Intel's Sandy Bridge chipset headache took another turn today. Last week Intel announced that it was pulling all Cougar Point chipsets that support its new Sandy Bridge desktop and laptop CPU family due to a flaw in the chip controlling the Serial ATA II data inputs.
Citing high demand from its desktop- and laptop-selling customers, Intel announced today that while it works on remanufacturing the chipset it will resume shipping the older, flawed version, and pledged to work with system vendors to either eliminate or minimize customer exposure to the potential problem.
The flaw, said to affect 5 to 15 percent of all Cougar Point motherboards, results in a performance degradation for storage devices connected to the motherboard's SATA II data inputs. Devices that use those inputs are typically either hard drives or optical disk drives. If the inputs were affected, connected drives would eventually slow down to the point of becoming unusable.
To protect a PC from experiencing that issue, a system vendor could simply use the newer, faster SATA III inputs. Most Cougar Point desktop motherboards we've seen have four SATA II ports and two SATA IIIs. Laptop boards tend to have fewer inputs, but it's not hard to imagine that in a closed laptop or all-in-one chassis a vendor could simply use the SATA III inputs for the hard drive and the optical drive and ship without risk.
A tower desktop with an accessible interior presents a different problem. The workaround in that case, where a customer might indeed miss the extra drive inputs, involves substituting a SATA II-equipped PCI-Express expansion card for the onboard SATA II inputs, similar to how you might upgrade an integrated graphics chip with a discrete graphics card. Intel says it will ensure that desktop vendors ship any Sandy Bridge systems with the PCI Express card workaround. The vendors must also remove the onboard SATA II input headers. That way customers who make a post-purchase drive upgrade won't make the mistake of using the potentially affected ports.
That arrangement certainly helps the desktop vendors, which were counting on the Sandy Bridge momentum to bolster first-quarter sales. For customers, it depends on how much they mind sacrificing a PCIe slot for the promise of an immediate Sandy Bridge performance boost.
If you order a Sandy Bridge system now, many desktop vendors will offer free motherboard upgrades and bidirectional shipping to replace the flawed motherboard once the repaired board becomes available. Intel has said the replacement motherboards will start shipping by mid-February, and that it expects shipments and vendor qualification of the new boards will be completed industrywide by April.