Intel this week defended its fee-based processor upgrade program, saying it is a way to add incremental performance without having to tear the system apart for a CPU upgrade.
Intel is selling upgradable processors in which some features, such as processors and cache, can be added through upgrade cards sold through retail stores. The card points to a downloadable software program that completes the chip upgrade on PCs running Microsoft's Windows 7 OS.
The CPU upgrade program is in its pilot stages and involves just a few low-end budget processors, said Dave Salvator, an Intel spokesman, in response to questions about why Intel was locking out features in some chips. The program is targeted at customers interested in adding additional capabilities to the baseline features provided with the original upgradable chip.
"It's just a different way of giving more value to people," Salvator said. "It's not something that we're going off and trying to reinvent the world with."
Two Core i3 processors based on the Sandy Bridge microprocessors were recently added to the upgrade program, which was originally introduced last year for a Pentium processor. The Core i3-2312M laptop processor can be upgraded to the Core i3-2393M with more frequency and cache, while the Core- i3-2102 processor for desktops can be upgraded to the Core i3-2153 with more frequency.
The upgrades can boost application and graphics speeds by up to 19 percent, according to Intel's Upgrade Service page.
Intel is able to sell chips at a lower price by not bundling a full set of features, which could lead to lower prices for PCs, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. At the same time, the revenue wrapped around the chip upgrade program is a margin and revenue enhancer for Intel.
"Rather than just completely disabling the features, they open the door to get additional revenue," McCarron said.
The manufacturing cost of a chip is fixed, and some of the features may be disabled during the testing process, McCarron said. This program will not likely show up in corporate PCs. It will most likely remain a retail play for budget buyers who opt for low-end chips and would be willing to pay extra for upgrades without breaking the bank on a new PC, McCarron said.
Features have been previously disabled on graphics cards and processors, McCarron said. For example, Advanced Micro Devices' triple-core Phenom chip came with one disabled core, which could be activated via a hack to make it a quad-core chip.
Some high-end gaming chips also have overclocking capabilities, where enthusiasts can increase clock speed to deliver more performance. In some cases, overclocking does not require an upgrade fee.
Intel's Salvator said that laptops or chips will have a sign indicating the processors are upgradable, which will help customers make purchase decisions. The pricing of upgrade cards depends on retailers, he said.
The processor upgrade program this year is targeted for availability in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and Peru. Intel is considering expanding the program to additional countries.
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