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Tuesday, February 01, 2011, 11:55 am PT (02:55 pm ET)

Intel error also affects mobile, could delay Apple's next-gen MacBook Pros

Intel's chipset troubles for its new Sandy Bridge processors affect both desktop and mobile machines, AppleInsider has learned, placing into question the timing of updates to both Apple's MacBook Pro line of notebooks and iMac desktops.

An Intel spokesman confirmed to AppleInsider on Tuesday that a design error with its Intel 6 Series chipsets, code-named Cougar Point, could affect both mobile and desktop Sandy Bridge systems. All Cougar Point chipsets are said to contain the error, including those that will be required in notebook systems.

So far, Intel has only shipped desktop-bound Cougar Point chipsets alongside quad-core desktop Sandy Bridge processors. In total, the Santa Clara-based company said it shipped less than 8 million of those desktop parts, adding that it believes fewer than that have actually landed in the hands of end consumers. But with Intel halting production of all Cougar Point chipsets until late February, other products that were planned for launch in the coming weeks could also be affected by the issue.

For example, Intel had planned to launch its next-generation, Sandy Bridge mobile processors around Feb. 20 before the issues with Cougar Point were discovered. But as of Tuesday, the chipmaker said it had yet to determine whether the issues with the Cougar Point will delay that launch. It's possible, a spokesman said, that the staggered worldwide rollout could go on as planned.

As announced on Monday, Intel has begun manufacturing a new version of Cougar Point which resolves the issue, but none of those corrected chipsets will begin shipping in any capacity until the end of February at the earliest, and Intel said it doesn't anticipate meeting volume commitments until sometime in April.

Therefore, it would seem unlikely that Apple — or any other PC vendor — could launch a line of Sandy Bridge-based notebooks in earnest any time before late February at the earliest, as the parts simply won't be available. As such, high profile launches of Sandy Bridge-based notebook systems would seem more likely in March or April.

When it comes to Apple specifically, Intel would only say that it's working closely with its partners to address concerns, but would not offer any indication on how the chipset problems could affect future Mac plans. It instead referred all questions on the matter to Apple, which does not comment on forward looking matters. The chipmaker also declined to reveal whether Mac maker was among the manufacturers who received some of the less than 8 million quad-core Sandy Bridge desktop chips and Cougar Point chipsets shipped earlier this month.

Those troubled Cougar Point chipsets support six Serial ATA ports, which are used to connect devices like hard disk drives or DVD drives. After it began shipping the parts, Intel discovered through stress testing that the SATA ports numbered 2 through 5 on the Cougar Point chipset can degrade in performance over time in extreme conditions. However, Intel noted that the problem does not affect SATA ports 0 or 1, so any system builders that received those parts would be clear ship those parts in desktop systems that utilize only ports 0 or 1.

Generally speaking, it appears that the setback with Cougar Point could delay notebook and desktop-based Sandy Bridge systems by anywhere from 6 weeks to two and a half months, based on AppleInsider's estimates and understanding of the matter. But any such delay would best be quantified on a manufacturer by manufacturer basis.

For example, if Apple did not plan to introduce new MacBook Pros before April, then the matter is unlikely to impact the company. However, if it was hoping to push out new models this month in high volumes, the issues with Cougar Point could delay that roll out by a few weeks or a couple of months, depending on how long it takes Intel to begin shipping ample volumes of the corrected Cougar Point chipsets to the Mac maker.

The one certainty appears to be that late February is the absolute earliest that a major PC manufacturer like Apple could hope to begin shipping Sandy Bridge-based notebooks.

Apple last updated its MacBook Pro lineup in April 2010, with Core i7 and Core i5 processors. The all-in-one iMac desktop was given Intel's Core i3, i5 and i7 processors in a refresh released in July 2010.