Microprocessor giant Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) recently announced its next-generation high-end desktop processor family, known as the Core X-series of chips. This product family is aimed at gamers, content creators, and other users that demand more computing power than typical personal computer users need to perform their tasks.
Intel's high-end desktop processors have historically been derived from the chips that the company builds for the server/workstation market, and the Core X-based processors are no different in this regard.
Where Intel has made a change in this generation -- and it is a subtle one, to be sure -- is in the platform controller hub, or PCH, that powers the motherboards the new Core X chips plug into.
In this column, I'd like to go over that change and what it could mean for the company's high-end desktop platform business now and in the future.
How things were
Prior high-end desktop platforms used the same PCH chip that was used in the company's high-end datacenter platforms. The datacenter PCH chips generally pack a lot more "stuff" than their mainstream desktop computer-oriented PCH counterparts.
It's worth noting, though, that Intel has traditionally updated its datacenter PCH chips at a slower pace than it has its personal computer-specific PCH chips. This meant that at launch, the high-end desktop platforms were often more feature-rich than their mainstream desktop counterparts, but the mainstream desktop platforms would enjoy quicker PCH updates.
What this ultimately resulted in is that in the middle of and toward the end of an Intel high-end desktop platform's life, the cheaper mainstream Intel desktop platforms were often simply more robust and, therefore, more desirable.
Mainstream and high-end desktop now share common PCH
Intel launched its latest high-end desktop platform a few days ago, and the PCH that pairs with it -- known as X299 -- isn't the same PCH that will be part of the company's upcoming Purley server platform.
Instead, based on the published specifications of the X299 PCH, it appears to be nearly identical to the mainstream desktop Z270 PCH that Intel released earlier this year in capabilities; the only difference is that the X299 PCH supports a maximum of 8 SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports, while the Z270 supports just six. I suspect that Z270 and X299 are the same chip, with a couple of SATA 6.0 Gb/s ports disabled on the PCH chips sold as Z270s.
What this means for Intel's high-end desktop business
The potential downside is that, at launch, a "new" high-end desktop platform going forward won't be as feature-rich as "new" high-end desktop platforms were in the past.
However, there are numerous positives that I think will ultimately outweigh that negative.
Indeed, Intel should be able to update its high-end desktop PCH chips on an annual basis (in line with the mainstream desktop platform) now, rather than once every two to three years, as was the case when the high-end desktop PCH chips were the same ones as those used in the datacenter platforms.
This should allow Intel's high-end desktop platform to feel "fresher," and it could also make life better for Intel's motherboard partners. In the past, the motherboard makers would try to build a second wave of motherboards based on the same chipset (usually by revamping the look of the board, adding auxiliary chips to enable new features, and so on).
That worked, but it's obviously a costly, inelegant, and frankly less marketable solution. It's better and cheaper for motherboard makers to be able to avail themselves of a new, more feature-rich/integrated platform controller hub to release refreshed high-end desktop motherboards.
And, to the extent that Intel can get paid a premium for the features that it integrates into future PCH chips (since motherboard makers would no longer need to buy third-party chips for said features), the better it is for the company's platform average selling prices, revenues, and profits.
Finally, the mainstream desktop PCH chips are likely more cost-optimized than their datacenter counterparts, which should lead to lower high-end desktop PCH manufacturing costs. Intel may choose to pass some, or all, of those cost savings onto its motherboard partners.