“It’s a Notebook!” “It’s a Paperweight!” “Wait - It’s Both!”

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Event Summary

Source: PC Week
UPDATED March 17, 2000 10:58 AM PT

Intel Corp. has confirmed it uncovered a design problem involving processor packages using the company's 400MHz Celeron and 400MHz Pentium II mobile chips that effectively made the chips unusable. The problem was brought to Intel's attention in late February after buyers of notebooks from Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. began complaining about CPU failures. The trouble was initially reported to Toshiba by owners of its Satellite 4100-series and Tecra 8000-series laptops featuring the 400MHz chips.

In the last two weeks, Toshiba and Intel engineers narrowed the problem down to a circuit board, known as Mobile Module One, on which the CPUs were affixed, according to Intel spokesman Manny Vara in Santa Clara, Calif. Intel has several types of mobile modules, Vara said.

"Basically, there's something called over-voltage tripping (on the circuit board), and there's a component in there that would trip the over-voltage protection so that it would disable the CPU," Vara said. He stressed that the problem was related to a component on the chips' daughtercards and not to the processors themselves. Intel and Toshiba officials said the problem was limited to a small percentage of all 400MHz mobile processors produced from late December 1999 through February. Vara said the corrected chips began shipping this month. "We found a workaround, we implemented the workaround, and we've been shipping the products already with the workaround implemented," he said.

While Intel believes Toshiba received the majority of the flawed packages, Vara said other OEMs (original-equipment manufacturers) might have received some in small quantities. However, he stopped short of disclosing the names of the other OEMs.

Mark Tanguay, Toshiba's director of mobile product marketing, said the company has been working to resolve the problem for its customers. "We are proactively contacting our customer base and are working with them to resolve any issues that are uncovered," he said. "We're going back right now, working to see not only what the total volume was, but where the products ended up," Tanguay said. "Since these products usually end up with corporate customers, they are somewhat concentrated into select accounts, and we're talking to those accounts right now to see if we can isolate the problems."

According to Toshiba, Satellite notebooks are generally purchased by small and midsize businesses, while Tecras are most often bought by large-scale corporate accounts. "We're working very closely with Intel," Tanguay said. "We've already identified the fix for this; we've already implemented repair work as well in our factory so that new products coming out will not face this issue. "Our remedy is just like with every product. We'll go ahead and repair or replace any component under warranty," he said. Intel's Vara also vowed that the chipmaker would continue to offer Toshiba assistance to address the problem.

Market Impact

Toshiba has been one of the leading notebook manufacturers for years. This embarrassment will not kill the product line, especially since the fault seems to lie with Intel. Although the foul-up will likely not cause Toshiba to "reevaluate its relationship" with Intel (euphemism for considering whether to dump Intel), we expect Toshiba (and any other vendors affected) will pay closer attention to products and components they receive from Intel.

For Intel, this is the "Nth" in a string (growing longer all the time) of Intel problems/issues. Dell seems to be standing firm (at least in public) in its support of Intel, but other computer vendors may start to realize that Intel is no longer unassailable. Compaq, NEC, HP, and Toshiba are already using Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) processors in some of their notebooks; continued problems may cause those vendors to form stronger ties with AMD.

Although Intel has always recovered from embarrassments in the past, at some point the "problem quotient" may reach critical mass - especially if Intel management fails to take these problems (and their root causes) seriously. We believe a string of issues is a symptom of deeper problems, so Intel management might want to investigate for more signs.

AMD should respond to this issue by highlighting their performance. In addition, if they can positively compare their mobile systems' reliability to Intel's, they should milk it for all it's worth.

User Recommendations

For current Toshiba Tecra and Satellite customers: find out from Toshiba if your laptop is one of those affected. (Of course, some of you may have already found out the hard way.) Toshiba says it will be proactive in contacting customers, but we always recommend that users also be proactive when computer problems are involved. If your laptop is one of the soon-to-be-dead ones, you can either get it fixed for free (if still under warranty), or have it bronzed for posterity.

Non-Toshiba customers with 400 MHz Celeron and Pentium II (PII) should also check with the manufacturer to determine if they are at risk. Based on Intel's statements, Toshiba received the majority of problem boards, so the probability of a problem will be less for those from other manufacturers.

For new customers, the occurrence of this particular problem should be near-zero. Of course, we cannot predict whether new issues will crop up at some point in the future. Prudent customers should also investigate competitive offerings with AMD processors, with the comparison focusing on reliability. (AMD's processors can match Intel for price and performance, so the remaining key issue is reliability.)

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