Linux 5.18 Release Could Be Bad News for Overclockers

With the kernel update, future Intel chips could bar users from tweaking CPU settings unless they pay up for hardware features they already have.

The Linux kernel developers have announced version 5.18 of the stable Linux kernel, with a feature that could affect future Intel processors by limiting CPUs unless users pay for upgrades to unlock features that already exist on the silicon.

Why Intel Users Could Be Forced to Pay Up With Linux 5.18

The new version of the Linux kernel supports Intel’s Software-Defined Silicon (SDSi) initiative. Under this scheme, future Intel CPUs would ship with some features on chip disabled unless the customer paid intel for a certificate that would unlock them, as a “Linus Tech Tips” video explains:

This would allow Intel to differentiate their processors by price but sell the same chips to different customers. One chip might be optimized for gaming while another is meant to perform on a server.

CPU manufacturers have been operating under part of this scheme already by selling chips that have lower clock speed ratings than they are officially capable of. This is why overclocking chips, or increasing the CPU clock speed to a faster setting than it’s labeled for, has been popular among some customers, particularly gamers.

Intel’s SDSi could put practices like overclocking to an end. Intel CPUs with this feature will monitor attempts to circumvent them and throttle performance until the machine is rebooted if a user makes too many unsuccessful tries.


What Happens Next With Linux 5.18?

SDSi will be applied to Intel Xeon chips first. These CPUs are marketed for workstation and server computers. Corporate clients may be more willing to pay Intel to unlock extra capabilities since these chips are less easily upgradable than desktop PC processors. There’s no indication yet that SDSi will be applied to consumer chips, but that could change in the future.

As Linux users tend to be ideologically in favor of software freedom, Intel’s scheme obviously doesn’t sit well with some more zealous members of the community. While Linux users may balk at the changes, they may still find ways around them.

“Antifeatures in free software tend not to last long, and free drivers can often unlock capabilities of the hardware that its vendors may not have seen fit to make available,” Jonathan Corbet wrote in an LWN article in February.

Disgruntled Linux users may opt to replace the CPU outright, perhaps with one from Intel’s competitor AMD, instead of paying to unlock part of the processor on their machines.

In any case, most Linux users will have some time to decide. Linux distributions will take a while to integrate the kernel into their systems, barring rolling-release distros like Arch that push out changes as soon as they’re ready.

Linux 5.18 Won’t Stop Determined Overclockers

The new kernel release, no matter what Intel does, will likely fail to deter overclockers if possibly voiding the warranty doesn’t stop them. There are a number of software tools, including from Intel themselves, that can allow users to tweak their overclocked machines to get the most out of their processors.

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