Forget faster clock speeds; the battle these days is over whose chips use less juice.
Looking to beat Transmeta Corp. at its own game, Intel Corp. on Tuesday launched two new chips for notebooks that it said break new ground for low-power consumption. One of them, a mobile Pentium III processor, is the first in the industry to operate at under 1 volt and consume on average less than half a watt of power, Intel officials said.
The chip maker also unveiled a low-voltage, 500MHz version of its mobile Celeron chip, which will be aimed at lower-priced notebooks.
Both chips target the emerging "subnotebook" category of portables that weigh less than three pounds (1.5 kilograms). Intel hopes the chips will help it maintain a lead in the fast-growing market for notebook computers, where users are clamoring for longer battery life in much the same way they crave faster clock speeds on the desktop.
The new mobile Pentium III, which also runs at 500MHz, will be released first in Japan, where IBM Corp. will offer it in one of its i-Series ThinkPads. The processor should find its way into notebooks in the U.S. by the middle of this year, said Frank Spindler, vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.
"We are breaking some major thresholds in terms of the voltage levels at which we operate our microprocessors, and as a result we are breaking new thresholds in power consumption," Spindler said, in a presentation here Monday for press and analysts.
By using less power the chips should allow PC makers to extend battery life in their notebooks. IBM's ThinkPad, for example, should be able to run for about five hours without being recharged, Spindler said. Because the low-power chips generate less heat, they may also allow manufacturers to build systems that don't have a fan, allowing for more power in smaller machines.
The chips should also help Intel stave off competition from Transmeta, which has played upon the low-power characteristics of its Crusoe chips. The Crusoe went on sale in November and is offered in subnotebooks like Sony Corp.'s Vaio Picturebook.
Intel and Transmeta have been in a war of words over whose chips use less power. The Pentium III released today appears to best Transmeta for the time being: the Crusoe TM5600 running at 600MHz consumes about one watt of power, Transmeta officials have said.
For PC makers, Intel's chips have the advantage of working with standard components that are widely available, noted Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. In contrast, manufacturers that use Transmeta's chips will need to seek out parts that work with its newer technology.
"Intel is saying you can have power-savings and a standard platform at the same time, which you can't with Transmeta, so it makes Transmeta's position more tenuous than ever," Brookwood said.
When Transmeta began talking about low-power consumption early last year, Intel's marketing department was caught off guard, Brookwood noted. The company has wised up since then, and has learned which features to talk up in its mobile offerings.
The mobile Pentium III uses Intel's SpeedStep power management technology, which allows the processor to run at 500MHz when the notebook is connected to a mains supply, but drop to 300MHz when the notebook is running on its battery. The processor also uses QuickStart, which powers it down during the split-second intervals when the processor is not doing any work.
SpeedStep and QuickStart are not new, however, and nor is 500MHz much to brag about -- Intel already offers a mobile Pentium III at 850MHz. What makes the new processor special, according to Spindler, is the amount of power it uses. Running at 300MHz, the mobile Pentium III operates at less than 1 volt and consumes on average less that half a watt of power, he said.
The chip uses the same basic architecture as the existing Pentium III, but Intel figured a way to tweak the manufacturing process to produce a processor core that runs at the lower voltage, Spindler said.
Intel's plan is to offer different processors for each segment of the notebook market, much as it does for the desktop. For full-sized and "thin and light" notebooks it offers the standard 850MHz mobile Pentium III. For mininotebooks, which weigh three to four pounds, it offers an existing low-power Pentium III, which clocks in at 600MHz and has a core voltage of about 1.35 volts. The chips announced today target the smaller subnotebook category.
About 60 percent of notebooks sold are in the full-size category, according to Intel estimates. By the end of 2002, thin-and-light machines weighing four or five pounds will account for 60 percent, while the mini and subnotebook categories will also pick up steam but remain a relatively small market, Spindler said.
In the second half of this year Intel will switch to a more advanced, 0.13-micron manufacturing process, which will allow it to crank the speed of its chips up another notch. Looking further ahead, the company is working on a completely new architecture for mobile processors which could see light of day by 2002, Spindler said.
In 1,000 unit volumes, the 500MHz Pentium III and 500MHz Celeron announced Tuesday are priced at US$208 and $118, respectively.
Intel, in Santa Clara, California, can be reached at +1-408-987-8080 or http://www.intel.com/.