If a leaked roadmap is to be believed, Intel will introduce a whole new type of CPU in 2014 which won’t fit into a socket on a motherboard, but will instead take over nearly all the functions that a motherboard now performs and will become an inseparable part of it. Since at least the 1980s, when the home and office PCs began to enter the mainstream, the CPU and motherboard have been physically separate devices that fit together. This approach, which we’ve taken for granted for a long time, lets users and manufacturers choose combinations of parts with the right balance of cost and performance for them. It also allows for relatively easy and inexpensive upgrades and replacements in case of physical damage.
Intel has responded by reaffirming its commitment to socketed CPUs for the “desktop enthusiast and channel markets” for the forseeable future, specifically mentioning growth of the enthusiast DIY market as a reason for doing so. However, that wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The company has in no way promised that all desktop CPUs will continue to be available as retail products or at least be replaceable. In fact, the enthusiast market is much more likely to purchase high-end products, which leaves Intel free to reinvent its mainstream offerings as long as a few products are still available in a traditional socketed form.
Intel chipsets circa 2010, showing the integration of Northbridge functions into the CPU and Southbridge.
Naturally, a lot of people are up in arms. This means a fundamental change in the way PCs are built, bought, used and discarded. Choices potentially become limited and costs rise as flexibility is lost. Value-conscious gamers and enthusiasts might be left out in the cold and office IT departments with hundreds of PCs to look after are faced with more difficult upgrades and repairs.
Still, for the vast majority of users today, Intel’s idea might actually make perfect sense. For starters, how many of us actually chose the specific combination of motherboard and CPU inside our PCs? How many manufacturers even offer such choices anymore? We already choose only between “good”, “better” and “best” CPU+motherboard combos, so not that much is actually lost. Large and small vendors alike will benefit from being able to reduce inventory and variables. Post purchase, how many of us actually ever open up our PCs anymore, let alone replace the motherboard or CPU? How many of us need to upgrade, and how many times do we choose to buy a whole new computer instead? That’s the reality of the world we live in, and none of that is affected by hard-soldered CPUs.
Laptops have outpaced desktops in sales for a while now. There’s never been much choice of individual components while buying laptops. If a laptop is too old or slow, we don’t even think of upgrading it (beyond RAM and the hard drive, maybe)—the whole thing is replaced. All the thin and light models sold in the past few years have used hard-soldered CPUs on non-standard motherboards. All-in-one PCs are becoming more popular than ATX towers, and they’re so unupgradeable that you’ll wind up throwing out the CPU, motherboard and monitor when any one component dies. Compact solutions like Intel’s own Next Unit of Computing (NUC) have all the power a home or office user might want today, and almost no part of that device is upgradeable. Given the choice between a hulking desktop tower with custom-picked components and a tiny box that can be treated like any other appliance, which would you honestly choose?
The simple fact is that with the kind of miniaturisation and performance improvements we’ve seen in the years since the desktop PC first appeared, various components have become integrated into fewer ones, and the fortunes of giants have changed multiple times. Motherboards slowly started integrating functions that used to require add-on cards, from basic device connectivity to audio and graphics. CPUs have slowly taken over functions of the motherboard, such as memory control and graphics. There’s no need for many of the hallmarks of a PC today—the big tower cabinet, the room for hard drives and optical drives and now even expansion slots. Apple has made hard-soldered batteries, RAM and solid-state drives somewhat mainstream. Intel is just taking the lead with one of the last remaining frontiers on the path to true System-on-a-Chip designs—modules with all the logic required in a PC, which just slot into an interface for the display, keyboard, mouse and antennas.
Concept motherboard by Asus with integrated high-end GPU and IO, but no expansion slots.
Thinking about it, the move seems completely obvious. Intel already makes the chipsets all its CPUs need, which already include logic for formerly discrete functions such as Wi-Fi, memory and graphics controllers. It’s pushing its own Thunderbolt connectivity standard. It makes perfect sense for them to combine them all into a single product. It is completely conceivable that the 2014 generation of desktop products will be exactly like laptop products. And there could still be high-end platforms equivalent to today’s LGA 2011 to cater to the enthusiasts for whom Intel has professed its undying support. Gamers, content creators and anyone who needs a solid workstation can still have that—or take solace in whatever AMD manages to put out.
In fact, the whole situation could play out very well for either Intel or AMD, if not both. The number-two PC chipmaker has struggled to compete with Intel for the past few years, but could find itself with a new market gap to fill if the speculation is correct. On the other hand, Intel might not mind AMD taking whatever it can of the value market, since it can push ahead with its new mainstream concept full steam without any viable competition in the event of a backlash.
The only major losers here are the motherboard manufacturers, who will lose a huge chunk of the DIY market and will struggle to differentiate their products even more than they already do. Intel could supply reference designs the way GPU makers do today, leaving some room for tweaking and customisation. On the other hand, there’s nothing stopping Intel from shipping its own CPU/motherboard combinations at the cost of its former partners. Some might merge and others might shut down or switch to OEM laptop/AIO manufacturing entirely. It won’t be the first time a tech giant has faded into the background when its core products didn’t have a market anymore—Creative instantly springs to mind as an example.
Two years from now, Intel’s biggest threat to its dominance is likely to be ARM, and it will have to fend off an entirely new category of products rather than a direct competitor. The company is solidifying itself as a market leader right now and using its leverage to move things where it wants to go. Tech keeps evolving, and while we have every right to protest changes that will have negative effects on things like price and flexibility, this particular move doesn’t seem all that bad.