Intel 'upgrade card' unlocks disabled CPU features


— 6:00 AM on September 20, 2010

You might have already spotted the link and the resulting firestorm in yesterday's shortbread, but this deserves more formal front-page coverage. As Engadget rather calmly points out, Intel has been testing the waters with a new "Upgrade Card" system, which essentially involves buying a $50 scratch card with a code that unlocks features in your PC's processor.

The guys at Hardware.info broke this story last month, although nobody seemed to notice right away—perhaps because their site's in Dutch. The article shows how the upgrade key unlocks "an extra megabyte L3 cache and Hyper Threading" on the Pentium G6951. In its locked state, that 2.8GHz processor has two physical cores, two threads, and 3MB of L3 cache, just like the retail-boxed Pentium G6950.

Intel has a few pages of documentation about the Upgrade Service scheme, if you'd like to get some early-morning reading done. According to that third page, the Upgrade Service is rolling out only as a "small pilot program" in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain.

Detractors of the scheme might point out that Intel is making customers pay for features already present in the CPU they purchased. That's quite true. However, as the Engadget post notes, both Intel and AMD have been selling CPUs with bits and pieces artificially disabled for years. That practice is known as binning—sometimes, chipmakers use it to unload parts with malfunctioning components; other times, it's more about product segmentation and demand. There have often been unofficial workarounds, too. These days, for example, quite a few AMD motherboards let you unlock cores in Athlon II X3 and Phenom II X2 processors. Intel simply seems to be offering an official workaround for its CPUs... and cashing in on it.

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