Would you buy an Intel chip hobbled by design?

Is Intel asking for trouble with a pilot program that makes consumers pay an extra $50 to get all of the features in a processor turned on?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Intel may be opening a can of worms with a pilot program that asks consumers to pay an extra $50 to make a processor, hobbled by design, whole again.

So, here's the deal. Intel is conducting a retail pilot program that introduces desktop PCs with an Intel Pentium G6951 processor that has certain features turned off--namely, part of the cache memory and a function called hyper-threading. Cache memory is critical, very-high-speed memory built into the chip, while hyper-threading allows a processor to use, on some applications, virtual cores, essentially doubling the number of physical processing cores.

If consumers decide (based on an in-store offer from Intel) that they want the extra performance, they pay $50 to unlock those features by either having the retailer (Best Buy, in this case), do the upgrade or downloading code by themselves.

What's the can of worms? In addition to possibly irritating customers by notifying them that they have a hobbled chip, the program spotlights Intel's, otherwise perfectly legitimate, processor marketing strategy. (And I would submit that it doesn't matter how inexpensive the hobbled pilot program processor is, the scheme will still get under consumer's skins.)

First, some background. Though Intel brands the chip as a Pentium (a brand originally introduced back in the early 1990s), certain Pentium processors are in fact based on a cutting-edge design called Westmere, a chip package that contains a 32-nanometer processor core and a 45-nanometer graphics chip.

Intel processor upgrade program.
Intel processor upgrade program. Intel

And the Westmere line includes Intel's best-selling Core i7, i5, and i3 processors. An imperfect though instructive analogy can be made between the pilot program and the Core i3. Some Core i3 chips are also downgraded by design. Turbo Boost technology--which dynamically powers up and shuts down cores depending on the needs of the application--is disabled on the i3, but not on the i5 and i7.

Again, this is a perfectly legitimate, marketing 101 business strategy in which Intel "bins" (typically based on clock frequencies, i.e., gigahertz ratings) certain processors. In short, you want more performance or better battery life? Then you must buy a higher end processor (or a more expensive system with the higher-end chip). The point is that there is no rude, locked-feature surprise for the customer later. (Intel has done this for a long time, the 486SX being a good example.)

So, the problem lies in the potential to call attention to these other Intel processors that have features disabled, thereby annoying consumers. It's not hard to imagine a consumer saying, "Wait a minute, my Core i3 system doesn't have Turbo Boost? Why? It's a Core i series chip. I thought that was standard?"

Intel defends the strategy as catering to the specific needs of the individual consumer.

"Intel is exploring a way to give customers the flexibility to determine the level of performance they want in their processor, without having to change hardware," said Gordon Dolfie, director of product marketing for Intel's reseller products group. "This gives customers an extra configuration option that isn't available on standard Pentium processors."

"We are planning a pilot program in a limited number of retail stores using one Pentium processor SKU (line) that will enable a consumer to upgrade the performance of their PC online," he said. "The new CPU upgrade is designed to deliver additional performance as an option on Pentium processor-based PCs included in the pilot program. We will continue to gather customer feedback throughout the pilot program."

The above, of course, is not unlike Microsoft's Windows 7 strategy. If you buy a Netbook, for example, with Windows 7 Starter, you can elect to pay $79.95 for the "Windows Anytime Upgrade" to Windows 7 Home Premium. In other words, Windows 7 Starter is intentionally hobbled.

I could be overstating the gravity of the problem, as I see it, with this marketing strategy and the potential reaction by consumers. I guess the question is, will consumers even care? Or just see it as a standard upgrade?

Source: Engadget