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Leaked Intel roadmap points to the end of socketed CPUs – and upgradable PCs?

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by Joel Hruska, 27 Nov 2012Features
Leaked Intel roadmap points to the end of socketed CPUs – and upgradable PCs?

For the past thirty years, desktop system longevity has been defined by sockets. I cut my teeth as an enthusiast on Socket 7, and I’ve owned examples of virtually every AMD and Intel socket standard that followed. For the past eight years, Intel has used an LGA (Land Grid Array) socket in which the actual contacts are on the motherboard with contact points on the CPU. This packaging has served the company well; it’s scaled the number of contacts from 775 to 2011 on Sandy Bridge-E, and had no trouble with high TDP parts.

According to rumours at PCWatch, the socket may be circling the drain. Leaked roadmaps show Haswell as the last Intel chip slated for an LGA package. All of the Broadwell parts on the map are dual and quad-core SoCs with 47-57 Watt TDPs that would be soldered to the motherboard, using BGA. Dual-core Broadwells also pick up the 10 Watt and 15 Watt form factors; the same article suggests Intel intends to abolish the 35 Watt TDP segment altogether.

DDR3 DRAM, attached to the PCB using BGABGA (Ball Grid Array), is a mounting technology that uses small balls of solder to attach a chip directly to contact pads on the logic board. It’s used widely for DRAM, embedded CPUs, and other surface-mount chips, but is more difficult to troubleshoot/repair.

So what would this mean for enthusiasts and system builders? Nothing particularly good. It would mean no more CPU upgrades – there’s no way to swap out an embedded CPU. Information on the potential benefits is rather scattered. Moving to BGA can help reduce form factor thickness, but LGA chips are sometimes more robust after repeated power cycles.

Presumably Intel believes it can improve device thermals by lowering electrical resistance. There’s no reason to think OEMs would stop selling motherboards; chips would simply be embedded directly by the OEM and shipped to the customer.

It’s easy to jump on the “Intel just wants to sell more chipsets” bandwagon, but I think that’s the wrong lens to use. First, desktop sales have been declining for years. Chips in every other platform are already embedded. The number of enthusiasts that actually upgrade their CPU has always been a fraction of the total number of desktop sales. With desktop sales in general decline, that means the additional desktop chipset volume is an even smaller share of Intel’s potential business.

The other nagging reality is that desktop CPU advances aren’t what they used to be. A mid-range system can reasonably be expected to last three to four years these days, possibly longer with a GPU upgrade.

On the other hand, this would cost people some upgrade opportunities. Today, a builder on a tight budget can opt for a low-end Ivy Bridge CPU like the dual-core Core i3-3220 (3.3GHz, 3MB L3, HT-enabled) with the option to step up all the way up to a Core i7-3770K (3.5GHz, quad-core, 8MB L3, HT-enabled) without switching motherboards. If Intel goes to full embedded, that won’t be possible any longer.

As an enthusiast, it’s not a change I’d personally be thrilled with, but it dovetails with Intel’s plans to push x86 into lower power configurations.

We should make it clear that this really is a rumour. Even if true, it’s possible that Intel would offer both embedded and standard x86 options, particularly if it perceives a need for high-end consumer platforms with more than four cores.

AMD to the rescue?

Normally, we’d bill this as a golden opportunity for AMD to grab some enthusiast cred from Intel, but we’ve a feeling that’ll depend on the company’s ability to remain solvent through 2014, as well as its need to regain lost CPU performance vis-à-vis Intel. AMD has no plans to move to a BGA array, however – at least none that we’re aware of – and enthusiasts might find refuge in the company’s products come 2014.

Image Credit: PCWatch

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