Today Intel made a sobering, but not entirely unexpected announcement: over the next 3 years Intel will be ramping down its own desktop motherboard business. Intel will continue to supply desktop chipsets for use by 3rd party motherboard manufacturers like ASUS, ASRock and Gigabyte, but after 2013 it will no longer produce and sell its own desktop mITX/mATX/ATX designs in the channel. We will see Haswell motherboards from the group, but that will be the last official hurrah. Intel will stop developing desktop motherboards once the Haswell launch is completed. All Intel boards, including upcoming Haswell motherboards, will carry a full warranty and will be supported by Intel during that period.

This isn't a workforce reduction. Most of the folks who worked in Intel's surprisingly small desktop motherboard division will move on to other groups within Intel that can use their talents. Intel's recently announced NUC will have a roadmap going forward, and some of the desktop board folks will move over there. Intel will continue to produce barebones motherboards for its NUC and future versions of the platform.

Intel will also continue to produce its own form factor reference designs (FFRDs) for Ultrabooks and tablets, which will be where many of these employees will end up as well. As of late Intel has grown quite fond of its FFRD programs, allowing it a small taste of vertical integration (and the benefits that go along with it) without completely alienating its partners. This won't be a transfer of talent to work on smartphone FFRDs at this time however.

The group within Intel responsible for building reference designs that are used internally for testing as well as end up as the base for many 3rd party motherboards will not be impacted by this decision either. The reference board group will continue to operate and supply reference designs to Intel partners. This is good news as it means that you shouldn't see a reduction in quality of what's out there.

It's not too tough to understand why Intel would want to wind down its desktop motherboard business. Intel has two options to keep Wall Street happy: ship tons of product with huge margins and/or generate additional profit (at forgiveably lower margins) that's not directly tied to the PC industry. The overwhelming majority of Intel's business is in the former group. The desktop motherboards division doesn't exactly fit within that category. Motherboards aren't good high margin products, which makes the fact that Intel kept its desktop board business around this long very impressive. Intel doesn't usually keep drains on margins around for too long (look how quickly Intel exited the de-emphasized its consumer SSD business).

The desktop motherboard business lasted so long as a way to ensure that Intel CPUs had a good, stable home (you can't sell CPUs if motherboard quality is questionable). While there was a need for Intel to build motherboards and reference designs 15 years ago, today what comes out of Taiwan is really quite good. Intel's constant integration of components onto the CPU and the resulting consolidation in the motherboard industry has helped ensure that board quality went up.

There's also the obvious motivation: the desktop PC business isn't exactly booming. Late last year word spread of Intel's plans for making Broadwell (14nm Core microprocessor in 2014) BGA-only. While we'll continue to see socketed CPUs beyond that, the cadence will be slower than what we're used to. The focus going forward will be on highly integrated designs, even for the desktop (think all-in-ones, thin mini-ITX, NUC, etc...). Couple that reality with low board margins and exiting the desktop motherboard business  all of the sudden doesn't sound like a bad idea for Intel. 

In the near term, this is probably good for the remaining Taiwanese motherboard manufacturers. They lose a very competent competitor, although not a particularly fierce one. In the long run, it does highlight the importance of having a business not completely tied to desktop PC motherboard sales. 

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  • Azurael - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    I can't say I'm surprised - Intel boards have never had a massive following amongst enthusiasts - probably the only people buying computers in component form at retail these days.

    It's kinda sad (funnily enough, I'm writing this from a machine with an Intel board in it - our HTPC) but as you said in the article, the third party boards are stable and complete enough these days that we don't really need Intel themselves in the marketplace. Going back 15 years (which is about when I started building PCs) that definitely wasn't the case!

