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Intel expands 'upgrade card' programme

Intel is going ahead with its controversial plans to charge customers to unlock the true capabilities of hardware they've already paid for via 'upgrade cards,' offering users of selected entry-level hardware a 10-23 per cent performance boost.

Like most semiconductor firms, Intel sells a range of products between its entry-level Pentium chips and its high-end Core i7 and Xeon models. It produces far fewer distinct versions, however: chips that don't quite pass muster at a particular clock speed are restricted to lower performance and sold as entry-level models.

It's common practice, and sometimes leads to a free upgrade: it's common in the world of graphics cards to be able to flash an entry-level card with the firmware from a higher-end model, unlocking the restricted hardware features and either boosting performance or finding out exactly why AMD or Nvidia decided to switch them off in the first place.

Rather than let tinkerers get away with a free upgrade, however, Intel has previously announced plans to add 'software upgradability' to its entry-level chips in the form of an upgrade card available for purchase online or on the high street. These cards act like 'downloadable content' for the processor, offering a single-use code to unlock previously restricted features.

Although Intel announced its plan to offer such an upgrade path some time ago, the company had gone quiet in the face of consumer backlash as customers wondered exactly why they were being charged to unlock features that already exist in the hardware they'd paid for. A recently launched microsite suggests that the company is steaming ahead with its plan, however, and details the chips to which upgrade cards can be applied.

Users who've bought a system featuring the entry-level Intel Pentium G622 processor will be able to boost its performance from 2.6GHz to an as-yet unspecified clock speed believed to be in the region of 3.2GHz. Systems that have had the upgrade applied will see the chip identify itself in the BIOS as a Pentium G693.

Those who have an Intel Core i3-2102 in their system will also be able to enjoy a speed boost, turning their chip into a Core i3-2153 and improving performance on selected tasks by between 11 and 15 per cent. As with the Pentium G693, the final upgraded clock speed has not yet been announced.

Laptop users with the Intel Core i3-2312M chip will be able to enjoy a boost to both clock speed and cache memory, with the code unlocking previously restricted hardware to increase performance still further. As a result, performance increases by between 10 and 19 per cent on selected tasks, but again Intel isn't offering actual figures for comparison between the stock and upgraded specifications.

These new chips join the first upgradable processor, the Intel Pentium G6951, which can be given HyperThreading support and an extra 1MB of cache with the purchase of a $50 upgrade card in selected regions. So far, Intel hasn't revealed just how many people have opted to buy the upgrade card for a processor which costs under $90.

Those who decide that a hassle-free software upgrade is worth the cash will need to find a retailer selling the scratch-off upgrade cards, which are currently thin on the ground. They will also need to be running Windows 7 in order to apply the update. Thus far, Intel hasn't announced support for any other operating system.

Intel has yet to confirm pricing for the new upgrade cards.