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Intel works on antidote to bugs

The chip giant is working on new technology that makes it easier to fix bugs found in its processors.

Intel (INTC) is working on new technology that makes it easier to fix bugs found in its chips.

Finding an easier way to fix bugs in Intel processors is a critical issue for the chip giant since the potential existence of a bug that necessitates a processor recall is always present.

Intel's processors are in more than 80% of the personal computers sold worldwide and the company is now shipping close to 100 million chips a year.

In general, bug fixing is a costly and complex logistical undertaking, as evidenced by the infamous 1994 Pentium "floating point" bug, a problem that in some cases produced wrong answers to computations. This led to a public relations nightmare for Intel as well as a financial one, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars to resolve.

And that wasn't the end to Intel's headaches. As first reported by CNET's NEWS.COM on May 2, the Pentium II and Pentium Pro processors were found to have another bug, one that could result in calculation errors in rare situations, according to Robert Collins, the person who described it on his Intel Secrets Web site.

Moreover, all Intel processors have bugs or "errata," which Intel publishes.

The upshot is to find an easier, less-costly way to get fixes done. Intel would not comment on the existence of such technology, so it remains unclear how the fixes would be made possible.

At the very least, however, experts and analysts are speculating that any new approaches would be an improvement over existing methods, which include recalls and esoteric software "workarounds."

Industry sources familiar with the Pentium Pro and Pentium II processors say the technology already exists in these two processors, which allow the "microcode"--very basic software that defines how a processor operates--to be changed, which could theoretically provide a way to fix a bug.

"I know that the Pentium Pro and Pentium II have this capability. Being able to patch microcode is a good solution for fixing certain kinds of bugs. It isn't a comprehensive solution, though, and won't be able to deal with some kinds of bugs," said one source familiar with the technology.

One theory on how it might work was reported in Electronic Engineering Times, a respected electronics industry publication, which first reported the bug fix. The feature goes under the name of the "BIOS Update Feature," according to the report.

The BIOS, or Basic Input/Output System, is software included in every PC and which configures a personal computer every time it is turned on. In this case, using the PC's BIOS, the microcode would be updated when then computer starts up, fixing the bug.

"Quite a lot of [bugs] could be solved this way," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Dataquest. But he cautions that the logistics of fixing bugs in this way could still be convoluted.

"There are a bunch of different BIOSes out there. This makes things complex, and every [processor version] has microcode arranged differently," he said.

Some sources emphasize that, at this point, it would not be advisable to speculate about possible implementations for fixes. "Don't link the capability [in the processors] to implementation. It's a long way from theoretical capability to implementation," one source said.

Also, some observers point to the potential of providing an opportunity for hackers to gain access to microcode and altering the way the chip operates. However, due to Intel encryption technology this would be extremely difficult.