Intel plans mobile megahertz blitz

Five new chips due this month. Three chips up the ante when it comes to clock speed, while two low-power ones address the mini-notebook market
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Intel will mark June with its largest mobile chip launch to date. The chip maker later this month will introduce five new processors for notebook PCs.

Intel's aim with the launch is to increase overall performance of notebook PCs but at the same time offer new low-power options aimed at extending the battery life of small-form-factor notebooks.

The launch will include three higher-clock-speed mobile Pentium III and Celeron chips as well as a low-power mobile Pentium III and Celeron.

Intel will give mainstream notebook users a bump in performance with a faster Pentium III chip, running at 750MHz, and new mobile Celerons running at up to 650MHz. Meanwhile, the company's new low-power chips, a Pentium III running at 600MHz and a Celeron running at 500MHz, are designed to consume less power than the 750MHz Pentium III does. This will allow notebook makers to create smaller-form-factor notebooks for frequent travellers, known as road warriors.

If this strategy seems somewhat divergent, that's because Intel planned it that way.

Right now, the majority of notebooks sold fall under a category known loosely as 'desktop replacement'. These notebooks, far from being low-power, offer large screen sizes, high-clock-speed processors, high-end graphics, and many other bells and whistles. Essentially, they take the functions of a desktop and make them portable.

While many notebook users say they would like a small notebook with a long battery life, Intel says the majority of the notebooks being purchased perform the desktop replacement role. One such example is Dell's Inspiron 7500 series. The Inspiron, weighing in at about eight pounds, offers the latest processors, large screen sizes (such as 15 and 15.4 inches), and two drive bays for any combination of DVD (Digital Video Disc), CD-ROM, hard drives or additional batteries. Prices start at around $2,000 (£1,326).

However a certain percentage of notebook buyers demand thin, lightweight notebooks. But the smaller confines of thin and lightweight notebooks limit the clock speed of the processors, due to power consumption and heat production.

"We think that there's going to be a long battery life movement at some point," said Sam Wilkie, product marketing manager in Intel's mobile and handheld products group. "We think it would be cool to see half day-all day (battery-life) notebooks."

But, right now, "PC makers don't have the incentive to sell (low-power mini-notebooks)", Wilkie said, because "high-performance (larger) notebooks are just selling like crazy. The technology is finally good enough so that you don't miss your desktop anymore."

Consumers who don't travel a lot may not see much value in a mini-notebook, which often costs as much as or more than desktop replacement notebooks and requires compromise. Mininotebook buyers give up large screens, full-size keyboards, processor clock speed and internal disk drive bays to save weight and extend battery life.

The ideal low-power notebook, one with a 10.4-inch screen, a new low-power Intel chip, limited graphics processing capabilities and aggressive power management software, is, right now, just not the consumers' ideal, Wilkie said. However, he suggests that, at some point, sophisticated PC users may have three PCs -- a desktop, a high-end desktop replacement notebook and a mini-notebook for use when traveling.

Intel is happy to serve both the desktop replacement and mini-notebook markets.

For the desktop replacement market, the company will tout the new, higher clock speeds of its mobile Pentium III and the lower cost of its new mobile Celeron chips.

The new high-end 750MHz Pentium III will offer Intel's SpeedStep technology. Using SpeedStep, which decreases clock speed and voltage in order to extend battery life, the chip will power down from 750MHz on AC power to 600MHz while running on battery power. A notebook will power down the chip automatically; however, users will be able to override this using an applet, specifying, for example, that the chip continue to operate at 750MHz while running on battery.

Intel will also begin shipping new 650MHz and 600MHz mobile Celeron chips as value alternatives to high-end mobile Pentium III chips.

When it comes to low-power processors for mini-notebooks, Intel will announce a new 600MHz Pentium III chip, which it says will consume less than one watt of power on average. The chip, which also offers SpeedStep technology, will power down to 500MHz when running on battery power.

Intel has been developing a lower-power version of its SpeedStep technology for some time. It is believed that this 600MHz Pentium III is the first implementation of the low-power SpeedStep. Where the new 750MHz Pentium III will throttle from 750MHz at 1.6 volts to 600MHz at 1.35 volts, it is expected that the 600MHz Pentium III will throttle from 600MHz at 1.35 volts to 500MHz at 1.1 volts. The lower the core voltage, the less power in watts is consumed by the processor.

Intel will also introduce at the end of the month a new low-power mobile Celeron chip, running at 500MHz. The chip, which provides a lower cost offering for mini-notebooks, will consume less power than current mobile Celerons by running at a lower core voltage. It is believed the chip will be rated at 1.35 volts, as opposed to the 1.6 volts of the normal mobile Celeron chip.

All of the new mobile chips are manufactured on Intel's 0.18-micron process and support a 100MHz system bus.

Intel plans to use the new low-power SpeedStep to maintain a line of lower-power mobile chips, eventually scaling to 1GHz (1,000MHz), according to Paul Otellini, executive vice president of Intel.

Otellini, at the company's financial analyst meeting in New York in late April, told analysts, "We can take the overall performance up in terms of clock speed (and still maintain battery life). Using 0.13 (the next-generation manufacturing technology, which Intel will put in place next year), we can go above 1GHz and stay within that envelope."

"A gigahertz at one watt would be a shrink of Pentium III," Wilkie said. In other words, it would be a version of the Pentium III chip manufactured using a 0.13-micron process, instead of the current 0.18-micron process. Migrating process technologies this way reduces power consumption and improves the ability of a chip maker to increase clock-speed performance.

Intel also has plans to develop a mobile version of its Willamette chip, known by the code name Northwood. However, Northwood will not debut until after Intel makes the 0.18-micron to 0.13-micron transition.

The Pentium III will be Intel's main notebook chip for some time. The company plans to go all out on the chip, with versions running at 800MHz and 850MHz expected in the second half and a 900MHz version coming in the first quarter of next year. Intel, sources said, is currently evaluating when it will hit the 1GHz market in notebooks. This will likely come in the first half of next year.

Intel will face a number of challengers in mobile the rest of the year. Its main challengers will be Advanced Micro Devices(AMD) and upstart Transmeta.

Transmeta, which touts long battery life, will make a lot of noise this month as well. The company is preparing announcements about a number of relationships with PC makers at this month's PC Expo trade show. The new notebooks will be touted as low power consumption, while offering good multimedia performance.

Meanwhile, AMD is working on a mobile version of its Athlon processor, known by the code name Corvette. The Corvette chip is expected to debut at a speed somewhere around 800MHz. Although AMD is not yet commenting on the clock speed of the new chip, officials say AMD plans to launch the Corvette chip at clock speeds that are competitive with Intel's. The company's K6-2+ notebook chip, announced earlier this year at 450MHz, 475MHz and 500MHz, is being used by several PC makers, including HP.

Gateway signs with Transmeta and doubles its chip order with AMD. Microsoft gets the long expected salami slice to create the Nannysoft subsidiaries. Is the ten-year Wintel stranglehold on the market finally at an end? Andy Redfern thinks he's seen it all before and says don't write the Wintel obituary just yet. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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