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Costly new Rambus problem stings PC makers

Intel has acknowledged a major problem involving the memory technology that could delay for months computers that are supposed to debut Monday, sources say.

A major problem involving Rambus memory technology could delay for months computers that were scheduled to debut Monday, sources say.

The problem could force PC makers to throw away critical parts of new high-end computers or face the prospect of shipping potentially faulty machines, CNET News.com has learned. Although it is too early to determine the extent of the damage, one analyst estimated that hundreds of thousands of computers are affected.

Perhaps more important for consumers, sources say Intel's interim solution also limits Rambus machines to 512MB of memory, half the capacity of conventional systems.

Intel anointed Rambus memory as a long-term solution for making sure that computers keep up with ever-faster processors. But the new development is the latest misstep in the adoption of the next-generation technology.

"This is so very close to the ship date for these machines that it must have been an absolutely terrible last-minute decision to make," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with Microdesign Resources.

"It's going to be very, very expensive," he said. "Every machine put together has to be taken apart. The motherboards have to be taken apart and destroyed, and they have to build new motherboards."

The problem stems from how much memory the computers can use, Glaskowsky said. The systems built so far have three slots in the motherboard for Rambus memory, but now Intel has said that systems should only have two, he said.

The existence of the third memory slot can cause data to get lost while being transferred between memory and the main processor, Glaskowsky said. According to sources, Intel has notified manufacturers that the third slot is a problem, even if it's empty.

Some manufacturers may still ship affected computers, but others will scrap the guts of the systems they have built so far and start over, sources familiar with the problem said.

Intel and Rambus declined to comment on the matter. However, Glaskowsky said Intel personnel confirmed the existence of the problem, which was acknowledged by other industry sources as well.

"The Rambus electricals are absolutely state-of-the-art for today's technology. When you come down to it, I guess they just pushed too hard," Glaskowsky said.

Limiting computers to two slots means they can use only 512 megabytes of memory instead of 768, although future Rambus chips will boost that to 1 gigabyte even with only two memory slots available, Glaskowsky said.

A rocky start
In February, Intel delayed the chipset needed to use Rambus memory from June to September, high Rambus prices are expected to curtail demand, and Intel apparently has scaled back its manufacturing plans.

Rambus doesn't actually manufacture memory. Instead, the company licenses its designs to memory makers and charges them a royalty when they sell Rambus chips. The company had a successful initial public offering in 1997, and its stock price rose in 1998 with endorsements from Intel, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, and others.

Glaskowsky said there are several causes for the defect. "I wouldn't blame Intel solely for this," he said. Other sources, though, said the problem lies with Intel's 820 "Camino" chipset, the set of chips that allows a computer's CPU to talk to memory and every other part of a computer system. The 820 is the first chipset that allows Rambus to be used in PCs.

Intel didn't comment on whether there will be any changes to the scheduled debut of the 820, but as recently as two days ago said the debut would go ahead as planned.

Glaskowsky said that any system with three Rambus memory slots "isn't going to be shippable." However, another source said: "Most people are going to go ahead and ship with the bug," then update the computer innards when new parts are available.

Glaskowsky estimated that between 100,000 and a million systems already have been built with the defective parts.

If the supply of electronics using the 820 chipset is delayed, it could hamper the arrival of systems based on a fancy new Pentium III chip, code-named Coppermine, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "If this means you can't have 820 platforms out until mid-December...that would be a real loss," he said. "The Coppermines are really dynamite products."

Strained relations
This problem, combined with the earlier three-month delay, has "strained relations" among computer manufacturers, Intel, and Rambus, Glaskowsky said. In advocating Rambus, Intel told computer makers, "'You will do this if you want to be our friend,' and they did. June to September was pretty significant to [computer manufacturers], but at least they had some heads-up on that," Glaskowsky said.

Despite the hurdles, many analysts and computer makers still back Rambus in the long term. Rambus addresses the problem of satisfying a CPU's appetite for data stored in a computer's memory, a problem that's only getting worse as CPU speed improvements outpace memory speed improvements.

"I don't think anything is wrong with the technology as such. The promise with Rambus is that it has huge bandwidth and can do a lot of things regular [memory] can't do," Glaskowsky said. "This is merely the latest in a series of delays."

Computer manufacturers discovered the problem in machines being tested off the assembly line, Glaskowsky said.