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Overheating Intel parts threaten Toshiba laptops

Intel has another hot problem: Some notebooks are dying because of faulty processor packaging.

Intel has another hot problem: Some notebooks are dying because of faulty processor packaging.

The flaw, which first appeared in Toshiba Satellite 4100 models, affects certain notebooks containing 400-MHz Pentium II and Celeron processors. Toshiba Tecra 8000 notebooks also could be affected. The problem, however, may not be confined to Toshiba.

Intel was saddled with a number of product glitches in 1999, including an embarrassing bug that delayed the release of PCs containing Rambus memory.

The Toshiba flaw technically exists in the processor's mobile module--in this case, the MMC-1 module, a motherboard-like card that contains the processor and some ancillary chips. Simply put, the module is letting too much of the heat generated by the processor escape into the notebook environment. The excess heat prompts the notebook to shut down until repaired. Several hundred incidents already have been reported to Toshiba.

Intel spokesperson Howard High confirmed the flaw's existence but emphasized the flaw is not with the microprocessor but with the module circuitry.

"We're working with our customers, and fortunately it affects less than 1 percent of the total mobile Pentium II and Celeron shipments," High said.

Intel introduced the flaw on Dec. 4 during a routine revision of the 400-MHz mobile processors. The chip giant typically modifies processors and occasionally other parts without necessarily notifying PC manufacturers.

"Intel made a component change on the daughter card, and that component change wasn't good," said Steven Andler, Toshiba's vice president of portable marketing. "So there was a period of time in Intel's production where they made daughter cards with the potential to die."

Andler emphasized Toshiba takes quality control seriously and that in initial testing, its notebooks performed as expected. Then several weeks ago, Toshiba unexpectedly started seeing a higher-than-typical instance of notebook failures.

"We've been working with Intel to resolve this situation, but you have to understand this is an Intel problem that affects our notebooks," Andler said.

Intel mobile chips are notorious for producing excess heat, one of many reasons notebooks lag behind desktops in clock speed. Because PC makers each take a different tack in notebook design, particularly in how they dissipate processor heat, it is possible the problem would manifest in one model containing the faulty module but not another.

"There is a thing called a design marginality, which means if you take the particular processor and you put it under certain conditions, and also if you have certain things going on in your system, you can come up with a problem," High said. "In this case, the computer no longer boots."

While Toshiba is the only PC manufacturer reporting the problem, sources close to Intel acknowledge other notebook makers have received faulty modules. A number of notebook makers have adopted Intel's processor modules because it cuts down on the amount of original design that a manufacturer has to do on its own. Still, because the flaw manifests itself under certain conditions, it is difficult to say where it might occur.

"Because there are four or five different (revisions) of the module and there are two different versions of the module, it's hard to know who is using which modules and in which products," Andler said.

"We are not affected by this issue," said a Gateway representative. "We weren't shipping those processors at that time."

Strangely, Intel warned PC manufacturers the problem could occur in modules released after Sept. 1, even though the chip revision that causes it did not occur until December.

"We're trying to figure out what that means," said a Toshiba representative. "We can't seem to see the logic here."

There would appear to be no consistency with the problem either, at least from Toshiba's perspective. Some affected notebooks won't turn on, others shut down immediately. In some cases, it takes as long as 60 days for problems to surface.

Although the problems vary, the cause is always the same: overheating. When the defective modules overheat, they trip a switch that shuts down the computer unexpectedly, which can delete corrupt data. Overheating can damage other components as well, including the processor.

"It's not a thing that resets itself," High said of the module's reaction to overheating. "Once it kicks over, it doesn't start again."

While Toshiba would not disclose how many notebooks could be affected, when pressed, Andler acknowledged several hundred failures have been reported. The company said customers would receive replacement modules at no charge. The fix, which Intel pays for, takes about an hour for most notebooks, Andler said.

The problem likely slipped by because most manufacturers generally don?t worry about revisions unless Intel tells them there is a need to.

?Usually you don?t see heat issues until you speed up the processor,? said International Data Corp. analyst Katrina Dahlquist. ?I?m sure Intel does their own internal testing, but they might not warn companies about a revision unless the (processor and module) no longer met original specifications...Intel might conclude it?s just a simple component change and everything is exactly the same.?

?All the notebooks deal with thermals in different ways, and some do a better job than others,? she added.

March has not been a good month for notebooks. Both Dell and Apple reported flaws with the sleep function on certain notebook models. In both cases, data was being corrupted when notebooks were emerging from the sleep state.