Intel chip flaw could delay MacBook Pro refresh, say analysts

But one expert says it's 'good news' for Apple

An anticipated refresh by Apple of its prime notebook line may be delayed by an Intel chipset design blunder, analysts said today.

Earlier Monday, Intel acknowledged that a supporting chipset for the next-generation Core processors contained a flaw in the Serial-ATA (SATA) controller. The bug can cause poor hard drive performance or even make the drive invisible to the system.

Intel said it has stopped shipments of the flawed chipsets and retooled the chipset. It will begin shipping the fixed version late next month, and said that it "expects full volume recovery in April."

The design gaffe could effect Apple's next MacBook Pro refresh if the notebook line is to get new processors based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, as many speculated last month .

According to Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst with the Linley Group -- the publishers of Microprocessor Report -- the mobile version of the supporting chipset may have been flawed.

In an e-mail reply to questions, Krewell pointed out a pair of Intel documents that note the mobile versions of the chipset use the same 6Gbps and 3Gbps ports as those used in the desktop versions.

Andantech.com , meanwhile, said today that the flaw affects only the 3Gbps ports -- the chipsets' SATA controller also offers faster-speed 6Gbps ports -- making the likelihood of an impact on notebook makers even higher.

While the signs point to a problem for Apple, analysts split today on whether a MacBook Pro refresh would be delayed.

"It could mean a delay of two to three weeks," said Martin Reynolds, a vice president with Gartner, assuming Apple intended to launch new MacBook Pros in March or even April.

Dan Olds, a senior analyst with Portland, Ore.-based Gabriel Consulting Group, disagreed.

"I don't think Intel has shipped any [Sandy Bridge] chipsets for mobile yet," Olds said. "I haven't heard any chatter from the major players [about upcoming notebooks that use the chipsets], like Dell, for example."

The unknown, of course, is when Apple was planning to launch revamped MacBook Pro models that rely on the Sandy Bridge architecture, and thus, the flawed chipsets.

Most close Apple watchers have been expecting an imminent refresh. Although Apple doesn't hew to a set schedule for upgrades, the last time it boosted the MacBook Pro was in April 2010, nearly 300 days ago.

MacRumors, which monitors Apple product timelines, said today that the average time between MacBook Pro refreshes is just 208 days , and currently recommends that buyers delay purchases because a refresh is likely.

"If you're Apple, this is actually good news," said Olds. "You'd rather have it happen now than in April, May, June or July when systems have been shipped."

Reynolds echoed that. "Intel is lucky they caught this now, that the ports failed as soon as they did," he said, noting that the flaw escaped Intel's usual pre-shipping tests, probably because the symptom -- a hard drive issue -- could have been blamed on the drive not the SATA controller.

To Olds, the problem was a big deal no matter how you looked at it.

"This affects everyone involved, Intel and OEMs," he said. "When this happens, you simply don't see your drive anymore. It turns the computer into a brick."

But Olds was confident Intel would quickly get new, fixed chipsets to computer makers. "You have to assume that Intel will be rolling with all due speed on this," Olds said. "Ever since they had that Pentium math error years ago, they've attacked problems pretty aggressively."

The Pentium problem Olds mentioned came to light in 1994, when a Virginia math professor discovered a bug in the processor's calculations .

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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