Intel puts Tualatin chips on launch pad

New mobile processors use a new manufacturing process that Intel hopes will be its secret weapon against AMD

Intel is set to launch a new version of its mobile Pentium III chip, code-named Tualatin, on Monday, marking the beginning of its foray into a crucial next-generation manufacturing technology.

Tualatin shrinks the Pentium III's architecture from 0.18-micron geometry to 0.13-micron, reducing the size of the chip die, which increases performance, reduces power consumption and heat generation, and also cuts the cost of manufacturing the chips. A version of the chip aimed at servers was introduced last month, but the mobile chip is expected to make the biggest splash.

The chips also use copper interconnects, a feature which could allow increased miniaturisation for future versions.

At a launch event on Monday, Intel will introduce the Pentium III-M in five speeds: 866MHz, 933MHz, 1GHz, 1.06GHz and 1.13GHz. Several vendors will announce laptops using the processor.

The new mobile Pentium IIIs will use a 133MHz front-side bus and are expected to include a larger 512kB Level 2 cache and a new version of SpeedStep, Intel's battery-saving technology. The chips will compete with AMD's mobile Athlon 4 and ultra-low-power Crusoe chips from Transmeta.

AMD, Intel's biggest rival in the desktop chip market, is also porting its processors to the new process. The company is hoping to leapfrog Intel by beginning the transfer with its top-of-the-line Athlon 4 chip, while Intel has chosen to test out the process first on an older design. Intel's flagship chip is currently the Pentium 4.

Industry analysts say that Intel is counting on quickly moving Pentium 4 to 0.13-microns as well, as a way of slashing high production costs.

Intel is focussing its marketing efforts on Pentium 4 throughout this year in an effort to establish it as the mainstream desktop chip; this strategy has involved heavy subsidies to fuel a series of price cuts.

Intel is planning to switch Pentium 4 over to the 0.13-micron process in the fourth quarter of this year, with a processor code-named Northwood. The change is expected to cut the chip's die size in half from the current 217 square millimetres.

Athlon 4, by contrast, is presently 129 square millimetres, and is expected to be reduced to about 80 square millimetres, which means it will still be less expensive to manufacture than the Northwood Pentium 4. The figures are important because AMD and Intel are locked into a pricing war that has only been exaggerated by this year's drastic slowdown in technology spending.

Intel's manufacturing plans have been impacted this year by delays by SVG Lithography in providing the lithography equipment to be used in the transition.

Analysts believe that the price and performance of the new chips will help continue the reduction of the gap between notebooks and desktops.

"I think that as you shrink lines (from the current 0.18-micron process to the 0.13-micron process), it allows you to get closer and closer to the performance of a desktop," IDC analyst Roger Kay said.

At the same time, falling system-memory prices have led many of the PC makers to include up to twice as much memory in their new notebooks. Though the new notebooks pack greater features, their prices are expected to be on a par with previous models, giving buyers more performance for their money.

PC makers including Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sony are expected to tout Pentium III-M notebooks at the Intel launch event.

Also on Monday, Intel will announce its new mobile chipset with integrated graphics, dubbed the Intel 830. The chipset, known by the code name Almador, was designed to work with all sizes of notebooks, eliminating the need for three other Intel chipsets, including the 440BX, the 440MX and the 815. By standardising on the 830, PC makers will be able to build several different notebooks with the same basic design, saving on research and development.

For now, most notebook makers are expected to carry on with their current designs, gradually adopting the new chipset later in the year.

The 830's one kicker, sources say, may be that it has only a 133MHz front-side bus -- the data pipeline between the processor and the main memory. Intel and PC makers see this move as bringing more performance to the mainstream notebook market, as increases in bus speed usually net a few percentage points in performance.

But current mobile chipsets support both 100MHz and 133MHz. Offering only the faster speed limits the number of Celeron chips available to it, as Intel has yet to increase the bus on mobile Celeron chips to 133MHz. The company, however, plans to move to a 133MHz bus with an 866MHz mobile Celeron due later in the quarter, sources familiar with the company's plans said.

Most new Pentium III-M notebooks are expected to cost less than $2,500.

IBM will brandish new T-series ThinkPad notebooks. The new models will include new integrated wireless 802.11 and Bluetooth as well as additional security features, sources familiar with its plans said.

Dell will launch a new Inspiron 8000 series notebook priced around $1,700 and a new Latitude 800 series notebook priced around $2,500. The company is expected to announce a second Inspiron with Pentium III-M and the new 830 chipset later in the year, sources said.

Meanwhile, HP will equip an Omnibook 6100 series notebook with the 1.13GHz Pentium III-M chip and either 128MB or 256MB of RAM as well as 16MB of video memory and two USB ports, sources said.

Sony will launch two new Vaio notebooks. Its PCG-GR150K will sport a 14.1-inch display along with an 866MHz Pentium III-M processor, 128MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive. Its PCG-GR170K upgrades to a 1.13GHz Pentium III-M, 256MB of RAM and a 14.1-inch SXGA+ display. Sony also will announce a new strategy to market Vaio notebooks, always good sellers in retail, to business customers.

Compaq is also expected to offer all five Pentium III-M speeds in its Presario 1700 series of notebooks, at prices ranging from about $1,550 to $1,850. The company also will announce an Evo thin-and-light notebook with the new chips, sources said. The new Evo will join Compaq's Evo N200 mini-notebook displayed at PC Expo this year. The Evo N200 is expected in September and will use a low-power version of the Pentium III-M chip due out later in the year.

Gateway will show off two new high-end notebooks, additions to its existing Solo 9500 series of notebooks. The company plans to ship them at a later date.

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