Sunday, January 27, 2013

X79, the last Intel Enthusiast platform?

Article first published as X79 - The Last Intel Enthusiast Platform? on Technorati.

It started a few months back when a leaked Intel road map suggested that socketed CPU's were on the way out.  With half of the upcoming Haswell processor offerings designated as BGA (surface mounted) assemblies and only a question mark in the "enthusiast" row, it looked as though Intel was moving away from the DIY/enthusiast market.  The cornerstone of which is the ability to mix and match motherboards and CPU's at will. 

Within days, Intel's closest competitor, AMD, announced its undying affection for sockets.  Proclaiming no end in sight in satiating desires for devotees of the free and open CPU socket.  That resulted in an almost instantaneous response from Intel asserting that socketed designs would continue for the "foreseeable future." Which from current roadmaps appears to be at least 2015.

Last week came official word from team Blue that the release of Haswell would be the last Intel branded motherboards to be offered by the company.  Signaling an intention to focus resources on the more lucrative mobile and SOC markets dominated by Nvidia and Apple.

Again speculation swirled that this was the beginning of the end of the desktop market.  Intel was never as big a player selling motherboards to the enthusiast market as the likes of ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI.   Still, their presence was often the foundation for many OEM PC builds and served as a kind of reference design.  If Intel made a board, consumers knew that this was going to be the foundation for all the rest to build on.
With plans to exit the motherboard market that raises the question of the veracity of their commitment to desktops in general.  Chipsets are planned up to at least Haswell (x87) but a look at  the family's  enthusiast offering  shows an a flagship CPU that runs not on a new chipset but rather repurposes the Sandy Bridge-E X79 platform.  You read that right, Intel will likely offer four different Haswell chips as an upgrade option for an aging 2 year old platform. 

Now you can have cutting edge technology hamstrung by features made obsolete by the last  year's bargain bin ultrabook.  Intel's been slow to add features like SATA 6 and USB 3.0 on even its newest chipsets let alone mature examples.  It seems Intel is throwing the enthusiast community a bone without any meat on it. 
That leaves remaining motherboard manufacturers scratching their heads when considering how to position their higher margin "enthusiast class" boards.  Remember that this is Intel's last hurrah in the space and it's unlikely there will be much more than a BIOS update for current X79 offerings. 

How will ASUS or EVGA justify asking upwards of $300 for an X79 motherboard with tacked on features to fill in the obvious gaps?  Let's also not forget that half of the Haswell chips are BGA designs which are conspicuously mainstream.  Forcing third party board makers to support not only their boards but the CPU opens up new and exciting opportunities for them to go broke with warranty claims. 

With mainstream board designs moving away from replaceable sockets and Intel making a half hearted attempt at an enthusiast Haswell product, Intel's sending a message to the DIY market...
It's not our problem anymore but hey! have you seen our new NUC!