Apple Partners: Intel Cougar Point Recall Could Delay Sandy Bridge Macbooks

Intel says the design flaw in Intel's Cougar Point chipset affects its new Sandy Bridge processor platform, and some Apple resellers believe it could delay an expected Sandy Bridge upgrade for the Macbook line.

Apple isn't always quick to adopt the latest processor technology and it hasn't offered insight into its plans for Sandy Bridge. However, Apple resellers say the company's normal technology refresh cycle suggests an update to the Macbook line could be forthcoming.

One system builder said current stocks of Macbook systems are not in danger of running out until then, and that Apple has the ability to adapt to unforeseen problems regardless.

"We still have good stock of Macbook Pro models, and in fact they are still selling well," said David Doyle, vice-president of sales at Vancouver-based Apple partner Simply Computing. "Apple does not pre-announce its technology adoption plans, so can only assume that Apple will eventually update the line. "I'm just happy that the problem with the chipset was discovered prior to a new line of laptops being shipped and sold to end users. Apple has a great ability to ramp up a production line very quickly, so a short delay should not have too much overall effect," Doyle said.

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Apple declined to comment on the potential impact a Sandy Bridge delay could have on Macbook shipments.

Nick Gold, director of business development at Chesapeake Systems, a Baltimore-Md. based system builder and Apple partner, says that Apple's approach to its product roadmap will help Apple avoid the fallout from the Cougar Point error and possibly even benefit from it.

"It's definitely a blessing in disguise for VARs who are largely oriented around the Mac platform," said Gold. "Because Apple tends to be conservative when it comes to adopting new platforms, and has not yet even announced any systems based on Sandy Bridge, Mac users can rest assured that they will not be affected by this issue at all."

Nevertheless, Gold said that Apple's next Macbook line could be held back by a delay until the problem is settled. "It may lead to Sandy Bridge Macs being introduced later than they would have been had the problem not existed," he said.

Intel said it will contact the system builders and customers who purchased potentially flawed chipsets or systems in order to replace or modify them. Michael Oh, president of Boston, Mass.-based Apple partner Tech Superpowers, said that in the past, system builders leveraging Intel technology have had to deal with production ramping issues resulting in slow supply of new models.

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However, Oh doesn't think Apple will allow the problem to reach end users. "One thing is clear: if Apple was planning on using these chips and they are problematic, then they will delay the release of these models," Oh said. "Apple hangs its hat on quality, and production problems -- even if they are the result of someone down the supply chain -- are not things that they will pass onto their customers if they can avoid it."

Oh said that, based on Apple's previous release history, Apple is generally pretty conservative with product releases, especially those involving entirely new architectures, and therefore Mac users should not have to worry. However, Oh said that this case may be different for two reasons.

"This recall seems to impact chips which are much farther down the channel than previous Intel chips on Apple products," Oh said. "Apple has to get increasingly aggressive with their use of latest technologies in products to maintain their upward market share numbers -- so it very well may be that the convergence of these two factors will spell trouble for the timing of the new models."

Other system builders agreed that Apple is particularly careful about avoiding errors with new technology, but some said Apple's product strategy leaves little room for channel partners.

Given that the Intel Core 2 Duo architecture has powered the Macbook line since Nov. 2006, Oh said a delay in the new Macbook models is possible.

"All in all, it really depends on how extensively the new MacBook Pro refresh depends on the chips in question," Oh said. "So in the end, a delay on those models may be the reality.

Steve Brown, vice president of sales and business development at Blue Hawk Networks, a Campbell, Calif.-based system builder said the delay of Sandy Bridge itself is not as significant as potential fallout from having defective processors in Macbooks.

"Apple doesn't take problems lightly," Brown said. "Apple's channel strategy is very restrictive, and they, along with other companies will push Intel to bring the processors to market quickly."

Brown expects the Cougar Point flaw to slow down the Macbook refresh cycle for about 60 to 90 days.

On Monday Intel said it identified and fixed a SATA hard disks and DVD drives in PCs using Intel’s latest second generation "Sandy Bridge" Core processors.

Next: The Fallout From Cougar Point

So far, Intel says it has shipped 8 million desktop-bound Cougar Point chipsets, all of which operate alongside quad-core desktop Sandy Bridge processors. Of those chipsets, between five and ten percent have been affected by the flaw, according to Intel.

Intel expects the recall to cause a shortfall of approximately $300 million in its first quarter, 2011 revenue as it brings production of the defective chipsets to an end and begins producing the newer version. In addition, the total cost to repair and replace the affected hardware is approximately $700 million, according to Intel, bringing the total cost of Intel's mistake to $1 billion.

As Intel halts production of its Cougar Point chipsets until the end of the month, Brown said that the rest of its product roadmap could be affected. Given that Apple more than most does not tolerate issuing a defective product, Brown said, the next generation of Apple Macbooks could be delayed as well.

"The Sandy Bridge error has created doubts in the minds of Apple customers," Brown said. "When you're selling systems ranging anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000, you can't have a ten percent failure rate."