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Intel’s newest processor is arriving in PCs – and it has a weird math bug

If you bought a PC over the holidays chances are it came with Intel’s newest processor. That chip also comes with an obscure bug – that, fortunately, doesn’t appear to impact the average consumer.

Intel’s newest chip – branded as the 6th Generation Intel Core processor and codenamed “Skylake” – is its first redesigned chip in about two years. A few weeks ago, various online forums, including a post on an Intel community forum, began discussing a bug that can “freeze” any computer with certain versions of the new chip under certain conditions.

The bug was promptly reproduced on a variety of systems running both Windows and Linux. Then an organization called GIMPS, or Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, saw the bug when running its Prime95 application. Suffice to say, Prime95 is an obscure math application that has been used to benchmark and test computers but doesn’t appear to affect the average user.

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What does Intel have to say about it? The “majority of people” won’t come across it, an Intel spokesman told in response to an email query. “Under some complex workload conditions, like those encountered when running applications such as Prime95, the processor may hang or cause unpredictable system behavior,” Intel said.

More importantly, Intel has released a “fix” that resolves the issue. “And we are working with external business partners to deploy this fix through BIOS updates,” Intel said.  A BIOS – or basic input/output system – update is typically part of a suite of updates distributed by PC manufacturers.

But if you’re a die-hard techie and want to see if your new PC has the glitch, there are ways to detect it, as pointed out by some PC-centric sites.

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Why worry? Intel bugs always have the potential to instantly impact tens of millions of PCs worldwide. The most infamous case was back in 1994 when the so-called Pentium FDIV bug caused errors in calculations. That bug was discovered by a math professor at Lynchburg College in Virginia when he noticed some inconsistencies in the calculations he was doing. It was arcane but serious enough that Intel offered to replace all flawed Pentium processors. And the financial impact on the company was a whopping pre-tax charge of $475 million.

That was then. This glitch appears to be easily fixable – that FDIV bug wasn’t.

Bugs aside, Intel’s greatest challenge with 6th Gen processors now shipping with the latest laptops has been to make the chips run cooler with longer battery life. More consumers are snapping so-called 2-in-1 PCs (that can convert to a tablet) or ultraportables like the 12-inch MacBook. And for the kind of work that category of consumer typically does, an esoteric math bug in select versions of the processor is probably irrelevant.

by Brooke Crothers

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