Consumers win mobile chip race

It's now a three-horse race between Intel, AMD and newcomer Transmeta. And that's good news for notebook buyers

The notebook PC processor market -- traditionally a one-horse race dominated by Intel -- is heating up. And speeding up.

The mobile-chip market has been turned into a three-horse race by the renewed efforts of Advanced Micro Devices and the entry of a new challenger, Transmeta.

And that's good news for consumers. Greater competition should lead to faster releases of new mobile-chip technologies, such as a new mobile chip from Intel, code-named Northwood, and a mobile version of AMD's Athlon processor.

It also means that instead of being confronted by a shelf-full of Intel-powered notebooks, soon consumers will have a trifecta of mobile-chip manufacturers to choose from -- including AMD's forthcoming K6-2+P notebook chip, Transmeta's Crusoe TM5400, and a host of new, faster, mobile Celeron and Pentium III chips from Intel.

Mobile-chip newcomer Transmeta is presently at the centre of a large amount of design activity, according to industry sources. In Japan and Taiwan, original-design manufacturers (ODMs) are creating Crusoe-based notebooks either in partnership with a large PC maker or on their own, in the hope of selling those notebooks either to PC makers or direct to customers.

Transmeta has said it is sampling the Crusoe TM5400 chip and that it should be available in notebooks, ranging in speed from 500MHz to 700MHz, later this year, with the third quarter the most likely delivery date. Meanwhile, vendors such as Insyde Software and Phoenix Technologies have announced they will support Crusoe with their Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) software. BIOS software, which essentially allows PC hardware to talk to its operating system, is an important piece of the puzzle when designing a brand-new system such as the Crusoe-based notebook.

Transmeta-BIOS software developers -- and probably notebook makers as well -- are developing their products to work with a range of chip sets, including one from Acer Labs, which includes its ALI 1535 chip, and those that offer Intel's PIIX4, such as its mobile 440BX chip set. The BIOS port itself takes little time. "The challenge is the porting on power management," a source said.

K6-2+P chips due in March AMD, meanwhile, is expected to begin shipment of its K6-2+P mobile chips with Gemini technology in March or April. Gemini, much like Intel's SpeedStep technology, endeavours to increase battery life by lowering clock speed and voltage of the K6-2+P while a notebook runs on battery power.

Besides the K6-2+P, AMD, which has discontinued the K6-III chip for desktop PCs, will continue K6-III for notebooks with a K6-III+P version. Details on the K6-III+P's availability, however, are scarce. Intel aims for 850MHz And although it faces its strongest competition since Cyrix and Rise Technology withdrew from the PC processor business last year, don't expect Intel to surrender its dominance of the mobile market.

Intel is working to implement its SpeedStep battery-saving technology in all of its future mobile Pentium III chips, including those aimed at mininotebooks.

Due in the second half of the year, SpeedStep will allow vendors to pack more-powerful mobile Pentium III chips into the confines of a mini-notebook. At the same time, it eliminates the need for Intel to develop dedicated low-power Pentium III chips, although sources say the company will continue to do so for its mobile Celeron chips.

The chip maker is also expected to raise mobile Pentium III clock speeds in 50MHz increments throughout 2000, hitting 850MHz by the end of the year. The next mobile Pentium III release will be a 700MHz chip, which sources say is due next quarter. A 750MHz chip should be announced in the first half of the year, with an 800MHz mobile Pentium III coming in the third quarter. The 850MHz mark should be hit late in the fourth quarter.

While Intel is moving ahead with mobile chips, its mobile chip-set road map has been thinned out. The development of two mobile chip sets -- the mobile equivalent of Intel's 820 chip set, code-named Greendale, and a mobile version of the 810 chip set -- was cancelled a few months ago. Greendale would have offered a 133MHz system bus and Rambus memory or RDRAM. The current mobile chip set, Intel's mobile 440BX, will remain the platform of necessity through the end of the year. That means RDRAM won't make an appearance in notebooks until next year, when, according to sources, Intel introduces RDRAM modules specifically for notebook applications.

Intel will deliver a mobile version of its Solano2 chip set, otherwise known as the 815, in the fourth quarter. The chip set offers a 133MHz bus and support for 133MHz synchronous dynamic RAM. It should offer an increase in performance for notebooks while keeping down costs. RDRAM is significantly more expensive than SDRAM.

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