‘Intel Kills the PC?’ or ‘How we learned to love the socket!’…

Website PC Watch has this week created a storm in a teacup, an internet buzz of exceptional proportions. Releasing a leaked Intel CPU roadmap doesn’t normally create waves of this size; this particular roadmap however contained one small nugget of information that had chins wagging, Intel is planning to kill off the CPU socket, killing the hand built PC in the process.

Intel’s next generation socket to go with its Haswell CPU’s (2013) will be dramatically different than the current generation of drop in sockets. The Haswell CPU’s will be soldered directly onto the motherboard. The socket won’t disappear completely, just become a very flat set of solder pads. The CPU’s will however become permanently attached to the motherboard.

A change that has many media pundits declaring the sky is falling, for home PC builders in any case. Here at Highpants we doubt that many of the technoid commentators have ever held a screw driver let alone popped the hood on their PC.

The CPU socket is in itself a high-tech wonder, with a thousand connectors running through an inch square of space, signals racing at incredible speed, sent out to control the machine. This complex collection of wires and connectors forms the nervous system for our modern Babbage machines.

Intel Celeron Pin Grid Array on display.

Surprisingly all of this drama revolves around the underside of the CPU, a view of a processor not often seen.

The CPU socket is an evolving beast, having to keep pace with both motherboards and CPU’s. For many years Intel CPU’s sat on an array of pins that locked into the PGA (Pin Grid Array) socket. Intel transitioned to balls in 2006 creating a more efficient socket called the LGA (Land Grid Array) socket, which at the time of release was described as a hybrid surface mount package. The new Haswell CPU’s will use a fully surface mounted (soldered) socket called the BGA (Ball Grid Array) pad.

This is a shift that Intel could work around, adding extra pins, improving chip packages are only a couple of options available. From Intel’s point of view though they get a generational improvement without any work, a free next generation socket without the R&D costs. These costs however are minimal when compared to the behind the scenes savings, in essence pulling out of the retail sales market completely, selling directly to manufacturers, would save Intel considerable amounts of money.

The players most affected in this drama are the motherboard manufacturers. Intel would sell the CPU’s directly to these manufacturers, as a consumer we still get to choose motherboard and CPU combination. Intel however has lower packaging costs for the CPU’s, and with no more retail sales of CPU’s the supply chain woes disappear.

Intel’s Land Grid Array, no pins just bumps.

Complicating matters even more for motherboard manufacturers is the fact that at any one time Intel has hundreds of CPU models on the market. If each motherboard had to be manufactured with each of these a model or SKU nightmare would quickly evolve. For example if a motherboard manufacturer had 10 models to sell, each with 10 CPU options 100 different motherboard models would be required. Which will be the most popular and how many are needed in the warehouse? For Intel all of this adds up to a major win win situation, as soon as it’s attached to the motherboard it’s sold, removed from Intel’s books and now the motherboard manufacturer’s risk.

All other components that make up the tapestry of decisions when designing and building your own personal computer remain the same. Case, keyboard, graphics cards, hard drives and memory all need to be chosen and assembled. Do you purchase a separate audio card or go with the motherboards audio?

While soldering the CPU to the motherboard does cut your easy upgrade options it’s not that great a loss. In the last 10 years the Highpants gaming rig has had one CPU upgrade without changing the motherboard, often there is no choice as the socket seems to change with every generation of CPU.

The Herald Sun has even been reporting the end of the PC customizer’s world! The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. George Wright in the article points out that if either your CPU or motherboard fails both will be sent to landfill. Highpants PC labs have had CPU failures in the past, when a CPU goes you smell it, hear it and sometimes feel the explosion. In the past after such failures the motherboard, CPU and power supply were all swapped out, replaced just to be safe.  Having the CPU soldered to the motherboard would have changed nothing in situations such as these.

Intel’s Ball Grid Array, already used by the 960 motherboard chipset.

While many Intel fans would like to think the PC world is a one CPU world there is another player, AMD. AMD has no plans replace the socket, still using the PGA socket it’s doubtful they would have enough sway with motherboard manufacturers to pull it off. Will AMD become the custom builders CPU of choice? Possibly, the day after they are purchased by ARM Holdings, makers of the ARM CPU’s used in smartphones.

As Mark Twain once said ‘The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”, the same could easily be said for the PC. The over-reaction to this piece of news has in many ways been more headline worthy than the original story, quickly differentiating those that know and those that report. In fact many home PC builders may be quite insulted by the tone of the media’s coverage of this story.

The desire to build customized personal computers has far less to do with the hardware of the day than it does with people and how we express our individuality and personality. Add to this a little healthy competition and you begin to enter the shady world of building your own computer. Building your own rig is an artform of the technoid kind, and an obsession for many.