Intel Test Marketing Artificially Constrained "Upgradeable" Processors

Intel's marketing division has a long history of partnering with OEMs in order to jointly promote a product, but the company's most recent initiative could create blowback from unhappy customers. According to information unearthed this past weekend, Intel is quietly testing the concept of "upgradeable" CPUs. Instead of buying a physical CPU and going to through the hassle of installing it, customers who purchase one of these systems could optionally purchase an upgrade card (current price: $50).

Right now the program appears to be confined to Best Buy and a single Gateway, the SX2841-09e. There's no mention of that system at either companies' website; the specs for the SX2840-01 are available here. For now, the psuedo-upgrade only applies to one processor (the Intel Pentium G6951) and requires either an Intel DH55TC or DH55PJ, both of which use the Intel H55 Express chipset. If that model number sounds familiar, it's because Intel released the G6950 in Q1 of this year. We're guessing the G6951 either has a different GPU clock than its predecessor, or was specially designed to take advantage of this software 'upgrade.'

The G6951 is a 32nm dual-core Core i3 processor at 2.8GHz with 3MB of included L3 cache and no Hyper-Threading. After purchasing and entering an authorized activation code, the G6951 is upgraded into a G6952 and gains both Hyper-Threading and an additional 1MB of L3 cache. According to Intel's Retail Upgrade website, the performance difference between the two configurations looks like so:

Nearly all of these tests are Hyper-Threading friendly tests—single-threaded performance would only rise if a program was limited by the original 3MB of L3 cache

The best thing about Intel's Retail Upgrade plan is that it should work flawlessly and without any need to crack open a case. In days of yore, Intel included upgrade paths for its customers (think 486SX, OverDrive, Pentium OverDrive, etc). The compatibility, performance, and stability of the upgraded system often varied widely, making it difficult for a would-be buyer to determine which computer would be able to take advantage of a new processor (and which wouldn't). None of these factors would apply to an upgraded G6951 system; users could buy the G6951 solution and confidently plan to unlock the G9652 at a later date.

The $50 price tag, however, isn't much of a deal. According to Intel's own records, the G6950 currently sells for $87 in 1K lots. $51 higher up the ladder, there's the Intel Core i3-550. Compared to the G6950/6951, the i3-550 is 400MHz faster, includes Hyper-Threading, offers the same 4MB of L3, and officially supports DDR3-1333 as opposed to just DDR3-1066. As an added bonus, its GPU is 200MHz faster than the G6950's (though we don't know the 6951's GPU clock yet). Given Intel's current price structure, a Core i3-550 system is likely to be a better deal. (We'd feel a bit differently about this if the upgrade included Turbo Boost and/or a modest speed increase).

There are two other points of interest buried in the fine print. Intel states that in order to qualify for an upgrade "the computer system to have an upgrade-enabled Intel CPU, BIOS, and chipset, network hardware and software, as well as connection with a power source and the Internet." This is a rather interesting qualifier, given the fact that Intel is one of the largest OEM motherboard manufacturers. If this program takes off, we might see various other motherboard manufacturers licensing the right to build upgrade-capable motherboards in the not-too-distant future.

The other bit of information deals with revenue-sharing. According to this page meant for System Builders, Intel Upgrade Service offers revenue shares to you and your customers when upgrades are sold. (emphasis original.) This is classic Intel manuevering at work—if the program becomes popular, all of the major OEMs will sign up rather than risk missing out on a competitive advantage.

It's anyone's guess how consumers will react to the idea that they're buying what we'll politely call "constrained" processors. This is a potential issue Intel will have to handle with great care. As the original Pentium FDIV bug proved, consumers don't care if an issue actually impacts them or not. The same thought patterns that led millions of consumers to demand a new, flawless Pentium could lead to an outcry over allegedly crippled microprocessors.