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Intel exits the desktop motherboard business to focus on new form factors

Intel will stop selling Intel branded desktop motherboards after Haswell. So what are the implications for traditional desktop PCs?

After some 20 years of selling branded desktop motherboards, Intel will begin exiting this portion of its business, Intel spokesman Dan Snyder has told PCWorld. The Santa Clara chip giant will begin the retreat from desktop motherboards as soon as its next-generation Haswell CPU ships, and plans to dissolve its Desktop Motherboard Business unit over the next three years.

Intel's move responds to market pressures from two directions. On one side, the world simply doesn't need as many desktop motherboards as it has in the past. Demand is shifting to laptops and tablets, so Intel is responding to changing times. On the other side, companies like Asus, Gigabyte and Asrock are meeting existing demand with a wide variety of motherboard products with innovative features. 

Even worse, the feature sets offered by Intel motherboards often haven't kept pace with the offerings from Asian companies, begging the question, Why even buy an Intel board in the first place?

Intel says it will shift resources from desktop motherboards to boards for emerging form factors, such as the company's recently released NUC (Next Unit of Computing), a tiny, 4-by-4-inch, self-contained PC. Intel will also focus on improving Ultrabook and all-in-one systems designs. Manufacturers will be able to license entire designs, or just parts of Intel designs to integrate into their own products. This type of integration can already be be found in Gigabyte's recently launched Thin ITX motherboard for white-box and DIY all-in-one PCs.

In addition to pursuing emerging form factors, Intel will also ramp up efforts to expand its Form Factor Reference Design (FFRD) work, assisting OEM partners in developing new board designs for desktop PCs.

Ongoing support for legacy mobos

Snyder stressed that Intel will continue to support existing motherboard products through their warranty periods. He also noted that desktop motherboards with new core logic supporting Haswell will be offered by Intel, and and will be sold throughout Haswell's life. This means new Intel motherboards will remain on the market for roughly 18 months after the new CPU ships, with warranty support continuing beyond that period.

Snyder also said Intel remains strongly committed to desktop CPUs and chipsets, citing K series CPUs, which allow end-user overclocking, and upcoming third-generation Extreme CPUs as key examples. The company will also continue to support a broad array of sockets, including LGA 2011 for performance enthusiasts; the LGA 1155/1150 sockets for mainstream processors; and BGA parts for entry-level platforms. (Reminder: LGA 1150 is the new socket design for upcoming Haswell CPUs.)

Intel first began shipping motherboards in 1993 to support the increased pace of its CPU releases. Prior to that year, the company would actually ship new CPUs without any motherboard support, so entering the physical motherboard business was practically a necessity to goose processor sales. Intel was already shipping motherboard chipsets to manufacturing partners, so moving into motherboards proper was a natural fit.

What all this means for users

Intel was never a large player in the retail motherboard market, though a number of OEM PCs used to ship with Intel boards. Asus, Gigabyte and numerous other component manufacturers captured most of the retail and white box business for motherboards. These companies have traditionally integrated the most innovative features, like auto-overclocking and other enthusiast-oriented tricks, leaving the Intel motherboard group to play catch-up.

Given the competitive landscape, it's not a big surprise that Intel is refocusing its efforts on areas that have greater potential impact on future growth. All segments of the PC business are under extreme pressure, with sales slipping and users gravitating toward tablets and smart phones. Focusing on reference designs for all-in-one PCs, Ultrabooks and tablets will enable Intel's partners to more rapidly ship products that appeal to the new generation of mobile users.

Performance-minded enthusiasts will still be able to choose from an array of exotic motherboards from Asian companies, and it's likely competition for the hearts and minds of these high-spending users will remain fierce. To this extent, it looks like Intel is exiting the desktop motherboard market at just the right time.

Reading the tea leaves, the mention of "BGA parts for entry level platforms" reinforce rumors that lower-end desktop boards may ship with CPUs soldered down. Intel is strongly denying the rumors that it will stop offering socketed CPUs, but Snyder noted, "Future product roadmaps will be evaluated based on platform performance and power needs."

So if the PC hobbyist and traditional desktop market gets too small, it's possible that socketed Intel CPUs will become a relic of the past. Even so, that's not likely to happen for a few years yet.


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