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Sandy Bridge mistake shows how important Intel is

The most important hardware company in the PC world

It won't have escaped your notice that Intel's Sandy Bridge processor microarchitecture has made an impact. A glance at our PCs reviews will soon show that the performance of Sandy Bridge PCs is head and shoulders above the rest.

Alas, that's not the whole story: within weeks of the Sandy Bridge launch, Intel announced it had found a design flaw in its 6-series ‘Cougar Point' chipset, forcing a recall to be issued. You can find out exactly what happened, and what you should do if you intend to buy a PC, in our story: Intel Sandy Bridge recall: what you need to know.

Suffice to say it's a $1bn mistake, and one that Intel will struggle to live down. It'll take at least three years for the dust to settle but, perversely, the recall and its fallout illustrate perfectly the extent to which Intel now dominates the PC industry.

There's nothing wrong with AMD, of course, and the growth of mobile computing means companies such as ARM grow ever more important. But Intel is the single most important hardware player in the PC market, and Sandy Bridge is a game-changing upgrade.

Even after Intel pulled forward its Cougar Point resupply date, the earliest OEM manufacturers will receive sufficient updated motherboards is late March. If vendors had decided not to sell PCs with the tainted chipsets, there'd be a six-week period where only outdated Intel systems or AMD PCs could be sold. At the same time, PC makers would have to recall all the laptops and PCs they'd flogged, replace the motherboards and ship them back. Intel may have to foot the bill in the end, but in the medium term this would be disastrous.

Given Intel's market share and the slim profit margins OEM PC makers endure, only the biggest of the latter could survive such a crisis. It's no exaggeration to suggest that the existence of the independent UK computer industry was threatened by Intel's simple design flaw.

Do the buying public care about the processor in their PC? Not directly, perhaps, but a UK reseller recently told me that it's much harder to sell a PC that doesn't bear Intel branding – largely because of the all-pervasive advertising it undertakes, and that five-note ear-worm its TV ads contain.

If I'm asked for buying advice I rarely recommend a PC model or brand, but point out what specifications to look for. In the current market, that generally means an Intel processor.

Windows 8 will run on system-on-a-chip and mobile ARM processors, as well as Intel and AMD chips. This is partly Microsoft's way of spreading the risk of having a single, over-influential hardware partner. Because, as that firm worked out a long time ago, the best way to make a fortune in the PC industry is not to make PCs, but to design the part of a PC the public will recognise and demand, every time.

See also: Latest Components/Upgrades reviews

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