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Pentium bug surfaces

A new bug that crashes Intel's Pentium processors is now being discussed openly on the Internet.

A new bug that crashes Intel (INTC) Pentium processors has been found and is now being discussed openly on the Internet.

The bug has the potential to crash Pentium computers and could be used for sabotage, according to Robert Collins, whose Intel Secrets Web site tracks inside information on Intel, the world's leading chipmaker.

The Pentium "F0" or "F00F" bug can freeze up Pentium MMX and "classic" Pentium (non-MMX) computers, according to Collins. Worldwide, these machines number in the hundreds of millions.

Intel engineers were meeting on Friday about the bug, according to sources.

Message traffic concerning the bug is starting to pick up in Intel newsgroups on the Internet, just as it did for the Pentium FPU bug a few years ago.

"This is for real. I've known about it for a couple of months," Collins said. "I actually think there?s no excuse for [Intel] not having found this," he asserted.

Collins added that he tried to contact Intel twice but received no response. "Who knows, maybe they think the [Pentium is] dead anyways, so why bother to worry about any more bugs?" he said.

Intel says not so. "We've just found out about it today. We're looking into it," an Intel spokesman said. "We have no further comment at this time."

Collins said he got the first response from Intel on the bug Friday.

He said someone must have malicious intent for the bug to actually wreak havoc, making it different than past Pentium and Pentium Pro bugs.

The bug apparently is a single illegal instruction and not something that would be deliberately coded into a software program, according to Collins. Therefore, it will not be found in commercial software or independently developed software.

Nevertheless, this instruction could be maliciously inserted into a small C language program and used to bring down a company?s server computers, according to Collins.

But one Internet Service Provider--which typically use many servers--contacted said this is more a reflection of a common problem with computers than a specific Pentium glitch.

"You'd have to have an account with the ISP or some access to machine. [But] if you've got some way in, or if you've got an account with the ISP, there are already far worse things you can do," said Bill Mattocks, proprietor of Computer Solutions, a small ISP in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The bug is not listed by Intel in its compilation of processor bugs or "errata" which it publicizes, according to Collins.

But as is usually the case when a bug surfaces, there is some confusion. Some observers posting messages on the Intel Newsgroup on the Internet say that this is in fact a legal instruction.

"This bug is not an illegal instruction problem, it is a documented instruction. A highly useful, but Pentium-and-above specific instruction, that should have been highly tested at some point in the production process," said Jim Bryant, a software programmer.

On May 2 of this year, NEWS.COM first reported a different bug that affected Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors. One week later, Intel admitted that a glitch involving the conversion of "floating point" numbers to integer numbers could generate wrong answers in some cases and posted a work-around on its Web site.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.