What is going wrong with Intel's marketing?

Intel needs to pay more attention to its customers

Jeremy Laird

Second-guessing decisions made by large technology corporations is a perilous task. Including a copy-and-paste function in a new smartphone operating system, for instance, might seem like a no-brainer, but Microsoft decided against doing just that for the launch build of Windows Phone 7.

Whether that turns out to be the correct call isn't the point. What matters is that making sense of such decisions from an outside perspective is often a fool's errand. You simply don't have all the facts.

Problem is, I'm finding it impossible to ignore a pattern of apparently antagonistic anti-customer decisions coming from Intel of late.

The best example is Intel's experimentation with 'upgradeable' CPUs. I'm not talking about replacing an old CPU with a new one. I'm talking about the ability to unlock hidden features. Currently, this 'service' is limited to a select number of low-end Pentium dual-core processors based on Intel's Clarkdale processor die.

Courtesy of a code acquired when purchasing a $50 upgrade card, the chips gain HyperThreading ability and an extra 1MB of cache memory. The details of how this works aren't terribly important, but involve BIOS support from certain system builders' motherboards.

Moreover, it's not unusual to have hidden or locked features inside CPUs.There are good reasons for doing this in terms of market segmentation and production yields.

New approach

However, Intel's approach is new in the sense that it's an unashamed moneymaking ruse. It's effectively gazumping the customer by saying, "Hey, you know that CPU you bought from us last month? Well, it turns out we didn't tell you about all its features. We'll happily unlock some extra performance for you, but only if you're willing to push another $50 our way. Deal?"

Of course, AMD has unofficially dabbled in this area. Some of its multi-core processors have hidden cores that can be unlocked. The difference is that no money changes hands and no promises are made.

You can buy a triple-core Phenom processor and have a crack at unlocking the fourth core. If it's a dud, you're out of luck and your PC won't boot, but you've still got a chip that works as advertised in triple-core mode.

By contrast, there's something much more insidious about Intel flogging chips with the intention of later upselling hidden features. As an owner, I know that having paid once for the damned CPU, I shouldn't have to fork out again to have it turn on properly.

End to overclocking?

On a similar note in terms of contempt for its customers, I was very disappointed to learn that the upcoming Sandy Bridge generation of Intel PC processors will perhaps spell the end of mainstream overclocking. Intel has tweaked the architecture toeffectively integrate the speed of every bus.

Push the base clock up, and the USB, PCI-E, CPU uncore – you name it – all goes up. Reportedly, the effect of all this is to limit baseclock increases to a paltry two to three per cent.

The real kicker here is that Intel realises there's a market for overclockable CPUs and will serve it with K Series chips. These offer unlocked CPU multipliers and therefore the ability to adjust coreclockspeed without any knock-on effects.

Exactly how much Intel will charge for K Series chips isn't clear. But going by existing Westmere-based K Series models, they won't be cheap. Anyway, it seems clear that enthusiasts on a tight budget will no longer be able to buy a low-clocked version of Intel's most powerful desktop chips and clock the twangers off it.

Frankly, I'm baffled that Intel thinks this is a good idea. If the number of such overclocking enthusiasts is small, it hardly seems worth cutting them out of the market. However, if there are lots of them, denying them affordable access to suitable CPUs will only push them in the direction of Intel's main rival, AMD.

Rounding out the evidence for Intel's anti-customer attitude is its famously brain-dead branding strategy. As I've bemoaned on many occasions, with the Core i3, i5 and i7 monikers, it's now almost impossible for ordinary PC buyers to have any real idea what CPU they're actually buying. The whole sorry situation strikes me as being intentionally obfuscatory.

It's all the more disappointing given that Intel's CPU engineers are currently on such blazing form, but I suppose it all plays to the pessimist in me.

Intel's recent performance has been near-flawless. Something's got to give, and if the engineers won't deliver, then it's down to the marketing guys to screw it up. From where I'm standing, they've really got their eyes on the prize.

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