Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 11/8/2006 Talking about Western culture, we may now face a bigger threat from the East than ever before. We've survived Confucianism.

Friday 11/8/2006

Talking about Western culture, we may now face a bigger threat from the East than ever before. We've survived Confucianism. We've survived Maoism. But can we survive Chinese consumerism?

Dell is in the curious case of being one of the first Western firms to be taken to court by Chinese citizens for selling goods not as advertised. At issue are some Inspirons equipped with Intel Core Duo T2300E processors — respectable chips with much to recommend them. They're dual-core. They use a bearable 31 watts. They have the security of the Execute Disable bit.

Nothing wrong with that. Except that Dell specified the T2300 chip when the Inspirons were ordered. The T2300 is identical in every way to the T2300E, except one — it has Intel Virtualisation Technology while the T2300E does not. Ooops.

Now, it is very unlikely that this will materially affect the operation of the laptops. Virtualisation is important, and it will become more so, but so far it's not really made an impact in the sort of things that laptops tend to do. And you can virtualise the non-virtualised chips, just not as efficiently. Dell may have thought that it could make the change and nobody would notice, and that may have been a reasonable assumption.

Except, of course, it was dead wrong. It only takes one person in the whole wide world to notice. They only have to post a "Hey! I was burned!" whinge in one of many hundreds of right places, and others will immediately check. And if they don't have what they thought they had, then by Jove you can expect that every last one of 'em suddenly NEEDS to run a fully virtualised high-performance system like YESTERDAY.

Dell was caught out. It has no recourse but a full apology and restitution. Which it has done.

And there the matter might rest. Except... what on earth is the T2300E? Why does it exist? If you look at the Intel cheat sheet for the Core Duo, you'll see that it's the only one that lacks virtualisation support. Higher-power chips — all VT. Lower — all VT. Only that one very specific combination of specifications features the missing capability.

It is absolutely impossible that there is a marketing reason for this. There can be no niche, no matter how microscopic, for which the absence of VT in that single tiny sliver of performance options is an advantage. The chip can cost no less to make. Dell's reasoning in its excuse is specious.

The only answer is that there is no T2300. Whatever production run was supposed to result in that part had a problem which zapped the VT part of the chip, but left the rest OK. There is no spare production capacity, there is no chance for Intel to rebrand a higher-performance chip as the T2300 because they've all been sold too. So Dell is given an incentive to take that chip instead, and it decides to quietly slip it in. The risk of embarrassment is passed on, and Intel looks the other way while whistling artlessly.

None of this matters much. This sort of thing happens all the time. But it took the Chinese to spot it. Quietly, and without much fuss, the world is changing.

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