Notebooks faster, but not cheaper

Speed and ease of use are nice, but analysts say it's about time manufacturers thought about making notebooks less expensive, too

The laptop performance push continues -- thanks to some upcoming chip upgrades -- but don't expect a slew of cheaper notebooks to flood the market any time soon. It'll be more like a trickle.

Intel is planning to boost its mobile processing power next month, with the aim of eventually closing the performance gap between its desktop and mobile Pentium III chips.

The chip maker will launch several new mobile processors next month, including a low-power 600MHz mobile Pentium III, a 750MHz mobile Pentium III and a 600MHz mobile Celeron chip, sources said.

Meanwhile, Intel is working to close the clock-speed gap between its mobile and desktop Pentium III processors -- and should come within 100MHz of doing so by early next year. The company recently added to its launch plans for early next year a 900MHz mobile Pentium III chip, the sources said.

The move should benefit notebook users by upping the performance of high-end notebook PCs -- and will accelerate, by a few months, the introduction of faster mobile PIII chips throughout the rest of the year.

Intel's new 750MHz mobile Pentium III, for example, will ship next month and the 800MHz chip in the third quarter, sources said, while the 850MHz processor is planned for late in the fourth quarter.

While higher-performance notebooks based on the forthcoming PIII chips should be well-received by power users, analysts say that notebook PC makers would be just as well-served by offering lower-price notebooks.

"The best thing for the consumer would be if notebook manufacturers worked to make their notebooks more economical," said Matt Sargent, mobile computing analyst at market research firm ARS in La Jolla, California.

"When consumers come to the marketplace and compare (notebooks and desktops), there's a huge (price) difference between them." However, there's been some progress in this area, Sargent said. Hewlett-Packard recently introduced an OmniBook 6000 series notebook model that runs the gamut on pricing from $1,999 to $4,199 (£1,333 to £2,800).

Other manufacturers have introduced very low-priced notebooks, such as Compaq with its Compaq Notebook 100, whose pricing starts at $1,099.

Recognising that while speed is desirable in notebooks, it probably won't win over droves of new customers by itself, notebook PC makers are also focusing on creating machines that are lighter, have longer battery life and are more expandable.

Notebook makers are eliminating older technologies, such as serial ports, and are turning to Universal Serial Bus (USB) with the aim of reducing cost and complexity.

Two or three USB ports, the makers argue, can accommodate a notebook's peripherals, such as keyboards and drives. Manufacturers will brand these systems as "legacy reduced," and they are expected to become more popular as the year progresses.

Notebooks, meanwhile, are also being designed with larger, higher-resolution screens. Sizes up to 15 inches are becoming more readily available in SXGA resolution (1,280 by 1,024) or higher.

High-end notebooks will also continue to gain newer technologies, such as CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drives, that were previously available only on desktop PCs.

Acer America for example, recently announced that it will ship a CD-RW drive in place of the floppy drive in its TravelMate 600 notebook.

Battery life is also a major issue for notebook users. As a result, Intel will deliver new Pentium III chips with SpeedStep Technology that consume less power than its current Pentium III SpeedStep chips.

SpeedStep, Intel officials claim, gives users higher clock-speed performance without affecting battery life by scaling back the chip's voltage and clock speed when the notebook is running on battery and by running the chip at full speed and top voltage when the system is plugged in. The company's 700MHz Mobile Pentium III, for example, scales to 550MHz while on battery power. The first of the lower-power SpeedStep chips will be a 600MHz Mobile Pentium III that powers down to 500MHz and consumes less than 1 watt of power while on battery power. That chip, along with a 750MHz Mobile Pentium III, is due next month, sources said.

"This summer we will introduce a Pentium III product that will run under 1 watt at 500MHz," said Paul Otellini, Intel's executive vice president, during a meeting last month with financial analysts.

Intel also plans to offer chips that hold the line on power consumption but increase clock-speed performance.

"Using 0.13 we can go above 1GHz and stay within that 1-watt envelope," Otellini said. It is possible he was referring to the mobile Pentium III chip's successor, a chip code-named Northwood.

These low-power chips will be used in mininotebooks, such as a new offering from Sony, which sources say will be called the VAIO SR Series. The SR, due this summer, will weigh three pounds and offer a 10.4-inch screen. Consumers should expect to see similar offerings from other notebook makers.

Analysts say the new 600MHz SpeedStep chip is aimed at staving off competition from Transmeta which announced plans to produce low-power notebook processors earlier this year.

Transmeta, according to published reports, will announce partnerships with PC makers next month.

Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices has improved its new mobile chip offerings with the K6-2+ and K6-III+, running at 450MHz, 475MHz and 500MHz.

Versions of the chips that support PowerNow!, AMD's power-saving technology, will begin shipping at midyear, according to the company.

Analysts believe AMD won't push the new mobile chips much past 550MHz. Instead, they say, the company's emphasis is on bringing a mobile Athlon processor to market.

AMD is working toward a second-half launch of the mobile Athlon processor, now known by the code name Corvette. Sources speculate that this chip will debut at about 800MHz.

An AMD spokesman said it was too early to discuss the clock-speed rating of the mobile Athlon. However, he said the AMD mobile chip's introductory clock speed will match the top clock speed of Intel's mobile Pentium III.

Little is known about the chip, but AMD has said it will be based on the company's Mustang processor core and will have an enhanced version of PowerNow. Corvette will also include integrated cache and will be compatible with AMD's Socket A.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

Take me the CPU Roadmap: AMD vs. Intel

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