Column: Take the Socket Pledge With Me

Kaya Systems

Looking at the future of CPU sockets

The Mainstream tech media declared the PC dead—yet again—and enthusiasts had a full-on freak-out when rumors surfaced that Intel intended to dump socketed processors within two years. You can read the details of the story here , but let it be known far and wide, Intel will support socketed processors for the “foreseeable future.” AMD , likewise, had already taken the pledge, saying it would be offering socketed CPUs , too.

To the casual observer, this may seem like a tempest in a land grid array. It’s not, of course—it’s really about our freedom to build the systems we want with as much price and performance granularity as we can get. Quite simply: We like our ability to choose what we want rather than having it dictated to us. Want to run a $60 motherboard with a $330 CPU? Go ahead. Planning to start your $350 board with a $100 CPU and eventually move up to a $330 part? That’s your decision to make on the PC today.

Intel's NUC features a CPU soldered on to its motherboard

That won’t be the case if the PC transitions to motherboards with fixed processors, as was rumored. Instead, motherboard companies would greatly pare down their inventories and offer just a handful of boards with integrated CPUs rather than dozens of CPU and motherboard choices. Let’s not even mention that if you ever had a problem with the motherboard, you’d have to toss the CPU with it. And who eats that cost? The mobo maker or the CPU maker?

Such a world would indeed signify that PC end times were nigh, so you can see why the nerd rage was flying.

So, what may really be happening? My guess: Intel is signaling an armistice in the performance arms race between the two x86 powers, as both companies concentrate on the real threat right now: tablets and mobile devices.

Rather than the end of interchangeable CPUs, it’s more likely an end to the brutal “tick-tock” strategy for desktops and laptops. Instead, the upgrade cycles could be stretched out from two years to three. Hardly the end of socketed CPUs.

Hell, for all I know, Intel may need to move to a new type of cartridge design à la the Pentium II’s SEC, so it can embed DRAM into the core or use some technique to increase memory bandwidth for the onboard GPU. I’ll also point out that soldered chips have been in use by AMD and Intel on desktops already—in extremely small form factor boxes.

We really don’t know what will happen in three to four years and, frankly, Intel probably doesn’t either. I do know that any path Intel and AMD take for the PC must include end-user upgradability of the CPU or both will suffer the wrath of their strongest supporters.

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