The idea that desktops might change forever is enough to send geeks into a spin.
Something of a shockwave rippled through the hardware geek world as things began winding down for the Christmas and New Year’s break.
Rumours flew around claiming that Intel’s upcoming ‘Broadwell’ processor would only come in ball grid array (BGA) packaging. In BGA packaging, tiny balls of solder are used to surface mount processors, rather than the more usual desktop land grid array (LGA) arrangement of having processors with pins that fit into motherboard sockets.
Processors with BGAs have plenty of electrical, physical and manufacturing advantages over other forms of chip packaging but once they’re soldered onto a motherboard, that’s it. They don’t come off without a huge amount of effort involving heat guns and hacked toaster ovens.
Desktop processors without sockets is heresy of the worst kind to geeks who have become used to the open architecture of personal computing that lets anyone (well, almost) swap many of the crucial electronics out for repair, upgrade, better performance - or just for the fun of it.
It’s also not really what businesses built around open PC architecture want to hear either, as the BGA move would close down most smaller operators.
As Broadwell is due out in 2014, I asked Intel if it was true that it’d be BGA-only and whether next-year’s ‘Haswell’ range would be the last in land grid array or LGA format. I got what amounted to a non-response, but in the meantime panic had apparently set in with Intel’s large customers: they had to be assuaged with official messages.
A spokesperson for ‘Big I’ told American media that the company will continue to offer socketed parts in LGA packages, ”for the foreseeable future„, whatever that means.
Leaked Intel processor roadmaps show that in 2014, Broadwell will go into mobile devices and use BGA, but there appears to be a Haswell part in LGA format over the same time period.
Fellow chip maker AMD got in on the act to say it will offer socketed chips for 2013 and 2014. Fingers crossed, AMD will still be around to honour its promise.
Reassurances aside, the industry would have to be blind not to see this train coming. Controllers, chipsets and processors are already being perma-soldered to motherboards, and the same is starting to happen with memory.
What’s more, increased integration and shrinking components mean separate processors will be replaced by ‘systems on a chip’ at the consumer level at least. Already, Intel is seeking to move graphics and I/O controllers onto the main processor die and that movement of key parts onto the die is likely to continue.
That evolution is driven by economics and a desire to control the market. Apple and Android vendors have shown the way with devices that are cheap, reasonably powerful and have the hardware closed off to user customisation or upgrades, thanks to the high level of integration.
However, I’m not convinced that offering fewer choices will help slumping PC sales and I think vendors need to start thinking what it was about that particular architecture that had people buy computers in droves. Hint: extensibility and flexibility were some of the reasons.
And while I’m talking about hardware that shuts you out, I’ve had a few issues with the new Extendible Firmware Interface (EFI), the new standard to start up and control your computer that replaces ye olde BIOS.
EFI has some really useful features, improved security and no more text-mode VGA configuration screens, but it can also be incredibly inflexible, especially with Windows.
I discovered that with EFI-based computers, you can’t just shift a bootable hard drive from one SATA port on the motherboard to another as you could in the past. The computer sees the hard disk, but it won’t start up.
It turns out that EFI ties the Globally Unique Identifier (GUID) in the partition table with a particular SATA port, and Windows Boot Manager isn’t smart enough to work out it should look elsewhere on the system if the drive isn’t where expected.
This behaviour causes further headaches when you clone disks - say when you move from a small SSD to a larger one - and dual-booting becomes dependent on the main bootable disk.
Luckily, it is possible to sort it out and there’s no need to start digging in with the spudgers, but it’s a manual process that seems like a heap of work just to move a drive from one SATA port to another.
Maybe there is a point to the pain, but I fail to see it myself - beyond, of course, making it more difficult for people to control the hardware they’ve paid for.
Time to start hoarding old gear