In the future, Intel will be slowly moving away from a socketed processor lineup to a non-socketed one, secured by soldering it down into the motherboard using a ball-grid array (BGA) socket. The upside of this is lower production costs for Intel and the third-party OEMs that have to make the sockets and the socket adapters. The downside, however, is that once the processor is in, getting it out or even replacing it are expensive options. Both Intel and AMD have been using BGA sockets for laptops and low-power desktops for years but that doesn’t seem to have impacted or bothered consumers too much. But is the move to BGA really as bad a future as some people think? A recent review of ASRock’s VisionX HTPC offers us something of an answer.
The VisionX is ASRock’s premium home theatre PC offering in a mITX form factor. Its sort of like a high-end alternative to Intel’s NUC, which we had a look at in one Fantasy Friday column. It has everything you’d need in a regular bite-sized desktop – two front-panel USB 3.0 ports, a card reader, audio and microphone jacks, a power button and a slot-loading DVD drive, included so that more space would be available inside the chassis, which is crammed overfull with stuff already.
Before you look inside though, just try picture how it looks inside by the specs listed – there’s a dual-core Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor with 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM. ASRock includes a 802.11n Wi-Fi card with built-in antennae, a 750GB 2.5″ SATA hard drive from Seagate, HDMI and dual-link DVI at the back along with two more USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports. That sounds fair, right? Yeah, they also shoved in a AMD Radeon HD7850M for good measure.
Marvel at how much space there isn’t available in there. Once you take out the DVD and hard drive, this is what you’re left with. There’s the heatpipes and copper block covering the mobile version of the HD7850M stuck in a MXM slot, the mobile Core i5 under a giant heatsink and fan cooler and the various open ports here and there. There are two white SATA 6GB/s ports up and to the right and a blue one hidden to the left by the heatsink.
There are only two SO-DIMM slots on the board but that’s enough for a system that won’t see more than 16GB anyway. In the middle at the bottom is a mSATA slot for your SSDs, with the mPCI-E Wi-Fi card hooked up to its antennae. The board is powered by an external power brick, which doesn’t have to work very hard either – idle power is as low as 3.2w, reaching up to 86W under full load. Its practically a console already!
But if this is a glimpse of the future of a product that could have a BGA-socketed Intel chip, I’m not unhappy with it. Because BGA chips are not user-replaceable, Intel has to drop prices to make the system more attractive. For BGA production lines Intel would also have to product more chips to meet motherboard demand so we’d see more examples of a board like this one, being massively simplified and tweaked to make the most of the available space and to make the final price more attractive.
A board like the HM77-MXM still gives you many options, with the RAM, Wi-Fi card, SSD and GPU all being upgradeable. In larger boards it would be a similar story and because I don’t see many ATX boards being stuck on the BGA socket, this would apply to ITX and mATX boards as well. Honestly, it’s not that bad. So long as you choose your starting platform wisely with, say, the H61 chipset and a Pentium dual-core or the H77 chipset with a Core i5 quad-core and there’s enough room for expanding the RAM, GPU, storage and memory as is the case with current desktop PCs, a move to BGA wouldn’t be half-bad.
It would only really affect the enthusiast and let’s be honest here – in all likelihood, Z75, Z77 and the Core i5 and Core i7 K-series processors will be socketed products anyway. If you take the board inside the ASRock VisionX and order it with a Core i7-3770 instead, all you’d have to do is opt for a larger external PSU so that when the upgrade bug kicks in to get a new GPU, you’ve got enough headroom for it. Hey, that’s already what Alienware X51 owners do! I know that the loss of options and flexibility would be hugely irritating but if this means lower prices and better products, is that really such a bad thing? If you don’t like it you could just go with a bigger chip or move to the AMD camp.
In reality, though, with the greater focus on mobile products, even AMD will be walking down this road before long. If their FX chips become much more popular thanks to the PS4 and Xbox 720, and each purchase of the chip turns into a new board purchase as well, don’t you think they’d be tempted to take that option to keep making more money and keep everyone happy? More board partners and retailers would sell AMD chips if they knew they could make money off it and that’s something the red team really needs now.
I, for one, am no longer dreading the move to the BGA socket by Intel.
Read the review: ASRock VisionX HTPC 321B Ivy Bridge mini-PC by TechpowerUp!
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