BOSTON (New York Times News Service) — Barely a month after its fastest Pentium III processor hit the market, Intel Corp. is halting sales, due to defects in the chips.
The announcement is a significant embarrassment to the world's largest maker of microprocessors, which had boasted that the 1.13 gigahertz Pentium III was the world's fastest PC processor — faster than any competing chip from rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
And to make matters worse, Intel announced its production halt on the same day that AMD began offering its answer to the superfast Pentium III, a new 1.1 gigahertz Athlon chip.
"It's been a Monday," was the rueful comment from Intel spokesman Michael Sullivan.
Intel's move is a vindication for some technology analysts who had published harsh reviews of the chip on their Internet sites. Tom's Hardware Guide, which specializes in detailed technical analyses, wrote about the new Pentium III in July, calling it "the most unreliable and instable CPU (processor) Intel has ever released."
Intel took the criticism seriously. Its technicians worked to reproduce the problems reported by the reviewers. Last weekend, Sullivan said, they succeeded. They found that the Pentium would malfunction when running a common hardware testing program, or when used to run compiler software under the Linux operating system. (Compilers turn handwritten computer code into the digital language that computers can understand.) Running a compiler puts great stress on a processor. But it's a common task for hard-core computer users, and so a chip must be able to do it properly.
"It's not meeting our quality standards," Sullivan said, "and so we're stopping shipment."
Intel's quick response stands in sharp contrast to its past policies.
In 1994 a math professor at a small Virginia college demonstrated that Pentiums made mistakes when performing certain division problems. For weeks Intel executives shrugged off the problem, saying it was unlikely to affect many consumers. But public outrage forced the company to back down. Fixing the bug cost Intel $475 million. It also made Intel adopt a policy of moving quickly to fix defective products.
This policy was on display earlier this year, when Intel took $253 million in charges to replace defective computer motherboards that relied on a flawed Intel chip.
But the newest chip problem, while it may tarnish Intel's image, won't have much effect on its income. Nathan Brookwood, a chip industry analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., noted that at about $1,000 apiece, few consumers would have purchased the 1.13 gigahertz Pentiums, anyway. "I doubt that the number of chips they shipped numbers even in the tens of thousands," he said.
Indeed, Dell Computer Corp. was scheduled to ship its first system using the defective chip Friday. Instead, the company removed the $3,800 system from its Internet site Monday morning. Would-be buyers will be offered a slightly slower 1 gigahertz Pentium system.
Meanwhile, AMD can now claim bragging rights in the processor speed wars. Monday the company announced that 10 computer makers — including IBM Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co. — have begun taking orders for PCs using AMD's new 1.1 gigahertz Athlon. With the 1.13 gigahertz Intel retired from the field, Athlon is number one, for now.