System Builder: Long live the socket

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System Builder: Long live the socket
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John Gillooly looks deeper at rumours Intel is abandoning socketed CPUs, and what this means for the future of the desktop

There has been a lot of talk in recent times about Intel moving away from the socketed CPU model that underpins most desktop computing. While this has since been denied, and we have it on good authority that socketed CPUs are here to stay for the next four or five years at least, it does give an insight into the changing nature of PC design.

In the era of the Pentium 4 and its predecessors, CPUs were designed for desktop use and then scaled back to use less power in laptops. This led to architecture that was unwieldy for mobile, designed to flourish when tethered to mains power, but out of its element when in a device that ran on batteries.

With the shift to the Core line of CPUs, Intel began to flip this design model on its head. CPUs (and accompanying chipsets) were built around efficient mobile use first and foremost. The design was then scaled up to work within a higher TDP (Thermal Design Potential), drawing more power for desktop use.

What this has led to is the modern era, where the Core I CPU lineup spans everything from power-sipping 17W versions in Ultrabooks, 77W desktop variants and the 130W Sandy Bridge Extreme CPUs.

But it isn’t just the CPUs that have changed dramatically in recent years, there has also been a popularity shift in desktop computing from towers to All-In-Ones. Most All-In-Ones actually use mobile componentry in order to keep temperatures and product sizes down. This, more than anything, is blurring the line between mobile and desktop computing.

This brings us back to the recent debate over Socketed CPUs vs those soldered to the motherboard using a mounting technique called BGA (Ball Grid Array). BGA is more electrically efficient than LGA (Land Grid Array – the name for the socket design used by Intel). It also makes for a thinner overall construction – by not having to incorporate the socket, the CPU is closer to the motherboard. This may not seem like much, but it is thanks to little things like this that devices as thin as tablets and Ultrabooks can exist.

When we are talking about computing platforms like All-In-Ones that have limited upgradeability, there are enormous advantages and virtually no downsides to using BGA. In desktops, however, the socketed CPU is at the very heart of the design, and the ability to upgrade a CPU is one of the core parts of the PC as we know it.

The Reality
There are several quite persuasive arguments that this desire for socketed CPUs is an artefact of days gone by. Because CPU design has an increasingly mobile focus, the actual performance leaps delivered by new generations on the desktop aren’t as dramatic as they once were. This means that there is very little to be gained by upgrading every generation; even traditional drivers of hardware performance, like games, work fine on CPUs from four or five years ago.
 

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