Soldered to the Motherboard
Intel announced that its 2014-era microprocessors code-name Broadwell will come in a Ball Grid Array (BGA) package. In English, that means a circuit package made to be soldered to the motherboard.
Up until Broadwell, desktop PCs generally were packaged to fit into mechanical sockets. The key benefits of a socket are twofold: the microprocessor CPU and motherboard can be sold separately, and assembled by the do-it-yourselfer or systems builder; and, the PC could be upgraded with a (better, faster) microprocessor compatible with the socket. For example, you can put 2012 Ivy Bridge microprocessors into 2011 Sandy Bridge motherboards with modest effort.
A BGA future is a desktop problem, as recent notebooks have used soldered-down BGA packaging to achieve a slimmer height. More importantly, just about nobody pops open a notebook to upgrade the processor.
Desktop Upgrade Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance
With no sockets in Broadwell and subsequent chip families, the desktop PC enthusiast community has gone into the denial and anger phases of the five stages of grief.
The community belief is that they’ll have to buy a one-shot motherboard-with-CPU purchase with no opportunity for a future performance upgrade. Moreover, there’s gnashing of teeth over the likely problems where motherboard suppliers have to make big-dollar inventory bets when they solder a microprocessor to a particular feature-set on a motherboard product. The fears are much decreased feature choice and a very expensive dead-on-arrival return process.
The desktop enthusiast community may be absolutely correct in their projections for the world after this year’s Haswell. However, I suspect the glass is more than half-full, not approaching empty.
Welcome to Upgrades as a Service (UaaS)
What if Broadwell-generation chips are indeed soldered to notebooks and desktop motherboards? That doesn’t mean upgrades are impossible. I think there is plenty of evidence that Intel has been quietly gearing up for the soldered-down future, a future where upgrades are possible and practical.
In 2010, Intel rolled out a two-phase project that allowed a few microprocessor versions to be upgraded over the Internet, unlocking features with an electronic payment. A lot of thought and e-commerce back-end software development went into this “experiment”. This is the secret sauce that would allow upgrades online.
My thought is that Intel is now about ready to roll out online updates to soldered-down Broadwell-generation microprocessors.
Want more cores, cache, CPU features, or Turbo headroom? There’s a price for each and a bundle for all.
For PC manufacturers, the uplifts could be made at the factory, and the end-product priced based on feature set. The manufacturer benefit is fewer microprocessor SKUs (i.e., stock-keeping units) at the cost of a new chip feature-set generation step.
Online and retail stores would also require fewer unique SKUs, since the upgrade could be done in-store or online by the end customer. Lower inventory costs and fewer sales, reducing margins, of slow selling chips.
Enterprise customers could upgrade individual knowledge-worker PCs with more performance for a special project at a small fraction of the initial acquisition costs. In fact, it would be done at the line-of-business level with a company credit card.
The upgrade technology is also applicable to notebooks, creating a new upgrade revenue stream.
Intel itself would need many fewer SKUs and the cost of inventory of each. This is not to say that there would be one Broadwell chip that could be infinitely customized. But there would be no need for the 35 desktop SKUs that we have today with Ivy Bridge.
There are gotcha’s with the online upgrade scheme, but the obvious problems also exist with today’s upgradable sockets. For example, keeping the heat dissipation envelope aligned with the microprocessor heat generation; more voltage, more heat.
I think there’s a high probability that Intel will offer online upgrades to Broadwell desktops.
The idea reduces the industry’s increasing SKU complexity, leading to a leaner PC industry, which means higher potential profits. It gives enthusiasts a continued opportunity to pay more to get more performance.
Intel turns most chip sales into starter-homes with an upgrade annuity stream delivering software-industry margins to a hardware company. What’s not to like about that, Wall Street?
The technology to deliver the upgrades online has been in the field since 2010. The how-to-deliver-this lessons have been learned and tweaked.
So, I conclude online upgrades are the solution to Intel’s permanently soldered-down microprocessors.
Comments: Twitter @peterskastner