Desktops

Intel Knowingly Sells Faulty Chipsets. Are They Crazy?

Editor's Note: Intel did not announce a recall of Series-6 chipsets, as this post first described.

Remember those faulty Sandy Bridge 6-Series chipsets that Intel owned up to--the ones that have been delaying the rollout of new computers built around Sandy Bridge processors?

Well, Intel is now letting some manufacturers buy the faulty stock, but only if the computers they build won't be impacted by the flaw.

I can't decide whether this is genius or insanity.

Here's the case for genius: The exact flaw relates to two specific SATA 3 Gbps data lines offered by the chipset, but the chipset has other SATA lines too. In a notebook computer, for example, only two 6 Gbps SATA connections will ever get used--one for the hard disk and one for the optical drive. There won't even be the physical sockets for any additional SATA storage. So if manufacturers don't use the faulty ports, they'll have a fully functioning computer.

Additionally, Intel is probably selling the "faulty" silicon for a knock-down price, and if so, that could mean lower-priced yet cutting-edge hardware for all of us (hooray!).

Here's the case for insanity: Intel has effectively tiered its 6-Series "Cougar Point" chipsets into two ranges: broken and fixed. If you buy a new computer with a Sandy Bridge chip in the coming year, you will have to ask the sales representative if it has the good or bad chipset.

Is Intel going to change its "Intel Inside" stickers to read "Fixed Intel Inside?" (If AMD wants to use that joke, they'll have to get in touch with my agent.)

None of this is new or even surprising. Chip manufacturers love to recycle silicon that's not 100 percent effective. The slower chips in a CPU product range are in all likelihood fast chips that failed testing at higher speeds. This is perfectly acceptable, because the chips are sold as slower chips and function correctly for years.

And provided the flaw is worked around, the 6-Series chipsets will function perfectly well for many years, too.

There's also an environmental argument here that appeals to me. Silicon chips take masses of energy and natural resources to produce, and suddenly not all the faulty 6-Series chipsets are going to landfill. I'm almost tempted to buy one of the "faulty" chipsets to encourage this kind of creative thinking.

However, from a commercial viewpoint, Intel has dug itself deeper into a hole. It has permanently tainted the entire Sandy Bridge product line. No news source will be able to discuss a new Sandy Bridge-based product launch without mentioning the flaw and Intel's decision to sell faulty silicon. That's just the way news works.

That said, the infamous Pentium floating-point flaw didn't write off the Pentium line of processors. Most of us accepted that it was just a slip up with an early version of the chip, and that Intel had moved on. From the few comments I've read so far related to this story, it seems that most people are being charitable this time around, too.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if the kind of people who buy computers that simply can't fail, such as those needed for server farms, have decided to skip the Sandy Bridge line and are taking a good look at AMD's catalog.

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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