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Intel Identifies Cougar Point Chipset Error, Halts Shipments

If you were as excited about Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors as we were earlier this month when they soft-launched, then today’s news will come as a shock (especially if you already bought one of the second-gen Core i5 or Core i7 desktop processors available online; Core i3 still isn’t selling).

In essence, Intel identified a problem with the SATA 3 Gb/s on its Cougar Point chipsets last week. SATA 6 Gb/s ports are unaffected. The issue is hardware-related and requires a silicon-based fix at the metal layer, which of course means that all of the currently-shipping P67- and H67 –based motherboards are affected. It’s severe enough, especially for the enthusiast community most likely to be populating multiple SATA ports and pushing heavier I/O workloads that we’d want to recommend holding off on Sandy Bridge-based builds until boards with a fixed version of the chipset ships out. This will happen within “weeks,” according to Intel, as motherboard vendors will start getting updated core logic in late February for a full volume recovery in April.

Intel’s Steve Smith, vice president and director of PC client operations and enabling at Intel, says that the specific problem occurs over time, and is affected by temperature and voltage. It’s more likely to manifest in configurations with lots of data being moved across the SATA 3 Gb/s ports—that’s why OEMs are encountering a problem now. The company says it would have expected roughly 5% of systems to be affected over a three-year period. That's a serious enough figure to compel Intel to halt shipments and incur a total cost to replace/repair existing systems of $700 million.

If you’re already a P67/H67 owner, the problem relates to connectivity between the SATA ports and hard drives. That link can degrade over time and, in a worst-case scenario, you’ll boot your machine to find attached storage simply isn’t identified at all. None of your data is at risk—anything on the drive already can’t be affected by the link degrading and ultimately failing, after all.

Why wasn’t the issue identified during validation, before Sandy Bridge launched? Intel says Cougar Point did in fact satisfy its validation procedure, and was only caught after more strenuous OEM testing. Should OEMs be the ones to catch problems like this? No. But that’s what happened here. That'll likely have ramifications for the way Intel tests its products in the future.

Unfortunately, motherboard vendors, first, and early adopters, second, are the ones to be most seriously affected here. The motherboard manufacturers are going to have to stop production and wait a month for updated Cougar Point. They’re only getting the news today. Enthusiasts won’t be as immediately affected. Boards that shipped out already, in most cases, carry a three-year warranty, offering some form of protection. Sandy Bridge notebooks haven’t shipped out in volume. And Z68 won’t be delayed, Intel says. Everyone else: you’ll want to wait until “fixed” boards start shipping in March/April.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.