    This whole concept of integration that's going on with desktops at the moment worries me a little, but then I have to think when I last changed a CPU without also changing the motherboard it sat in - I think it was a Super7 board going from a K6-2 to a K6-3!
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    It's really true. By the time one is usually ready for a CPU upgrade (i.e. something is significant enough for an upgrade), you almost always need a new motherboard because of new ram standard, i/O standard, or new CPU socket. The CPU upgrade is a myth....
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - link

    Hmm, unfortunately that's true. I think it's a shame that more enthusiasts weren't concerned with stability first. So many seem focused on overclocking, which we now know damanges a part even if it's stable. I've always figured if I have the money to destroy a CPU, I have the money to just buy a new CPU when I need something faster.
  • overzealot - Thursday, January 24, 2013 - link

    Because we still stay stable, and several years ahead of the performance curve.
    We always knew it would things out faster, but other parts of our PC die well before our CPU, so we don't care if we wear it out early. The worst case is we need to drop the clock speed, which means we're still running it faster than you when you replace yours.
  • overzealot - Thursday, January 24, 2013 - link

    would *wear* things
  • tim851 - Thursday, January 24, 2013 - link

    Always with the urban legends.

    It's obvious from your comment that you don't know sh*t about overclocking. So why do you feel the need to comment on it? Are you whistleing in the dark woods?
  • EnzoFX - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    Glad it will be further developed!
  • lurker22 - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    actually I remember in the 1990s (I think that's when Intel moved into the business) that Intel motherboards were the gold standard for reliability and quality (I actually still think this). The belief was/is they made the chipset, so who better to make the motherboard stable and reliable.
  • mooninite - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    With the debut of solid-caps and other hardy electronics on motherboards and the addition of SOC-like Intel CPUs, the 3rd party manufacturers actually surpass the quality of Intel motherboards. Intel took its sweet time including solid-caps on their motherboards. Not to mention Intel, until recently, forbid overclocking on their motherboards.

    There is no reason, not for stability or reliability, to buy a Intel board today. You've bought into their marketing hype or FUD from 10 years ago if you still think Intel boards are the premium models. The Big Three (ASUS/Gigabyte/MSI) have the market cornered and their desktop boards are extremely reliable. Server boards? Supermicro/Tyan dominate the market.

    OEMs buy from the Big Three for their desktops and make custom designs for their servers. They won't lose any sleep either.
  • Stahn Aileron - Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - link

    I have always been an Intel consumer because I like using reference (Intel) MBs with Intel CPUs. In fact, part of the reason I've stayed on the Intel side (despite the mistake known as the Pentium 4) is because Intel designed and manufactured their on own MBs. (I've use 855, 955, 975, P35, and P55 chipsets personally over the years since 2001). I knew with little doubt that their CPUs would work on their boards with little to no issues. All the MBs I ever owned have been rock solid. I like first-party products overall, actually.

    This kinda reminds of when ATI stopped producing abd selling their own video card designs and just let their OEM partners bring actual products to market. I was saddened back then just as I am now with this kind of announcement. (For GPUs, I've since switched to Sapphire, FYI.)

    On the other hand, I guess I should've seen this coming. Intel's consumer MB line up has been a mess ever since the LGA1366/1156 socket split for high-end vs mainstream. That split hoenstly screwed up a lot for the consumers since MBs were artifically differentiated by the weirdest availability of feature sets. (I'm also fairly pissed about the quick turnover of LGA1366/1156 with LGA2011/1155 in just one tick/tock cycle. 1366 to 2011 I can KINDA unsderstand, but what the hell drove the necessity of replacing 1156 with 1155? Was the new microarchitecture that different?) The Intel MB selection had really died down and was fairly limited since after the 9xx-series chipsets, IMHO. The mainstream boards were a little TOO basic (not much slection either) and the highend was oddly split between prosumer and enthusiast because of unique features sets not included in the other target demographic.

    Anyway, an off-topic question before I rant anymore:
    Any rumors of Intel trying to create a heterogeneous CPU using both the Core and Atom microarchitectures, similar in idea to ARM's big.LITTLE?

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