Intel trials downloadable CPU upgrades
Want HyperThreading enabled? There's an app for that...
Intel is trialling a processor that can be made to run faster - if you cough up extra cash.
The chip is the little known Pentium G6951. It's currently being offered to a "limited number" system builders in the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Spain on a "pilot" basis, but presumably Intel will widen availability if the scheme proves popular.
Acer-owned Gateway is among the vendors trying the system out.
How does it work? PC maker A sells "upgradeable" PC to punter, who can then buy an unlock code, download an app from Intel and enter the code into it to unleash the "processor performance upgrade", which involves an "increase from two- to four-way multi-task processing" and a "larger cache".
The 'upgrade' centres on enabling HyperThreading on the Core i3-derived dual-core CPU, for which US buyers are expected to pay an extra $50.
The savvy consumer can probably pick up a machine with an HT-enabled CPU for less than $50, but we suspect Intel is trying to tap into the desires of buyers a year or two into the life of their computer, and specifically buyers who aren't going to consider either buying a new machine, extra memory or simply running a utility like CCleaner to remove all the crud that accumulates on Windows machines.
Naturally, the folk most up in arms about this scheme are the very people least likely to buy such an 'upgradeable' machine in the first place. They see it setting a dangerous precedent: if they buy any Intel CPU in future, will they be getting the performance they're paying for?
Possibly, yes - but not necessarily the maximum performance of which that CPU is capable. If Intel can sell a $100 chip that can be made to run as well as a $150 for an extra $75, it's doing nothing wrong providing it's not promising the higher level of performance from the outset.
We've been at the stage where a given processor line has dozens of slightly faster variants for a long time. It's up to us as buyers to pick the best one, which isn't necessarily always the priciest part.
Would you be pissed off if you bought a 2GHz Intel chip only for the company to release a 3GHz version a year later? No, you'd chalk that up to the natural evolution of processors. There will always be something better, faster just around the corner. Does it really matter if you get the upgrade by buying a download or new silicon if the results is the same? ®
And how long....
... before someone releases a keygen so you can upgrade for free? All kinds of brutal and draconian copy protection on games have been beaten within days of release, what's to stop this from going the same way?
...not quite. If the CPU is capable of doing 3Ghz instead of 2 then it should bloody well do 3Ghz from the start! Selling you an underclocked item only to try and charge you more to make it run at it's capablities later on is a con. Plain and simple. Also hackers would be trying to unlock these things to spit in Intels eye anyhow.
Profit & environment
1) When process yields are low, nobody minds that chips with defective cores or cache are sold as lower end models. A Phenom X4 sells for 100% over cost, and Athlon X2 might only sell for 15% over cost.
2) When process yields are high, every chip could be made into a Phenom X4 but there is still demand for Athlon X2 for use in low-end systems. System builders won't pay and don't need so much power, so some chips are made into Athlon X2s, so that AMD can sell more chips and make more overall profit.
3) To prevent remarking and other arbitrage, the disabling mechanism is a combination of shorting some fuses (permanent damage.) In addition, a code on the CPU instructs the BIOS which cores on the CPU are usable.
4) Intel has developed a software-based system that can make a static change to the CPU's configuration. "The upgrade enables changes to the firmware (driven by the Intel® Active Management Technology Management Engine in the chipset) that in turn modify the hardware."
The actual mechanism is not described but I would guess that the chipset is shorting some fuses on the CPU to *enable* the cache and hyperthreading.
This means that it is no longer necessary for the CPU manufacturers to permanently limit a CPU for marketing reasons. It's the same business model, just with more flexibility.
5) This is a positive change. It's better for the environment. If we can upgrade our CPUs there will be fewer CPUs created. If a consumer doesn't want to give Intel the full profit margin upfront, the consumer can pay later for it.
6) If people hate the idea of buying CPUs with locked features, they are not obligated to do so. I recently even paid about $10 extra to buy a Phenom X2 965 with no multiplier locks. But I do have an i7 920 with a locked multiplier, and a Pentium D 905 with locked hyperthreading, and a Celeron D with a locked cache. I got what I paid for. However, I wish this tweak of the business model had arrived earlier so I could unlock my other CPUs.