For as long as I can remember, Intel’s been selling its branded motherboards as a standards-setter, something which all the other third-party manufacturers ought to mimic if they want to make the lives of system builders, enthusiasts and network admins/engineers easier. Over the years Intel has made many, many average boards that high reliability ratios, occasionally highlighted with some very good ones that gamers or power users have appreciated. Intel’s boards are sought-after by network admins eager to standardise their workstation setups, the benefit being to have one vendor doing driver updates that they can test and roll out without worrying about incompatibilities or design alterations. After the launch of Haswell, Intel intends to shut down their motherboard manufacturing arm for consumers and enthusiasts.
This raises a few questions, especially for system builders and network admins who rely on Intel’s boards and the fact that mostly everything is guaranteed to work properly. Who’s going to pick up the job of being the common denominator? One of the reasons why Intel is the chosen one is because it commonly uses its NICs in their branded boards, which almost always support Intel vPro and Viiv technologies. vPro becomes incredibly useful in a corporate environment where per-machine monitoring and remote support becomes a necessity, as a network admin or techie can’t be in two places at once.
Likewise, several of their server boards are great value for money (Intel hasn’t commented on whether this move affects their server products). Even their consumer enthusiasts products, like the DX79TO “Thorsby” (pictured above) enables all of the features found in the X79 chipset and can sometimes be found on sale for much less than its third party equivalent siblings. Their ITX Atom-based boards are also some of the cheapest ones on the market and their socketed ITX boards found a home in many HTPCs and desktop computers.
The likeliest candidate to take over is Gigabyte. Their board designs have always been solid and they do occasionally use Intel’s NICs and server-based chipsets, although those are only found in more expensive mid-range or enthusiast products. Driver support is pretty robust and their testing and validation requirements are pretty high. MSI won’t be considered, partly because every network admin has a bad mental image whenever they think about supporting a brand which has been slightly worrying in the past. Foxconn may also have some opportunity here but you don’t really see them outside of Sahara-branded computers. Also, human rights violations, poor employee support, et cetera et cetera.
As for OEMs like Dell and HP, they’ve always gone through the trouble of creating their own specialised board and PSU designs through close work with Intel and other third-party manufacturers (I’ve always maintained that they’re doing this just to screw with consumers and techies like me). Built-in-obsolescence is becoming very popular in the PC market and with Intel out of the picture, more companies are going to be scurrying for a piece of the pie that its left on the table. Support for technologies like vPro is probably going to be an important consideration when businesses source hardware in the future, as no one brand is going to have it available.
The main question, however, is how this affects Intel’s support for the consumer and enthusiast space. Will they continue to offer K-series chips after Broadwell, considering they’re probably moving to BGA for some of their processor families? Testing and validation for a BGA-based board is much more involved and will require extra legs in the steps to bring a product to market, as well as changing how RMAs would work. Is this a time-saving measure for Intel’s technologies to reach the consumer market quicker, or is Intel planning some move that would require it to exit the market in order to give OEMs and third-party manufacturers to foot bills Intel itself would normally pick up? Only time will tell.