Chip giant Intel is taking a page from the Microsoft playbook and allowing customers to upgrade to new microprocessor functionality using, of all things, a gift card. The scheme, which is currently available only for a single microprocessor variant—the Intel Pentium G6951—is part of a pilot program in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and Spain that might be expanded to include other products and geographies, if successful.
Here's how it works. If you purchase a PC based on the supported Intel CPU, you can later purchase a gift card for $50 that unlocks performance features hidden and disabled in the chip. These features include more L3 cache (bringing the system from 1MB of L3 cache to 4MB) and Hyper-Threading (HT) support. That's right: The chip ships with these features, but they're disabled.
Microsoft offers similar gift-card upgrades for Office 2010; these cards apply to the low-end Office version that comes bundled on many new PCs. And, of course, Intel has in the past artificially limited the capabilities of its chips in order to charge customers for upgrades. The company infamously stripped the floating point functionality out of its 80486 chips and sold the hobbled chips as 486SX CPUs. Customers who wanted to add floating point capabilities back to the system could do so through a floating point unit (FPU) chip at extra cost.
The Pentium G6951 CPU that Intel is using for the current pilot program is a specialty budget chip that's not easily found at retail. And that's by design: With a limited test run, Intel is hoping to gauge whether it makes sense to offer similar upgrades for its mainstream CPUs.
My advice to Intel is simple: Don't do it. Selling chips that are artificially limited is beneath you. And although it would be nice if Intel's product line supported a simple way to upgrade functionality over time, providing all the functionality upfront but not making it available to customers isn't the solution.