Is Intel Giving Up Socketed CPUs? Moreover, Does it Matter?

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By Andy Patrizio

Rumors out of a reliable Japanese gossip site have PC enthusiasts and system builders up in arms because it appears that for at least one generation of CPU processors, Intel isn’t going to let you mix and match CPUs and motherboards; the CPU will be soldered to the motherboard, instead.

The gossip first hit on Japan’s PC Watch, a site with an excellent track record for digging up gossip on Intel, often months before anyone else gets wind of things, including the Chinese gossiphounds.

The report (here in Japanese) states that with Broadwell, Intel’s 14nm CPU due in 2014, Intel will eliminate the BGA (Ball Grid Array) in favor of a package where the CPU is soldered to the motherboard, similar to laptops.

Intel’s current product line is known as the Ivy Bridge generation, its first 22nm processors. Coming in early 2013 will be Haswell, which will be a new microarchitecture that replaces Ivy Bridge. In 2014, Broadwell will be the Haswell chip shrunk to 14nm.

Intel HaswellPC Watch said the design changes are due to a focus on power efficiency instead of just shrinking the Haswell chip to a smaller die. One of the graphics on the site lists Broadwell CPUs with a power draw of as low as 10 watts. Most CPUs today only go as low as 35 watts.

Nathan Brookwood, a long time Intel watcher with Insight 64, believes the PC Watch reports. “The PC Watch guys have a pretty good track record. They publish Intel roadmaps that Intel doesn’t give to people like me any more. There was a time when they gave analysts the same info they gave OEMs but they stopped that a long time ago,” he said.

This has led to endless hyperventilating in the PC enthusiast blogosphere, with an endless string of stories entitled “Intel Killing off Desktop Enthusiast PCs?” Intel, for its part, will not comment on rumor or speculation, but calmer heads have said don’t panic.

“They are not going to kill off socketed systems,” said Chris Angelini, worldwide editor-in-chief with Tom’s Hardware. “I don’t think there’s a reason to freak out. The desktop market is such a big market for Intel, they are not going to kill a market that’s so many billions of dollars and they are not going to cede that wholesale to AMD.”

Intel always makes a very high-end enthusiast chip for gamers with far too much money to spend, and it tends to last through the CPU generations. Currently there’s the Sandy Bridge-E line, consisting of the Core i7-3820, 3930K, and 3970X with four to six cores and 10 to 15MB of shared L3 cache. When Broadwell hits the market, Angelini figures Ivy Bridge-E will be around for system builders to make high powered systems.

Besides, Brookwood notes, Intel has been changing sockets forever. It started with the Pentium II and III, which were slotted cards instead of a chip on the board. Then with the Pentium 4 it was back to chips. With each new generation for the last decade, from Conroe to Penryn to Nehalem and Sandy Bridge, Intel changed the CPU socket again.

“That also constrains what people can do in terms of upgrades but I don’t hear anyone complaining over that,” he said.

“Do I see enthusiasts throwing their hands and giving up? No. What’s the alternatives?” said Angelini. “They can still put new graphics cards in their PCs even as Intel improves the graphics engines in its CPUs. There are other bottlenecks in the system when it comes to performance-sensitive tasks; graphics and storage are the two most prevalent.”

And laptop vendors get their motherboards with the CPU soldered in already, and no one can claim a lack of selection in laptops. So the whole exercise seems one of pointless rage.

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