In a move that has train wreck written all over it, Intel has started a new pilot project that puts a DRM-style software lock on your computer's downgraded processor. All you have to do to unlock the full potential of your chip is cough up about an extra $50 on top of the computer's original cost. The new program, called the Intel Upgrade Service, appears to be in the early stages of development. The Intel help pages for the service lack complete information and contain several typos.
(See Below for an update from Intel)
It's not clear if Intel's upgrade program is for enterprise or home computers, but the help pages do appear to be focused on non-business users. Also, Engadget posted photos on Saturday showing $50 Intel upgrade cards already available for purchase at Best Buy. I've contacted Intel for comment to clarify what this program is all about and will update this post if I hear back from the company. Regardless, here's what we know so far.
At launch, the Intel Upgrade Service will only apply to computers containing the 2.80GHz Intel G6951 desktop processor. Upgradable systems also need to have Intel Desktop motherboards with model numbers DH55TC or DH55PJ, both boards are based on the Intel H55 Express Chipset.
Since the G6951 is a new chip, and not yet available for purchase from Intel, it's not clear how many systems will include the new processor. Engadget's photo of the $50 upgrade card shows the Gateway SX2841-09e as the upgradable candidate. That would appear to be a Best Buy-specific desktop model number--a common practice between computer manufacturers and major retailers--that is not yet available for purchase.
How it works
As explained on Intel's site, the Upgrade Service would download and install a 4 MB installer program. You would then run the program, and when prompted enter a security key to unlock your processor's potential. Then you just have to restart your system and you will be able to use your computer with the upgraded chip.
What you get
It's not clear what the specific benefits of the upgrade will be other than improved benchmark performance as demonstrated by this chart from Intel. There are no official specs for the G6951 chip yet, but CPU-World (not affiliated with PC World) says the chip will have similar specs to the G6950. Part of the Clarkdale family of Intel chips, the G6950 is a 2.80GHz dual-core processor with 3MB of L3 cache. The difference, according to several reports, is that the G6951 will support hyperthreading and have a potential 4MB of cache.
So that means unlocking the G6951 will likely give you an extra 1MB of L3 cache--central processing unit (CPU) caches store information such as instructions or data to speed up your computer's performance time. You would also get hyperthreading, which means the chip would perform as if it had extra processor cores to help with data-intensive tasks such as video editing.
Intel's new Upgrade Service is likely to irk users when they are asked to spend extra money to unlock the performance of a piece of hardware they've already purchased. It's also unbelievable that Intel would seriously believe a program like this could work. The upgrade relies on a security key--a long string of letters and numbers that verifies you have paid for the service--so it stands to reason hackers will be hard at work figuring out ways to undo the digital lock. This will be especially true if an unlocked G6951 will have performance abilities matching other Clarkdale chips such as the Core i3-530. It's not clear, however, if the unlocked G6951 would also have an increased clock speed from 2.80GHz.
The Free Alternative
If you're not willing to shell out hard-earned cash for a software upgrade, there are other ways to speed up your computer. Many PC hobbyists have been bumping up their CPU specs for years through a process called overclocking--basically making your chip run faster than it was officially designed to go.
As PC World's Loyd Case recently explained this is possible because "a modern CPU's speed rating specifies the speed at which every processor in the same manufacturing batch can run--a number that's likely to be considerably lower than the maximum speed that your specific processor is capable of." In other words, CPUs often have better capabilities than officially advertised. The downside of overclocking is that it could overheat or destroy other computer components that may not be capable of handling the chip's upgraded speed.
It's not clear if the new Intel Upgrade Service's lock would prevent people from overclocking.
Update: UPDATE: Intel has confirmed the Intel Upgrade Service pilot program will be available to home computer users. Here is how the program was explained to me via e-mail: "This pilot program is for one Pentium processor line item. Under this pilot an end user buys a Pentium processor-based system, likes it, and wants a performance boost, they can do this online upgrade if they want. [This] Saves them from buying a new system or taking in their system for a physical upgrade. The Pentium processor line doesn't normally add HT [hyperthreading], so this adds it."