Last week, Intel published a PCN (Public Change Notice) on its QDMS website declaring that certain Apollo Lake processors had flaws and would be discontinued. The initial notification the company published was straightforward: An issue had been identified with the Low Pin Count (LPC) Real Time Clock (RTC) SD Card interface on Intel Celeron N3350, J3355, J3455, and the Intel Pentium N4200 processors. According to Intel, this issue results “in degradation of these signals at a rate higher than Intel’s quality goals after multiple years in service.”
Apollo Lake is the 14nm Goldmont-powered follow-up to Intel’s Bay Trail platform from several years ago. The Goldmont architecture provides a significant performance uplift compared with the old Silvermont architecture, and it pairs the newer CPU design with Skylake Gen9 graphics. It’s since been succeeded in-market by its own refresh, Gemini Lake. Goldmont / Apollo Lake parts first shipped in 2016. The original plan was to replace the old B1 stepping of these parts with a new F1 stepping.
Then, after sites had begun to pick up on the announcement, it vanished. The company has now replaced it with a new PCN and different instructions for end customers.
According to this new document, customers who do not need “Intel IOTG Long Life Product Availability” can continue to rely on the B1 stepping parts without any worry. Only customers who need a guarantee under this program, it’s implied, may need to switch from B1 to F1 steppings. The F1 parts, meanwhile, are confirmed to still match all PC hardware requirements.
There are a few more pieces to this puzzle to consider. First, Intel dealt with a very similar problem to this back in 2017, when it announced it would set up a reserve fund for repair costs related to issues with the Atom C2000 family. These parts, codenamed Avoton, had exactly the same issue — Circuit degradation can lead to early product failure.
Also in 2017, Intel extended the expected platform life for its IoT products, from seven years to 15. It may be that this is the “Intel IOTG Long Life Product Availability” that the company referred to in the text above. What Intel is saying, we think, is that only customers who expect to need platform support for the full 15 years are going to have anything to worry about. Customers who are planning to use the hardware for a length of time that corresponds to the typical PC lifecycle, on the other hand, won’t need to replace equipment.
As for why Intel pulled this PDN and replaced it with a different one, the company is likely sensitive to the idea that any of its products have reliability issues. The fact that this problem seems to be repeating — Apollo Lake chips from 2016 are having problems in 2019, just as Avoton chips launched in 2013 started having issues in 2016 — is not a positive. Hopefully, the new F1 steppings resolve this issue, once and for all.