Moving Towards BGA Only?

Intel’s Broadwell is a BGA only part, does this spell doom for the enthusiast?

The sky is falling.  Does this mean that Chicken Little is panicking for no reason or is Chicken Little the Cassandra of our time?  It has been widely reported that Intel will not be offering the next generation Broadwell architecture as a LGA based product.  Broadwell is a 14 nm product that will integrate southbridge functions into the chip, making it essentially a SOC.  It will be offered only as a BGA only product, which means that it will be soldered onto a motherboard with no chance of being able to be swapped out.  Broadwell is the successor to the upcoming Haswell, itself a 22 nm product that features many architectural changes to both the CPU and graphics portion as compared to the current 22 nm Ivy Bridge.

Will Broadwell be the death of the desktop industry and enthusiasts?  Will LGA become as scarce as chicken teeth?  Will we ever see a product with a swappable CPU after 2014?

Broadwell is aimed at TDPs ranging from 10 watts to 57 watts.  Current high end Ivy Bridge parts max out at 77 watts and do not feature any southbridge type functionality.  So that means that another 5 to 7 watts are added in for the chipset when discussing basic system TDPs.  So we are looking at around 87 watts for a top end product when including SATA and USB functionality.  30 watts is a pretty big deal in OEM circles.  We see right off the bat that Intel is aiming this architecture at a slightly different market, or at least a changing marketplace.

The unease that we are seeing is essentially this; Intel appears to be trying to take more profits from this setup and pass more costs onto the motherboard industry.  This is not necessarily new for Intel, as they did this when transitioning to the LGA socket.  LGA sockets are more expensive and more troublesome for the motherboard manufacturers as compared to a more traditional pin based interface.  AMD continues to use pin based chips as this lowers the cost that is incurred by the motherboard manufacturers, and it also lowers overall support issues.  LGAs are pretty solid, but it is very easy to bend one or more of those contacts so that they in fact do not create a solid connection with the CPU.  This is something that is uncommon with pin based CPUS, but the downside of pin based is that it is more expensive to produce the CPU in the first place as compared to a LGA chip which only features the pads on the substrate of the CPU.

At first glance it appears that Intel is trying to limit selection for motherboard partners and consumers.  There is truth to that.  People will obviously not be able to swap out CPUs and mix and match motherboards.  Motherboard manufacturers will be forced to buy CPUs from Intel to integrate into their motherboard products, and they will be eating support costs as well due to the motherboard/CPU combo being their problem entirely (as compared to just supporting a motherboard while Intel supports the CPU if any issues arise).  We would assume that we would see a smaller selection of CPUs that span a wide range of power and performance options.  This does further stratify pricing options, so the potential for higher overall margins for Intel is great.  Instead of having 10+ products ranging from $120 to $999 we would expect to see fewer overall chips with a more structured pricing system.  This is again a positive for Intel while consumers will have a smaller selection and will likely pay more due to it.

BGA solutions on the desktop are not new.  We see all-in-one solutions from both Intel and AMD, but these are generally relegated to the Atom and E series products respectively.  These are generally lower priced options and products that most enthusiasts do not buy anyway.  It does appear that Intel is expanding upon this idea, but this does not necessarily mean that Intel is abandoning both enthusiasts and choice.

While Broadwell will be a BGA only solution, Intel is not giving up on LGA products.  When Broadwell is released we will see much the same situation as we do now with Ivy Bridge and Sandy Bridge products.  While Ivy Bridge is the better overall solution, Sandy Bridge is still a very good product that is currently being sold by Intel in conjunction with Ivy.  Broadwell will be sold alongside faster clocked Haswell products, and Haswell will continue to be LGA.  Haswell will also have the higher overall TDP at 77 watts, and I would honestly expect those parts to be slightly faster than the 57 watt Broadwell.  So enthusiasts will still have fast Intel CPUs to put into whatever board they want.  Motherboard manufacturers will still sell LGA based motherboards and be able to customize their products so as to continue to introduce value added features and differentiate them at a wide range of price points.

The product after Broadwell will also be introduced as a LGA part.  Undoubtedly this part will also be offered as a BGA unit as well, but it will still be offered as a LGA product as well.  Intel is not entirely throwing the motherboard industry to the wolves, but we can bet that Intel is watching how Broadwell works out very closely.  If Intel crunches the numbers and thinks that they can extract a higher margin from their products in the face of declining PC sales due to increased mobile solutions, then we can bet that Intel will be more than willing to throw their motherboard partners under the bus.  We also must consider that a 57 watt Broadwell part with integrated southbridge functionality is a nice fit for next generation all-in-one products like the Dell XPS One.  OEMs may not particularly care about the lack of a LGA socket for many of their designs, as buyers of pre-built machines rarely upgrade their CPUs.

AMD looks to offer swappable CPUs as long as people buy them.  In this case we have an AM3+ motherboard with Anti-Dust Shielding Technology!

The next question we need to ask is if this opens up a window for AMD?  It does, but that window is very, very small.  AMD could pick up some business as well as good will from motherboard manufacturers, but this is assuming that AMD has a product that is competitive with Haswell when Broadwell is introduced.  There are a lot of ifs in that statement.  AMD needs to have Steamroller up and running by 2014.  They also need to have either a 22 nm or 20 nm FD-SOI (fully depleted SOI) process available to them so they can more adequately compete with Intel with their mature 22 nm FinFET process, as well as offer performance and TDPs comparable to not only Haswell but Broadwell.  There is a small glimmer of hope for AMD to improve their marketshare due to unhappiness with Broadwell and their BGA only implementation, but that depends almost entirely on AMD being able to execute perfectly between now and Broadwell’s introduction.

While I do not welcome a BGA only Broadwell, we do see that Intel is not entirely abandoning the LGA based desktop market and enthusiasts.  Haswell will still be available in LGA and offer performance that matches Broadwell but with slightly higher TDPs.  Consider that we still do not have Ivy Bridge with LGA 2011 based systems, as those still rely upon Sandy Bridge B parts.  The next generation after Broadwell will be offered in LGA.  This does look to be a grand experiment by Intel with very little risk overall to their bottom line.  How the market reacts to this move will of course impact Intel’s future product updates.  If enthusiasts, OEMs, and motherboard manufacturers are united in their overall distaste with this move, then Intel will change their future strategies to reflect this.  If Broadwell is a success then we can look forward to Intel pursuing a more BGA focused future.  We can only hope that AMD will be around as a competitor in the x86 market to offer an alternative at that time.


Update Dec. 4, 2012

AMD contacted us to make sure that we know that they will continue to support the socketed crowd of enthusiasts in the desktop market.  Gary Silcott was kind enough to pass this statement on to me for your reading pleasure:

AMD has a long history of supporting the DIY and enthusiast desktop market with socketed CPUs & APUs that are compatible with a wide range of motherboard products from our partners.  That will continue through 2013 and 2014 with the “Kaveri” APU and FX CPU lines.  We have no plans at this time to move to BGA only packaging and look forward to continuing to support this critical segment of the market.

As the company that introduced new types of BGA packages in ultrathin platforms several years ago, and today offers BGA-packaged processors for everything from ultrathin notebooks to all-in-one desktops, to embedded applications and tablets, we certainly understand Intel’s enthusiasm for the approach.  But for the desktop market, and the enthusiasts with whom AMD has built its brand, we understand what matters to them and how we can continue to bring better value and a better experience.

Of great interest is his comment about the Kaveri APU, but the wording does not shine any light on whether this will be a 2014 or 2013 product.  It is good to know that AMD has our backs, but we do wonder if they will have a product that will be comparable to not just Broadwell, but also Haswell during that timeframe.