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Intel may add Wi-Fi, USB 3.1 to next-generation chipsets

Motherboard chipsets haven’t really changed much in the last few years. There’s been some support for new storage options and standards, like M.2 for SSDs, some limited support for features like Thunderbolt, and faster memory speeds have trickled out over time. Intel might shake things up a bit for its 300-series chipsets in 2017, if rumors are to be believed, with integrated support for Wi-Fi and USB 3.1.

Both standards could be useful to consumers and a new report from Digitimes implies Intel is considering the concept. USB 3.1 Gen 2 offers up to 10Gbps of transfer speed, while USB 3.0 (aka USB 3.1 Gen 1) tops out at just 5Gbps. Objectively, there aren’t that many consumers who currently need USB 3.1 Gen 2, but the technology could be useful for secondary displays or high-performance external storage arrays.

If Intel integrates Wi-Fi, it would likely use its own radios, which would need to be either shrunk to an equivalent process technology or placed on-package rather than integrated directly into the CPU. The benefits of node shrinks for radios are considerably smaller than what we see in conventional logic. Radios and cellular modems are commonly integrated into mobile SoCs, but to the best of our knowledge Intel has never released hardware with either feature directly integrated on-board. The SoFIA chips that Intel would have built had integrated radios, but these were going to be fabbed at TSMC.

The downside to this play is that it could have a significant negative effect on third-party providers like Realtek, Broadcom, and Asmedia who often provide supplemental chips that provide Wi-Fi or USB 3.1 support to Intel and AMD chips. Some need for these designs would still remain, since motherboard companies often use them to add even more port support to high-end boards, but losing mainstream business could still hurt. Asmedia has also contracted with AMD to provide some of its chipset needs, which should lessen the impact — especially if AMD manages a successful launch with Zen.

As for whether or not these features will drive upgrades, I think the forecast there is a bit mixed. On the one hand, I’d love to have a robust option for Wi-Fi integrated into a desktop, especially if Intel offers a version with an external antenna to improve performance. Even if you prefer wired Internet (and I very much do), we’ve all had scenarios where running a new line for a system was a serious routing headache. Good Wi-Fi support baked in from the get-go would mitigate that problem. Plus, the fastest Wi-Fi solutions are approaching throughput performance that can rival wired Ethernet, especially if you have an older router or switch that only supports 100TX performance between ports. (A number of routers and switches that claim to offer gigabit performance only have one gigabit port — the port that connects to the modem itself.)

But whether integrated Wi-Fi is a key feature that’ll spur people to upgrade is something I’m less sure of. Systems last longer and longer these days — I recently took a side-grade to a different motherboard after my existing system developed some USB-specific problems after five years. Just 10 years ago, trying to make do with a Pentium 3 or Athlon from 2000 in 2005 was possible, but not much fun. Today, a five-year-old CPU barely even feels like an issue. That’s not a situation Intel is thrilled with, but it has proven to be a very hard problem to solve.

I suspect the big play here, at least in Wi-Fi, is that it allows Intel to ship its own hardware to more customers by expanding the market for Intel wireless solutions. Desktops aren’t a huge market these days, but they still represent a significant sales increase.

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