The guys over at Hardware.Info have grabbed an early Intel Coffee Lake CPU sample and tested the backwards compatibility of the chips with Z270 boards, and have confirmed that they don’t play nice. But maybe that’s not the end of the story.
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So, which motherboard vendor is going to be the first one to create a hacky little BIOS update to allow Coffee Lake CPUs to drop into their existing 200-series boards? Someone out there must be working on it because, from the looks of things, there is no physical difference between the LGA 1151 socket used for Kaby Lake and the LGA 1151 socket in place for Coffee Lake.
It’s unlikely to be a member of the tier one motherboard crew - Gigabyte, MSI, and Asus - because they probably don't want to risk upsetting the chip giant, but there are a host of smaller manufacturers who would benefit from the publicity and goodwill such a feature would generate.
It could also generate a fair chunk of extra sales too, because according to the chipset transition roadmap we’re not going to be seeing lower spec 300-series boards until next year. If one of the board manufacturers can get a current-gen H270 or B250 board to run with a Coffee Lake six-core K-series i5, or even the new quad-core i3, they could clear up in the value end of the gaming market this year.
By all accounts the limitation is something to do with the Intel Management Engine (ME) code baked into the last few generations of Core processors. The ME code is there to provide companies with easy access to remote system management in a corporate environment, but there’s some sort of incompatibility between the new ME code in the Coffee Lake CPUs and that used with Kaby Lake.
Essentially it all means, at launch, you won't be able to simply buy a new Coffee Lake chip and just drop it into your existing rig. Which is more than a little disappointing.
The Hardware.Info team have shown that the incompatibility works both ways, with Kaby Lake chips not responding when dropped into Z370 motherboards either. This isn’t necessarily an unusual situation, and could well just mean the Z370 needs a BIOS update to provide support, but it could also be another symptom of the ME limiting CPU compatibility.
The ME code is tightly controlled by Intel, with reports stating that no-one outside of Intel has access to it, but if the motherboard manufacturers can find a way around it they could potentially provide a future BIOS update to allow the Coffee Lake processors to function in a 200-series motherboard. When board makers have circumvented a processor manufacturer’s system requirements in the past, however, such as the unlocking of dormant AMD CPU cores in their Phenom II range, new microcode has been released to nullify the feature.
Because of the locked-down nature of Intel’s ME it may prove impossible for the board makers, but there will definitely be some engineers beavering away right now to give it a shot.