Intel must prove CPU upgrade is worth the cost

Analyst: The chipmaker may show that a US$50 software upgrade delivers a sizable speed boost. Is paying a premium worthwhile?

Intel is testing a processor-upgrade program that may alienate the power users it hopes to attract. The Intel Upgrade Service pilot is a retail store offering that boosts the performance of select desktop PCs with the Pentium G6951 processor.

Here's how it works: You pay US$50 for an upgrade card, which includes a PIN number. From your desktop, you download a CPU upgrade program from Intel, enter the PIN and-- voilà!--you've got a quick and easy speed boost. Of course, you might also be irked that Intel sold you an intentionally crippled CPU, and then shook you down for an extra $50 to unlock its full potential.

As my PCWorld colleague Ian Paul discussed yesterday, the real-world benefits of Intel's CPU augmentation are hard to gauge. According to tech site SemiAccurate, the CPU upgrade enables hyper-threading and an extra 1MB of cache.

Intel says its Pentium G6951 upgrade boosts performance of computer-intensive programs that utilize multithreading and larger CPU caches, including photo rendering and high-definition media playback. An Intel benchmark chart shows a performance boost for upgraded desktops running power-hungry apps such as video editing, but provides few details.

Targeted initially at home users, Intel's CPU upgrade program could conceivably be expanding to the business PC market, where it has proven successful in the past.

"This approach to unlocking system capabilities in the field has been used for years in the mid-range RISC market, and end users like it," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, a market research and consulting firm.

"But those users are typically commercial organizations, and the level of incremental performance is entire CPU cores, not just features like hyper-threading or extra cache," says Brookwood.

The bottom line is that Intel must prove that its $50 upgrade will deliver a meaningful performance boost.

"If they can do that, the feature may gain some traction, especially with unsophisticated users who might be afraid to open the case and replace the CPU with a faster chip," Brookwood adds.

Do-it-yourself CPU upgrades--where an end user replaces an older processor with a newer, faster chip--have been available for years. But not all CPUs are removable, and motherboard upgrades can be tricky and costly, particularly if the new board is incompatible with the old one's RAM. By comparison, Intel's software-based upgrade should be relatively painless.

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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Jeff Bertolucci

PC World (US online)
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