As reported by Engadget, Intel is experimenting with a somewhat novel CPU upgrade scheme. They want to charge you to unlock features of your CPU that are already there.
Now, it’s not unheard of for CPUs to have cores or cache memory disabled at the factory. It’s acceptable, perhaps even expected, that a chip manufacturer would disable a defective portion of a chip before shipping it out. This is in fact how maximum clock speeds are determined: a chip that cannot run reliably at, say, 2.0 GHz is tested again at 1.9 GHz, then 1.8 GHz, etc. down to a minimum acceptable speed for the class of CPU until the highest speed is found at which that particular CPU chip will function. It’s similar with cache and cores: quad-core chips with two defective cores will have two of the cores disabled and become dual-core chips instead, and a chip with a defect in part of the L2 cache will have that portion disabled.
The difference is that Intel is shipping out fully working CPUs and using a DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) scheme to lock them down, holding the full functionality for ransom. This is not how responsible companies operate. A few of the comments on the Engadget blog entry already indicate that Intel has lost goodwill with this rather cowardly move.
What to do? I personally recommend avoiding the purchase of the DRM-crippled CPU chips in question. It may not be practical to buy your next PC without a single Intel chip in it, but I certainly won’t blame you if you do. Intel’s “just testing it out… in a few select markets for now.” Let’s all grade this test a big fat F.