Intel has today stopped shipments of the Series 6 chipsets used with its much vaunted Sandy Bridge processors. The reason: a problem with the SATA controller that could over a period of time cause problems with SATA-linked devices.
Or, to put it another way, the motherboards manuafacturers have been providing to PC makers could cause them (the PCs, not the PC makers) to keel over.
Intel has stopped shipment of the affected support chip, and the design issue has been fixed, Intel said earlier. But what exactly happened, and what can you expect if you've ordered a laptop or a desktop PC with a Sandy Bridge processor?
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Intel Sandy Bridge: the problem
None of this comes from official sources, but it's our understanding that the problem with chipsets lies in the older SATA interface contained on the Series 6 chipsets - the 3Gb/s connection. It's mildly surprising but we understand the problem is not the 'world's first' 6Gb/s connectivity that Intel has been boasting about.
According to industry sources, the interface that controls the movement of data - also known as the 'clocking tree' - has been fitted with transistors that are not built for the relatively high level of voltage they are being asked to serve. In principle, this could cause leaking current that could, in time, cause the 3Gb/s SATA ports to fail, damaging any connected components.
It's a big mistake, but one that is relatively simple to fix in new products. But what about those products that have already shipped?
Intel Sandy Bridge: what happens now?
Here there are two schools of thought.
Upon hearing the news this morning, most industry insiders expected that Intel would recall all the chipsets, and those people who already had Intel Sandy Bridge PCs would have to return them for repair. As big a problem as that would be, the relatively few people who already have such laptops and desktop PCs pale into insignificance next to real issue: the millions of motherboards already shipped or in transit to PC manufacturers big and small around the globe.
One UK PC maker told us earlier that if their motherboard supplier insisted on the return of all affected supplies, they would in essence have to take a month off supplying desktops.
"We can't fulfil orders for PCs that people have purchased with Sandy Bridge chips, and we can't ship them with older processors - even if we had the components in stock! Our suppliers are suggesting it will be April before we can get on stream."
But there may be good news. A source from an unamed (but sizeable) components manufacturer told us late in the day that they hoped to be able to continue to ship the affected motherboards as is, supplemented with a lengthy 'no quibble' guarantee - presumably with financial support from Intel.
PC manufacturers have also told us that it is possible to simply reduce the power supplied to the problem SATA interfaces. This would allow them to ship risk-free, but is a less desirable outcome as it would have an (admittedly) minor performance impact.
Intel Sandy Bridge: what should you do?
If you already have an order in for a Sandy Bridge PC, the best advice is to contact your manufacturer. The chances are they don't know any more than you do (having read this story), but they'll find out what's happening first, and at least you know what's going on.
It's worth being appraised of your consumer rights, too. If all the chipsets do have to go back to manufacturers, there'll be a cost to be born by someone. If you've already agreed a purchase you don't want that cost to be passed on to you. Again, speak to the vendor you purchased from.
If you are considering buying a PC, it may be time to pause for thought. The tests we've carried out in the PC Advisor Test Centre prove that Sandy Bridge is a considerable step forward in terms power and performance. It may be that PC makers try to sell systems with older chipsets to keep things moving, and it's possible you could grab a bargain.
But if you want the best, it's definitely worth waiting until this issue is resolved. We're expecting announcements in the next 48 hours.