Updated: 17 burning questions on Intel's Sandy Bridge chipset fiasco

Paul Lilly

Santa Clara, we have a problem. That's the message Intel engineers had to deliver to company execs after discovering a "design issue" in the company's 6-Series chipsets. The issue is severe enough that Intel decided to halt shipments while it implements a fix.

"In some cases, the Serial-ATA (SATA) ports within the chipsets may degrade over time, potentially impacting the performance or functionality of SATA-linked devices such as hard disk drives and DVD drives," Intel said in a statement . "The chipset is utilized in PCs with Intel's latest Second Generation Intel Core processors, code-named Sandy Bridge. Intel has stopped shipment of the affected support chip from its factories."

Intel said it has already corrected the issue and has started making a new version of the support chip that doesn't have the design flaw. In addition, the Santa Clara chip maker says Sandy Bridge processors and other other related products are unaffected.

Jump past the picture for all of the late breaking information on the situation.

6-series chipset fiasco FAQ from the Maximum PC Staff:

Q: What’s the problem?

A: Some of the SATA ports that come off of the Intel 6-series PCH or Peripheral Control Hub may begin producing errors over time. The problem isn’t immediate, but can happen over time. That means that a port that is working fine today, may start to generate data errors. This will affect performance and the port may simply stop working over time. Increased thermals and voltage on the ports may also contribute to the port failing sooner. The only good news is that ports 0/1 are unaffected by the bug.

Q: Is it the actual Sandy Bridge CPU that’s bad?

A: No. Intel said the problem is not the CPU, but the chipset. However, one thing that we don’t know yet is why Intel said it should only affect those with Core i5 and Core i7 processors. That implies that 6-series with Core i3 is fine. We are still waiting for more details.

Q: How did Intel find it?

A: The company said it came to light last week when customers, either OEMs or board vendors, brought it to Intel's attention. Intel labs was able to verify the problem and the decision was made yesterday to halt shipment of the parts.

Q: How is Intel going to fix this?

A: The company is correcting the problem in silicon and is in process of fabbing new chipsets without the problem. The bad news: boards and systems with the fixed chip will likely not be available for at least a month.

Q: Is the chipset in my motherboard or notebook impacted?

A: Intel didn’t get into specifics on Monday but the short answer is probably yes. However, one aspect of the problem is that it may only manifest itself on occasion. That is, some boards may exhibit the issue, while others will not. The problem seems to be unpredictable and only after three years, Intel projected 5 percent failures but said heavier use could accelerate the issue. The upshot is that while all of the chipsets have the bug, not all of them will fail over three years of use.

Q: So my notebook is bad?

The good news is that most notebooks only have two SATA ports which happen to run on ports 0/1. But as we said, that’s most notebooks. Some notebooks that use more than ports 0/1 or that used the others ports would be affected.

Q: Can this be fixed with a new BIOS or some other firmware update?

A: No. The problem is a hardware issue that cannot be fixed without replacing the affected chipset on the system. Since you can’t simply replace a chipset in a motherboard, the only way to fix it would be to complete replace the motherboard.

Q: So which ports are bad on my motherboard again?

A: Intel’s PCH supports six ports. Of those, ports 0/1 are unaffected. These are also the SATA 6Gb/s ports. The remaining four SATA 3Gb/s ports may or may not exhibit the breakdown over time. Many motherboards also support additional ports using third-party controllers such as Marvell’s SATA 6Gb/s. These would be unaffected. eSATA ports on the rear of the motherboard should also be unaffected as those mostly use third-party controllers from Jmicron.

Q: What is Intel going to do to make me whole?

A: That’s not completely clear at this point. Intel said this morning that: “Intel stands behind its products and is committed to product quality. For computer makers and other Intel customers that have bought potentially affected chipsets or systems, Intel will work with its OEM partners to accept the return of the affected chipsets, and plans to support modifications or replacements needed on motherboards or systems.” However, motherboard and PC vendors we spoke with Monday had no guidance on the topic yet. Stay tuned to this FAQ to find out what vendors will be doing.

