Desktops

Intel's Chip Bug Shows Why Not to Buy First-Gen Tech

Intel has found a major bug in its new "Sandy Bridge" CPU chipsets. The error affects Intel 6 Series chipsets, codenamed "Cougar Point," and relates to SATA port degradation over time. This will affect hard disk and DVD performance.

In short, to know if you're affected, according to Intel the following three points must apply to you:

1. Your computer contains an Intel 6 Series chipset.

2. It contains a second-generation Core i5 or Core i7 quad-core chip.

3. You bought it after January 9.

Intel's issuing a product recall and already has fixed the chipsets it's manufacturing right now. It's working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to make everything right, although it points out it that consumers "can continue to use their systems with confidence" because the bug probably won't strike for a while yet.

The scale of the problem hasn't been revealed, although Intel says it thinks "relatively few customers" will be hit. However, it also estimates the issue will cost $700 million to fix, and trading of its shares was halted this morning to give time for the news to sink in.

The recall is certain to hit manufacturers hoping to refresh product lines by incorporating Sandy Bridge chips. Intel reckons it won't be able to get into full-volume delivery of bug-free chipsets until April.

Those waiting for updates to Apple's MacBook range might be waiting a little longer, for example.

This isn't the first time Intel has had a serious problem with its silicon, and the company is no-doubt praying that nobody mentions the Pentium floating-point bug. Discovered back in the mid-nineties, this meant some obscure calculations returned incorrect results on Pentium CPUs. The problem cost Intel $475 million to put right, largely through replacing affected silicon, although it paid a higher price via lost credibility among its user base.

Luckily, Intel seems to have learned how to do things better this time around, although there'll be champagne corks popping at AMD's headquarters right now.

Although the public response could go either way, the bug has the power to cast a significant shadow over the Sandy Bridge platform, which has otherwise been a dream launch for Intel. It could even threaten the whole Core line of processors, which, again, has otherwise been a major success.

I wouldn't be surprised if work is being stepped up at Intel's research labs to bring forward the launch of its next generation of chips. Alternatively, we might soon see a new chip that's suspiciously similar to Sandy Bridge, but with a handful of tweaks here and there to give the impression a new product is being released. If all else fails, Intel could simply drop the price of the Sandy Bridge line, until it all becomes irresistible.

For IT admins wanting to avoid fiascos like this, the solution is simple: Never, ever buy first-generation hardware, or hardware that's recently seen a major technology update.

Solid-state hardware has traditionally been considered immune from this rule, but that's clearly not the case. The complexity of modern computing hardware (and software!) means that the first generation of users are bug testers who pay a premium for the privilege.

Some bugs get fixed, while others have to be worked around. When Apple partnered with Intel a few years ago I bought one of the first generation of MacBooks, featuring a Core Duo chip. I was repaid with a whistling CPU that made anybody in a quiet room think they had tinnitus. Apple didn't want to know so I ended-up using a software hack. By that point I'd learned my lesson.

Major bugs are usually quashed in the second-generation release, but in my opinion the best time to buy any hardware or software is towards the end of a product line's life. At that time the price will have fallen too.

Of course, you won't get the fastest hardware, but when's the last time you sat around waiting for something to happen because your computer had slow hardware? If you're waiting around, in all likelihood it's your Windows installation that's to blame, and that's a problem that can be fixed pretty easily.

Keir Thomas has been writing about computing since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at http://keirthomas.com and his Twitter feed is @keirthomas.

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