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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Good Time to Buy a Pentium

The revelation that there is a subtle flaw in the Intel Pentium, a microprocessor used in several million personal computers, has been probably the most widely reported computer non-story of the year.

The result of the media maelstrom which followed, however, is likely to be good news for PC buyers: IBM is now offering special deals to people who have already bought computers containing these allegedly defective microprocessors, and most PC manufacturers will probably be forced to offer cheaper Pentium-based computers in 1995.

U.S. math professor Dr. Thomas Nicely let loose this typhoon in October after he had been doing some heavy duty number-crunching. He realized that the answer to one sum (1/824633702441) was only accurate to eight significant figures rather than 15 decimal places. He had noted the problem in June and, having excluded all other sources of error, reported it to Intel on Oct. 16. The matter became public on Oct. 30, when a memo to his colleagues was re-posted on Compuserve. Intel Corporation claims that so far he is the only user who has encountered problems due to the flaw without consciously trying to contrive situations that force this error -- and it has now retained Prof. Nicely as a consultant.

The debate which followed revealed that there was a bug in Pentium's floating point unit that caused errors in the occasional division sum, and worse that Intel had known about the flaw since the summer but had not told anyone. The company's reaction has been that there are no 'absolutely clean' chips, and that microprocessor manufacturers have always corrected minor bugs and flaws with each new production run. Intel has authorized replacement microprocessors for technical users where they can prove they need them. The company maintains that the flaw has almost no effect on commercially available office applications like word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, etc. It says that the average business user would probably encounter the flaw once in 27,000 years.

Intel says that some Russian users have asked for replacement Pentiums, and it is currently evaluating requests from users in the Physics and Mathematics Institutes of the Academy of Sciences.

Just as Intel's share price was recovering in the United States, however, IBM stoked the flames of the scandal with the announcement on Monday that it was suspending all sales of Pentium-based products worldwide and that it would offer customers replacement Pentium processors free of charge if they had bought an IBM Pentium-based computer.

"We will not fulfil orders for Pentium-based solutions without explicit instructions from customers to ship," says Guenter Struck, IBM's East Europe/Asia manager for Personal Systems. He says that once sufficient quantities of the corrected chip are available, all Russian customers who have bought Pentium-based PCs will be entitled to a free upgrade if they want it. When asked how many IBM Pentium-based machines have been sold so far in Russia, he replied: "too many."

IBM has ambitions to become one of Intel's main competitors in the market for iAPX-compatible processors, of which the Pentium is the most powerful, and even if this is not a tactical move to embarrass Intel Corp., it is clearly in IBM's interests to do so. Following the announcement, most of the world's other major PC manufactures have stated that they will not stop shipments of their Pentium-based systems.

The corrected version of the Pentium chip will not filter down to end users until sometime in the first quarter of next year. Thus one tangible result of this storm is that in first half of 1995 there will be two perceived grades of Pentium processor -- flawed and corrected -- and there is almost inevitably going to be a premium attached to the corrected versions.

Providing the chip is available in sufficient quantities, computer manufacturers which make systems containing the Pentium are likely to lower prices in order to clear out their stocks of PCs containing "flawed" Pentiums. Even if the chance of an error is more than the 9 billion-to-one that Intel claims, it is not going to affect anyone who uses the chip for general purpose applications. There is unlikely to be a better time to buy a Pentium-based PC.

Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia

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