Intel finds design flaw in Sandy Bridge chipset

Intel said a design flaw in the Sandy Bridge chipset could reduce revenue by $300 million in the first fiscal quarter

Intel on Monday said it had stopped shipments of the chipset used with its latest generation of Core processors after it found a design flaw.

The flawed chipset was used in PCs with the next-generation Core processors based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, which were introduced last month at the Consumer Electronics Show. Intel has stopped shipment of the affected support chip, and the design issue has been fixed, Intel said.

While the Core processors remain unaffected, customers who purchased systems with second-generation Core i5 and Core i7 quad core microprocessors could be affected by the chipset issue, Intel said.

However, Intel said that "consumers can continue to use their systems with confidence" as the chip maker works with partners to deliver a permanent solution. This could include a support chip that resolves the issue.

Intel discovered a design issue in the 6-Series chipset, which is code-named Cougar Point, and is used in systems with Sandy Bridge processors, which started shipping on Jan. 9. Intel said the Serial-ATA (SATA) ports within the chipsets could degrade over time, which could impact performance or functionality of storage devices such as hard drives.

A symptom of a faulty chipset could be bit-rate errors during data transfers, said Steve Smith, Intel vice president and director of PC client operations and enabling, during a conference call.

It's unlikely that PCs would experience failures immediately, but aggressive data transfers over time could cause more errors, Smith said. For Intel, the best course of action was to fix the problem as quickly as possible before the chipset started shipping in mainstream PCs.

There have been no returns so far related to the chipset and company officials said relatively few customers have been affected. The chipset was shipping in a few PCs with quad-core Core i5 and Core i7 chips.

The chipset originally passed testing and qualification internally and through tests by PC makers, Smith said. The problem was identified on Sunday after Intel got a better understanding of circuit-level issues related to temperature, voltage and time degradation.

The company is continuing to ship Sandy Bridge processors, while the 6-Series chipset has been put on hold, Smith said.

But the chipset and Sandy Bridge processors are paired in many PCs, so the chipset halt could indirectly affect Sandy Bridge volumes, Intel officials acknowledged.

End-user laptops with dual-core Sandy Bridge chips were expected to launch in a few weeks and Smith said those launches may be delayed.

The second-generation Core processors based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture include a number of improvements over their predecessor. The new Core processors for the first time integrate a CPU and graphics processor on one chip, which helps deliver better graphics and application performance.

"The company expects to begin delivering the updated version of the chipset to customers in late February and expects full volume recovery in April. Intel stands behind its products and is committed to product quality," the company said in a statement.

The design problem is expected to reduce revenue by about US$300 million for the first quarter of 2011 as Intel discontinues production and starts manufacturing the modified chipset. Intel said that full-year revenue is not expected to be materially affected by the issue.

This is a big hit for Intel, which is known for flawless chip designs and was pinning hopes on Sandy Bridge chips to deliver close to a third of the revenue during fiscal 2011.

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