'Industry-wide' memory flaw appears confined to HP

The notebook memory-module flaw that Hewlett-Packard (HP) identified last week as having the potential to cause problems for all notebook manufacturers has thus far shown up only in HP notebooks, according to PC vendors, memory manufacturers, and industry analysts.

Last Friday, HP announced it would offer a replacement for certain notebook memory chips found in about 900,000 of its notebooks. Users of those systems can download a utility from HP's Web site to determine if they have a flawed memory chip. The affected HP notebooks cut across several product lines and were shipped over the last two years.

The flaw occurs when a PC attempts to re-enter an active mode from a sleep mode. Under certain conditions, the memory module can hang and cause the system to crash, resulting in the loss of data.

The sleep mode that must be enabled to induce the flaw is known as C3. It is the deepest level of sleep that a processor can enter in order to save power, according to documentation for the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) standard used by PC and processor vendors to manage power consumption. Some notebook vendors put the processor into this state when the user presses the sleep button, or when the notebook is left idle for an extended period of time.

Some notebook vendors also use the C3 sleep mode to actively manage power consumption by putting the processor into C3 mode thousands of times a second during gaps in application activity. The likelihood of the system crashing is much greater when the C3 mode is entered and exited so frequently, said Ronald Kasic, director of customer engineering and sustaining marketing for HP.

In order for those crashes to occur, the C3 sleep mode must be used in conjunction with the 845, 852, or 855 mobile chipsets from Intel, processors that support the C3 state, and certain memory chips from Micron Technology, Samsung Electronics, Winbond Electronics, and Infineon Technologies, HP said.

The Infineon chips affected by the flaw were a limited number of 256M-byte DIMMs (dual inline memory modules) shipped in the first part of 2003, Infineon said in a statement. The chips made up a very small portion of the notebook DIMMs shipped by Infineon during that period and no other memory modules have been discovered with the flaws since then, the company said.

Samsung has not received any reports of problems or flaws from customers other than HP, a Samsung spokeswoman said. Representatives from Micron and Winbond did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

IBM discovered the issue while testing memory chips in its Thinkpad notebooks. "At this point in time, we haven't detected any problems with qualified memory sources consistent with HP's reported problems. We did detect problems previously, and we disqualified those memory parts," said Ray Gorman, an IBM spokesman.

Gateway has not received reports of this problem from customers, but its newly acquired subsidiary eMachines discovered the problem while testing the newest batch of eMachines notebooks and was able to fix those systems before they left the company, said Erin Davern, a Gateway spokeswoman.

Dell has not noticed this problem on any of its systems, said Anne Camden, a Dell spokeswoman. The company is looking closely at its systems to determine if a problem exists, but it doesn't believe it is affected, she said.

A Toshiba spokeswoman said the company was investigating the problem, and plans to issue an update on the status of its notebooks in the coming days.

Most PC vendors don't use the C3 sleep state because the lighter power-saving states provide the greatest overall benefits, said Roger Kay, vice president of client computing with IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. For example, the C3 state requires the operating system to manage certain parts of the chip while in that state, while the lighter states don't require any intervention on the part of software, according to the ACPI documentation.

However, HP described the combination of the C3 sleep state and the Intel chipsets as a "very prevalent architecture used in the industry" on its list of frequently asked questions about the memory issue on its Web site.

HP deserves credit for going public with the problem and making it easy for customers to find out if they might be affected by the problem, said Stephen Baker, director of industry analysis for NPD Techworld in Virginia.

But the fact that no other vendors have reported problems and that two vendors discovered similar problems in testing raises questions as to whether HP simply missed the issue in its own testing, and attempted to portray the flaw as an industry issue to avoid that perception.

"Best case scenario, they thought this would be a problem for a lot of people. Worst case scenario, they recognized they were the only ones doing this and wanted to deflect attention from the fact that they missed it," Baker said.

HP didn't discover the flaw during preliminary testing because the probability of the issue occurring is extremely low and dependent on the user's configuration, it said on its memory recall Web page.

"We stand 100 percent behind the claim that this is an industry-wide problem. If you're using those core components, you have the potential to be impacted by this," said Mike Hockey, an HP spokesman.

HP notebook users can visit an HP Web page http://h30090.www3.hp.com/mmrp for more information about the problem.

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Tom Krazit

IDG News Service
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