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Moving Mobile Chips

This was a big week for mobile computing microprocessors, in a year in which portable computers and wireless computing are expected to flourish. Giant Intel and tiny Transmeta popped up with significant new advancements in microprocessors for portable computing.

This was a big week for mobile computing microprocessors, in a year in which portable computers and wireless computing are expected to flourish. Giant Intel and tiny Transmeta popped up with significant new advancements in microprocessors for portable computing.

At a briefing in San Francisco this week, Intel Corp. introduced two mobile Pentium III processors with clock speeds of 650 MHz and 600 MHz (see our roundup of the first systems based on these chips). The processors feature a new set of technologies dubbed SpeedStep. Previous Intel processors have topped out at the 500-MHz clock-speed level because of power management issues that arise when clock speeds remain above that level for long periods of time.

SpeedStep technology lets the new processors adjust their clock speeds down to 500 MHz from their normal speeds of 600 MHz and above, when running on battery power. At the same time, the voltage can be stepped down to 1.35 volts from 1.6 volts. When the notebook with SpeedStep is plugged into an AC outlet, it operates at normal clock speeds, and at 1.6 volts. The clock speed and voltage changes don't affect applications currently running in any visible way, nor are there any software upgrades or changes required to use the processors.

According to Intel vice president and general manager Robert Jecmen, portable computers have until now required a performance versus mobility compromise that Intel wants to get rid of. "In the last three months, the mobile PC performance landscape has been completely reshaped," he says. "We have nearly doubled the performance of mobile PCs in three months." Market researchers at IDC say in a new report that 80 percent of mobile computer users think CPU speeds are too slow, and 82 percent say that mobile computers are too heavy. In conjunction with the SpeedStep chips, Intel also announced sweeping price cuts--some of more than 50 percent--on previous Mobile Pentium III chips, Pentium II Mobile chips, and Celeron chips.

Transmeta Decloaks
The other mobile computing shakeup of the week came from tiny Transmeta Corp., a supersecretive Silicon Valley company that has grabbed headlines for a couple of years both for its refusal to discuss what it's been working on and because Linux creator Linus Torvalds has been working on the company's products. All that was known until this week was that Transmeta had filed a couple of patents regarding next-generation mobile multimedia microprocessors, and that Torvalds had referred to the company's processors in a speech as "software-powered."

Sure enough, the company announced such a microprocessor today, called Crusoe. At Transmeta's unveiling of Crusoe, the company described the processor as "the first microprocessor whose instruction set is implemented entirely in software," and the company said that the goal was to produce faster microprocessors that use less power than other mobile microprocessors.

Transmeta's CEO, Dave Ditzel, was an engineer of RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips at Sun Microsystems, and Transmeta's chips appear to be an extension of the RISC concept, employing software to offload many of the tasks currently handled onboard mobile microprocessors. The two initial processors were designed in conjunction with IBM MicroElectronics, and several manufacturers of portable hardware devices have said they will introduce devices built around the chips.

Intel and Transmeta are both expected to make several other key announcements regarding chips for mobile computing this year, and other major news on the mobile horizon is a wave of expected chips and devices based on the 2.4-GHz wireless radio communications technology dubbed Bluetooth. Intel, Motorola, Silicon Wave and several other companies are working on chips and transceivers designed for wireless communications between Bluetooth devices such as handheld computers and cell phones. The chips, transceivers and devices are expected to come to fruition by this summer.