Q: Will my motherboard vendor replace my motherboard?

A: That’s not known. As of this morning, board vendors had stopped shipping 6-series boards. They were being updated by Intel on details of the problem. Whether board vendors would replace the boards or not is not known yet so stay tuned. On pure speculation though, it’s quite possible that vendors may offer to replace the board with one with the newer spin of the chipset once they are available. They may also opt to let the consumer extend the warranty instead of replacing the board. Again, this is pure speculation, but we know from previous experience that you shouldn’t always expect vendors to simply replace it.

Q: My system has a 6-series chipset, will my OEM replace the motherboard?

A: We don't have answers from all OEMs at this point, but several have offered to outright replace boards once updated motherboards are available. Puget Systems, Maingear and Origin PC are offering to replace the bad boards or if the consumer wishes, send a SATA add-in card. For those who are willing to let it hang out, Origin PC has said that it will offer lifetime warranties on systems with the affected boards. Several vendors said they are also offering add-in SATA cards to replace the ports if the consumer does not want to deal with the hassle of downtime. Besides extending the warranty to three years and offering to replace the affected boards, Cyberpower PC is also offering to let those who have Sandy Bridge systems in hand upgrade to LGA1366-based motherboards with a Core i7-950 instead. We're hoping to have a roll call from OEMs this week as they sort out their policies.

Q: This sounds like a class-action lawsuit in the making.

A: How Intel will make people whole isn’t known yet, but yes, we suspect that someone unhappy with how this turns out will certainly file suit.

Q: Is it OK to practice schadenfreude now and prance about why I’m so lucky I built an AMD system or X58 box?

A: Yes. The full schadenfreude effect is in place. Please feel free to dance about forums and post about how it sucks to not be you. Just remember that schadenfreude (deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others) often leads to Karmic justice.

Q: Will Intel be creating a new chipset model with the fix so we can know when it's safe to buy a motherboard for Sandy Bridge?

A: Intel will not create a new chipset model, and a re-spin of the silicon will correct the issue, the company said. OEM's have privately told us that the B3 spin of the 6-series chipset is not impacted, but we have not been able to confirm that with Intel. As far as buying a system, notebook or board with the issue; the vast majority of stores and OEMs have already halted shipment of Sandy Bridge-based systems. Systems and boards will likely not start shipping until the fix is in.

Q: Is this the first time Intel has had a chipset problem of this proportion?

A: Actually no. Although the 6-series chipset screwup may be the worst in dollar amount, Intel actually blew it on the “Cape Cod” CC820 chipset back in 2000. That Pentium III chipset was designed to sidestep resistance to Direct RDRAM. The CC820 took the “Vancouver” 820 chipset and integrated a Memory Translator Hub so that the RDRAM-only chipset would work with SDRAM. Unfortunately, bugs in the chipset forced Intel to recall chipsets and boards based on the CC820. The final tune for that mistake was $253 million which adjusted for inflation would be roughly $312 million.

Q: I have a 6-series chipset in my system or notebook, is it safe to use?

A: Intel and numerous OEMs say that since the problem should occur over several years and only to a fairly small percentage of systems and notebooks, the risk of data loss is nil. If a port goes bad, you just move it to a port that works and the data will be there, Intel says.

Q: When will I be able to buy a Sandy Bridge motherboard?

A: This may be the biggest problem with the chipset: a major disruption of the supply chain. Intel says it will have the updated chipset in production this month but a full volume ramp would not return until April. As of Tuesday morning, major board vendors were still unclear on when they would have replacement boards in hand. However, some OEMs are saying that updated Sandy Bridge boards could be in their hands as soon as 4 to 6 weeks. Compliciating the matter is the approach of Chinese New Year when much of China and Taiwan are shut down for the holiday. More information will be available here as we get it.

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