Intel socket decision may kill PC soul
Intel might shake up the insides of the computer yet again. Photo: JUSTIN SULLIVAN
For many people, part of the PC's charm was that is was possible to tailor it to your own specifications. You could upgrade or replace the mainboard alone, or the processor or both.
But if rumours of an Intel change of tack prove true, consumers who like to tinker with the insides of their boxes will no longer be able to do that. If one of those components fails after adoption of technology that permanently attaches them together, there will be no alternative but to send both to landfill.
Several news sites last week started running stories that Intel was meeting with mainboard and computer manufacturers to inform them that their next-generation “Broadwell” chip would be socket-less.
The socket refers to the way that the processor can be mounted by a cradle to the mainboard. An array of pin connectors then touch the contact points on the processor. If the processor is the brain of the computer then these contacts might represent the neck.
The majority of current PCs use a socket design that allows for the user to replace and upgrade the processor at will. The flexibility to alter and extend the system has been a key differentiator between the PC and other computer systems from the beginning and is often considered to be one of the reasons for its wide adoption and success.
If reports are to be believed - at the time of writing there was no official confirmation from Intel - Broadwell will not continue this trend and will instead use a ball grid array (BGA), which is directly and permanently attached to the system board.
There are several advantage to BGAs. They take up less room, which is why laptops and tablets use them. With less parts, they are slightly cheaper for mass-producing PC manufacturers. Without a socket as an intermediary, there are improvements in heat dissipation which allows for components to be put closer together.
However, the socket-less design requires more sophisticated hardware to attach the processor to the mainboard, making it next to impossible to remove. This design choice effectively excludes small PC builders, home enthusiasts and bespoke system manufacturing from making their own decisions on how best to combine these core components.
I am curious as to how the mainboard manufacturers are going to respond. This is a bit of a double-edged sword - the ability to upgrade processors independently from the mainboard increased a system's longevity. Now having to upgrade both may net them some additional mainboard sales.
At the same time this decision binds the mainboard manufacturers closer to Intel - literally - and favours mass PC producers, as it discourages diversity. Intel competitor AMD could ride in here on a white horse, but unfortunately it is limited by its own struggles. Intel could not have timed this better and the mainboard makers may not have much of a say any more.
Ultimately if Intel takes the socket-less option, we will be closer to making the humble PC just another black box. If a move to a processor design that binds it to the mainboard is indeed imminent, then I for one am a bit sad that the PC will lose a feature central to its character.
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