but one example, but depending on memory support, power support, graphics support – all of these mean that motherboard manufacturers can take Z490 in one of two ways. The one that most vendors seem to be doing is to make their boards hybrids – suitable for both Comet and Rocket, but not really mastering one. For users intending to upgrade mid-cycle without a motherboard change, these hybrid designs are probably best.

The second option is to make specific boards for the specific chips, despite technically supporting both: making the Z490 the best board it can be for Comet Lake, and then some future board (Z590?) being the best board for Rocket Lake. Personally, I prefer the latter, because I’d like the best out of my processor. However, prices of the best motherboards are matching (or even surpassing) that of the processor, which makes the quandary a little more complex than on first glance.


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