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When it comes to desktop software and web-based applications, consumers are used to shelling out money for additional features. There are multiple versions of software packages, for instance, and many paid web services offer different features at different prices.

It's a model that might soon be coming to the hardware market. Over the weekend, news broke that Intel has begun selling computers equipped with its Pentium G6951 processor with a $50 "processor performance upgrade" card. As the name implies, the card enables the owner of a computer with a Pentium G6951 processor to "upgrade" the capabilities of the processor, for a price.

Not surprisingly, Intel's model has sparked a visceral reaction from the tech-savvy. CrunchGear's John Biggs echoes complaints heard 'round the blogosphere:

By offering a $50 upgrade to a processor, the average computer manufacturer will see a way to nickel and dime the consumer by forcing further important upgrades. Need to unlock some graphics card memory? $25. Need a faster hard drive buffer? $1.99 per minute, please. The margins on PCs and laptops are so slow that anything that can force a few pennies out of the customers pocket is fair game.

Valid concerns? In my opinion, probably not. We're not going to see come-ons to unlock graphics card memory, or hard drive buffers, etc. That's the slippery slope fallacy at work.

In all actuality, Intel's move actually has the potential to benefit consumers. Here's why:

  • The computers are sold promoting the 'locked' spec. There is no bait and switch here; nobody is being led to believe that the increased firepower that is offered for an extra $50 comes standard.
  • Consumers are paying for the locked spec. A computer with the unlocked spec would cost more. In other words, if you want a more powerful processor, you typically have to purchase a more expensive computer. Here, Intel is doing little more than offering two PC configurations, at two prices, in one machine. Since the typical consumer with basic computing needs will probably be just fine with two-way multithreading and an average cache anyway, the $50 upgrade will likely only be of interest to a relatively small subset of buyers.
  • It adds convenience. Instead of leaving mainstream consumers with little choice but to upgrade to an entirely new machine, Intel is giving consumers the ability to upgrade to a slightly more powerful machine without having to ditch the machine they already have.

In other words, far from being abusive, Intel's model offers consumers greater choice and flexibility.

Of course, Intel isn't providing this out of the goodness of its heart. It stands to benefit as well. It can essentially manufacture and sell two processor models in one, which creates some economic efficiencies. That's particularly important given that the Pentium G6951 is at the lower end of the market, where price sensitivity is highest. As some buyers of the locked spec become more sophisticated, they may opt to pay the $50 to upgrade, when they would have otherwise held off on buying a more powerful computer.

Possible benefits to consumers and Intel aside, the company's model no doubt comes with some PR risk. Consumers might be used to paying for software extras, but hardware feels different. If you learn that the processor you bought has certain capabilities, but some are disabled until you shell out an extra $50, it might upset you. But I'm not sure the mainstream consumer will look at it that way, and for the techies, it's unlikely that this same model will be applied to Intel's higher-end processors.

Photo credit: rox sm via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 20 September, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2392 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Nicky

It is very very strange to correlated computer technology with bread slice, Nice and amazing blog concept, please keep it up in coming days too..

almost 6 years ago

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Allan

You expect anyone to believe Intel is giving consumers the ability to upgrade to a slightly more powerful machine without having to ditch the machine they already have. The CPU has been built to run below its best performace so they can charge you $50 to make it work at its full specification. WHAT A RIPOFF My next PC will contain an AMD CPU!!!

almost 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Allan,

The CPU has the ability to function with two different specs. When you buy the computer, you pay for the locked spec, and the price you pay is based on the locked spec. If you want the unlocked spec, you pay for the unlocked spec, just as you would had you purchased a computer that, by default, came with an equivalent spec.

Would you have that Intel sell you a computer with the unlocked spec for the same price as the locked spec? If so, you're essentially asking for Intel to sell you a better processor than you're paying for. That makes no sense.

almost 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

I really can't see any problem with this at all. In fact it is exactly how IBM (and others I guess) were selling mainframes decades ago. You paid for a level of computing performance, if you wanted more performance then you paid for an upgrade and your existing hardware was unlocked to deliver it.

Thinking laterally, one could argue that this is good from a green / eco perspective too. 

almost 6 years ago

Stephen Dill

Stephen Dill, President at SRD InterActive

At first blush this appears to be similar to the CPU upgrades that were available for Mac and Windows machines through mail order catalogs from the mid 80's to the late 90's. Except that then you had choices of what to add in terms of performance, features and manufacturers, usually through a sisterboard or daughterboard that came with the upgrade or sold separately. The prices varied widely, but the many options allowed boxes to be kept for ten years or more, usually being displaced only by significant technology and form factor improvements rather than performance advances. But the demand for corporate profit (among other things) changed all that and this minor improvement to a CPU performance seems a far cry from the benefits that PC owners once had and have now nearly forgotten. 

What are users getting for the $50? Buyers of lowest-cost systems rarely appreciate any but the most obvious differences in clock speed. Will "unlocking the spec" (marketing speak if ever I heard it) produce tangible improvements, or is it a largely numeric upgrade?

almost 6 years ago

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