Intel, PC makers sued over Pentium 4 performance

A small group of PC owners has quietly filed a class action lawsuit against Intel Corp., Gateway Inc., and Hewlett-Packard Co. alleging the companies misled them into believing the Pentium 4 was a superior processor to Intel's own Pentium III and AMD's Athlon.

The complaint--Neubauer et al v. Intel et al--was filed June 3 in the Third Judicial Circuit in Madison County, Illinois. The case is in limbo awaiting a ruling on whether it belongs in a state or federal jurisdiction, and has not yet achieved class action status. It came to light this week after a copy of the complaint was sent to PCWorld.com anonymously.

The plaintiffs claim the companies deceived the public when marketing Intel's flagship processor and allege that it is "the material fact that there is no benefit to consumers in choosing the Pentium 4 over the Pentium III." The complaint alleges that "the Pentium 4 is less powerful and slower than the Pentium III and/or the AMD Athlon."

Thousands of Plaintiffs

Noting the sheer number of P4s Intel has sold, the complaint goes on to say the "Class is so numerous that the individual joinder of all members is impracticable" and that the Class could include "hundreds of thousands of members." According to MicroDesign Resources, Intel has shipped upward of 50 million P4s since its launch in November 2000.

The complaint does not name the monetary amount sought by the plaintiffs. It does, however, cite what it says is law in California--where the companies are headquartered--that each plaintiff is entitled to actual damages, restitution of property, and punitive damages. The complaint notes that the cumulative total would be less than $75,000 each.

Attorneys Stephen M. Tillery and Aaron M. Zigler of the law firm Carr Korein Tillery in St. Louis, Missouri, filed the complaint on behalf of five plaintiffs. The firm declines to comment about the case, but Zigler confirms the June 3 filing.

Intel and Gateway executives also decline to comment on the complaint, citing company policies regarding ongoing litigation. HP did not return calls seeking comment.

Analyst: No Chance

The plaintiffs do not appear to be accusing Intel of lying about the P4's clock speed, says Rob Enderle, a research fellow with Giga Information Group. They're complaining about the P4's performance, and that's a crucial element to the case's viability, he says. "As long as the market is going after megahertz, and Intel is reporting the correct megahertz, then I do not think this is actionable," he says. "Megahertz is misleading, but that has to do with the fact that the industry doesn't use benchmarks."

MHz Myth

PCWorld.com's own reviews have shown Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon-based PCs often keep pace with or beat P4-based systems that have faster clock speeds, as measured by the PC WorldBench benchmark (which focuses mainly on standard office applications). However, the P4 has tended to perform better on certain computationally intensive tasks, such as video processing, in those same PC WorldBench tests.

In recent months, thanks to ever-increasing clock speeds and improvements to supporting technologies, P4-based PCs have started to outrun Athlon XP-based systems under PC WorldBench. For example, in a recent test of each company's top CPUs, a system with Intel's 2.53-GHz P4 edged past a PC with an Athlon XP 2100+ chip (running at 1.73 GHz) in PC WorldBench 4.

Analyst Enderle thinks the PC industry should throw out megahertz altogether as a system of measuring performance. The actual clock speed matters less than the overall system performance, he says.

"The right answer really is benchmarks," he says. "We need to have a way that people can really see the difference between PCs."

In fact, in the tech industry several benchmarks have achieved enough coverage to qualify as industry standards. However, it's unlikely any one benchmark would satisfy the legion of vendors that build the components of any one PC.

AMD took matters into its own hands with its launch of the Athlon XP processor last October, when it also introduced a new naming convention that attaches faster-sounding names to AMD's slower-running chips. Results have been mixed.

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