The ability to swap components around has been an expected feature for PC enthusiasts ever since I can remember. Indeed the use of integrated components was traditionally frowned upon as they were typically of lower quality and should they fail you were simply left without that functionality with no recourse but to buy a new motherboard. Over time however the quality of integrated components has increased significantly and many PC builders, myself included, now forego the cost of additional add-in cards in favour of their integrated brethren. There are still some notable exceptions to this rule however, like graphics cards for instance, and there were certain components that most of us never thought would end up as being an integrated component, like the CPU.
Turns out we could be dead wrong about that.
Now it’s not like fully integrated computers are a new thing, in fact this blog post is coming to you via a PC that has essentially 0 replaceable/upgradable parts, commonly referred to as a laptop. Apple has famously taken this level of integration to its logical extreme in order to create its relatively high powered line of laptops with slim form factors and many other companies have since followed suit due to the success Apple’s laptop line have had. Still they were a relatively small market compared to the other big CPU consumers of the world (namely desktops and servers) which have both resisted the integrated approach mostly because it didn’t provide any direct benefits like it did for laptops. That may change if the rumours about Intel’s next generation chip, Haswell, turn out to be true.
Reports are emerging that Haswell won’t be available in a Land Grid Array (LGA) package and will only be sold in the Ball Grid Array (BGA) form factor. For the uninitiated the main difference between the two is that the former is the current standard which allows for processors to be replaced on a whim. BGA on the other hand is the package used when an integrated circuit is to be permanently attached to its circuit board as the “ball grid” is in fact blobs of solder that will be used to attach it. Not providing a LGA package essentially means the end for any kind of user-replaceable CPU, something which has been a staple of the enthusiast PC community ever since its inception. It also means a big shake up of the OEM industry who now have to make decisions about what kinds of motherboards they’re going to make as the current wide range of choice can’t really be supported with the CPUs being integrated.
My initial reaction to this was one of confusion as this would signify a really big change away from how the PC business has been running for the past 3 decades. This isn’t to say that change isn’t welcome, indeed the integration of rudimentary components like the sound card and NIC were very much welcome additions (after their quality improved), however making the CPU integrated essentially puts the kibosh on the high level of configurability that we PC builders have enjoyed for such a long time. This might not sound like a big deal but for things like servers and fleet desktop PCs that customizability also means that the components are interchangeable, making maintenance far easier and cheaper. Upgradeability is another reason however I don’t believe that’s a big of a factor as some would make it out to be, especially with how often socket sizes have changed over the past 5 years or so.
What’s got most enthusiasts worried about this move is the siloing of particular feature sets to certain CPU designations. To put it in perspective there’s typically 3 product ranges for any CPU family: the budget range (typically lower power, less performance but dirt cheap), the mid range (aimed at budget concious enthusiasts and fleet units) and the high end performance tier (almost exclusively for enthusiasts and high performance computing situations). If these CPUs are tied to the motherboard it’s highly likely that some feature sets will be reserved for certain ranges of CPUs. Since there are many applications where a low power PC can take advantage of high end features (like oodles of SATA ports for instance) and vice versa this is a valid concern and one that I haven’t been able to find any good answers to. There is the possibility of OEMs producing CPU daughter boards like the slotkets of old however without an agree upon standard you’d be effectively locking yourself into that vendor, something which not everyone is comfortable doing.
Still until I see more information its hard for me to make up my mind where I stand on this. There’s a lot of potential for it to go very, very wrong which could see Intel on the wrong side of a community that’s been dedicated to it for the better part of 30 years. They’re arguably in the minority however and its very possible that Intel is getting increasing numbers of orders that require BGA style chips, especially where their Atoms can’t cut it. I’m not sure what they could do right in this regard to win me over but I get the feeling that, just like the other integrated components I used to despise, there may come a time when I become indifferent to it and those zero insertion force sockets of old will be a distant memory, a relic of PC computing’s past.