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Most Intel PCs 'immune' to Spectre, Meltdown by next week's end

The chipmaker says updates soon will block any attacks using the new vulnerabilities. And most people won't notice a slowdown, it promises.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
2 min read

The new Meltdown and Spectre computer security problems won't be a problem much longer for most PC users, Intel said Thursday.

"Intel has already issued updates for the majority of processor products introduced within the past five years. By the end of next week, Intel expects to have issued updates for more than 90 percent of processor products introduced within the past five years," the chipmaker said.

The updates make computers "immune from both exploits," Intel said.

Intel's Robert Noyce building at the company's Santa Clara, California, headquarters

Intel says any slowdowns should be eased as the fixes are improved. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

What's not quite so clear is the price you'll pay when those updates are installed. Both attack techniques rely on using features chips use to speed up processing and some of the work to fix the problem therefore slows computers down, whether on your laptop, phone or your favorite social network's internet servers.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich criticized media coverage of the vulnerabilities as overblown.

"This is not an issue that is not fixable," Krzanich said in an interview Thursday. And the performance generally isn't a problem, he said: "For the real-world applications ... it's minimal impact."

The Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities affect computers with chip designs from Intel, Arm and, to a lesser degree, AMD. If an attacker could sneak software onto your computing device, that malware could use the vulnerabilities to read private data it shouldn't be able to see -- like encryption keys, passwords, bank account numbers and other sensitive data. The computing industry is scrambling to lessen the severity of the problem with updates to operating systems, web browsers, cloud-computing services and other foundations that need to be kept secure.

Intel, for its part, expects its fixes "should not be significant" for the average computer user, and slowdowns should be eased as the fixes are improved.

"While on some discrete workloads the performance impact from the software updates may initially be higher, additional post-deployment identification, testing and improvement of the software updates should mitigate that impact," Intel said.

Yes, the company is talking about mitigating the mitigation. You'd better get used to it, because Spectre and Meltdown are deep problems that aren't easily patched. Intel stock dropped 5 percent Wednesday as details of the vulnerabilities emerged. Its shares fell 2 percent Thursday. 

Google, whose Project Zero was one of the discoverers of the problems, also said the fixes don't have to seriously slow down computers.

Two of Google's fixes, called Retpoline and Kernel Page Table Isolation (KPTI), both have meant "negligible impact on performance" for Google's services, according to a Thursday blog post by security engineer Matt Linton and program manager Pat Parseghian.

First published Jan. 4, 2:42 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:25 p.m.: Adds comment from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.

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