Technology

Intel unveils controversial PC upgrade scheme

Silicon wafer, Getty
Image caption The card unlocks features already present on the dual-core chips

Intel is giving buyers of some computers the chance to pay for an upgrade that boosts the power of the processor in their desktop PC.

The pilot scheme will involve purchasing a card bearing a security key that unlocks the extra features via the web.

Critics have derided the idea as a way for Intel to charge customers for something the chip can already do.

Intel said the scheme was about offering "choice and flexibility".

"The pilot in a limited number of retail stores will centre on one Pentium processor, one of our value brands, and will enable a consumer to upgrade the performance of their PC online," Intel spokesman George Alfs told BBC News.

Margin squeeze

"This saves the user from buying a new system or taking it in for a physical upgrade."

Initially, the cash-based upgrade scheme will only apply to computers containing the G6951 desktop processor. According to Intel a sister chip, the G6950, costs $87 (£56) each when bought in batches of 1,000. Intel would not confirm the cost of the upgrade cards but said reports that they would retail for $50 were "in the ballpark".

The upgrade would increase the size of the chip's cache memory and unlock a technology known as hyperthreading. This would allow the computer to be more responsive and help with data-intensive tasks such as video editing as it enables a workload to be spread more dynamically shared across the two processors.

The G6951 processor is a dual core 2.8Ghz chip from Intel's i3 family that is intended for lower-end desktop machines. This part of the PC market is seen as very competitive and price sensitive.

The G6951 is not available to buy yet but is expected to be used in Gateway's SX2841-09e desktop machine that will only be available from the Best Buy store. A comparable Gateway machine currently costs $559.99 (£385). Acer is also believed to be taking part in the upgrade scheme.

The company would not comment on which countries would be involved in the pilot and how many retailers it intends to target.

The web pages that Intel has set up to support its "down the wire" upgrade service report that it is being piloted with a "limited number" of customers in the US, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands.

Intel said that the programme was due to roll out in the fourth quarter of 2010 and could start as early as October.

'Bone-headed'

News of the scheme was broken by the technology blog Engadget which showed pictures of the cards on the internet and called the move an "intriguing business model".

As information began spreading across the web, critics and supporters weighed in.

"This is a bone-headed move for Intel to make," said Adrian Kingsley-Hughes of technology blog ZDNet.com.

"The upgrade mechanism here is a basic one, so it won't be long until the process is hacked. It's highly confusing for the consumer. To be honest, it's not really worth the $50 and customers could spend their money better."

In a blog post, author and copyright reform activist Cory Doctorow said the principle on which the upgrade cards are based "flies in the face of the entire human history of innovation".

"By this reasoning, the company that makes big tins of juice should be able to charge you extra for the right to use the empty cans to store lugnuts," he wrote.

But Steven Mostyn of the Tech Herald noted that Intel is not the first tech player to charge its customers for locked content.

"Major publishers within the video games industry have long since adopted the profit-wringing strategy of locking gameplay content on disc until players shell out extra for 'downloadable' access."

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