Intel challenges chip forgers

Summary:Intel Corp. plans to release new software in the US today to aid in its fight against 'remarkers' -- black marketers who over-accelerate the company's flagship PC chips, relabel them, and then sell them to unsuspecting customers at a higher price.

Intel Corp. plans to release new software in the US today to aid in its fight against 'remarkers' -- black marketers who over-accelerate the company's flagship PC chips, relabel them, and then sell them to unsuspecting customers at a higher price.

The new software, called the Processor Frequency ID Utility, is available on Intel's Web site and will help PC makers, customers, and law enforcement identify the speed -- expressed in megahertz -- at which Intel's newest processor, the Pentium III, was sold. If the chip was illegally modified, the software will detect it and alert the consumer.

"Customers of Compaq, Dell and other first-tier PC makers have nothing to worry about," said Craig Johnson, strategic planner for Intel's 32-bit product, explaining who are the usual victims. "It's the less well-known companies -- ones that buy from the grey market -- which usually have the problems."

The suppliers of such companies generally buy their chips from PC makers who bought too many chips from Intel, and then resell them at razor-thin profit margins. If the supplier happens to be a remarker, the chips will be running at a higher speed -- a technique called "overclocking." The faster the chip is overclocked, the more money the remarker can charge for the forged chips.

Remarkers make money by physically modifying the chips -- say 300MHz Pentium IIs -- to make them look and act like a higher-speed chip -- a 450MHz Pentium II, for example. The difference in price between the two different speeds can be as much as $500 (£305), making the practice quite lucrative. Yet, while all Pentium II processors, no matter what speed, are the same, a 450MHz chip is of better quality than a 300MHz chip -- a fact that lets it run at the higher speed. Overclocking a lower speed chip to the degree that many remarkers do leads to chips that frequently fail. At the briefing on the new software, Intel's forensic specialist, Dave Brown -- called in to do the equivalent of an autopsy on the remarked chips received by Intel -- passed around a Pentium II processor that had been overclocked by 50 percent.

From the outside the Pentium II package looked normal, but the inside was a different matter. Attached to the circuit board hung a black spider-like chip coated with plastic; several wires spread themselves to different locations, connecting to other chips on the board. The spider chip fooled the chip into running faster than it should. "Pretty poor workmanship," explained Brown. "If one of those wires comes loose, the whole chip would stop working."

And that's the whole problem for Intel. If a chip stops working, PC makers and consumers don't blame the remarker, but Intel, for the "defective" chip. The software is the latest step in many, starting with Intel's venerable 386 chip, to be aimed at stopping remarkers. "Typically, we do something and someone figures it out. Then we do something else," said Johnson. "It's a cycle."

The software -- which only works with the Pentium III -- uses several cues put into the silicon itself to identify at what speed the chip should be running. And, despite its name, the utility does not use Intel's controversial chip ID. The software will not inhibit power users from accelerating their PC processors, said Intel's Johnson. It will merely tell them what they already know -- that the chip is overclocked.

"Although remarking is a crime, overclocking isn't," Johnson said. "Still, to address remarking, we have to address overclocking, since almost every remarked processor is overclocked." Still, Intel has not taken a step much feared by overclockers: Bus locking. Such a technique would essentially freeze each processor at its rated megahertz and let it run no faster. While that may let the overclocking hobbyist breathe a sigh of relief, it means that consumers looking for a PC bargain have to beware.

For those buyers, Intel forensic specialist Brown has a simple rule for not getting taken. "The biggest rule of thumb is that if it looks to good to be true, it probably is."

Peter Jackson's analogy that skateboarders are merely frustrated surfers nowhere near the beach, begs the question -- what makes overclockers frustrated? Chip technology has three historical roots go with Peter to read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

Topics: Hardware

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