Intel launches ultra-low power mobile processors

Intel Corp. is firing a return shot at low-power chip newcomer Transmeta Corp. by releasing two low-power processors it claims run faster and use less power than Transmeta's Crusoe. IBM Corp. is the first supporter, using one of the chips in a notebook shipping shortly in Japan.

Making their debut Tuesday are the 500-MHz Ultra Low Voltage Mobile Pentium III with SpeedStep, and a 500-MHz Ultra Low Voltage Mobile Celeron. IBM will use the PIII in its Thinkpad I-Series 1124.

The new PIII is "the lowest-power-consumption processor that has ever been built," says Frank Spindler, vice president and general manager of Intel's Mobile Platforms Group.

Building on SpeedStep

In the SpeedStep battery-optimized mode, the new PIII runs at 300 MHz, operates at less than 1 volt, and consumes less than half a watt of power on average, Spindler says. Even in its 500-MHz maximum performance mode the chip runs at only 1.1 volts, consuming an average of less than 1 watt, he says. The Celeron lacks SpeedStep technology, so it always runs at 1.1 volts with an average power consumption of less than 1 watt.

Process refinements and more than a year of PIII experience make it possible for Intel to produce PIIIs that run at the new, lower voltage, decreasing their power drain. The chips have no architectural enhancements, Spindler says.

Intel further lowers the chips' power consumption with other Intel mobile technology such as Quickstart, which raises and lowers power consumption depending on the chip's processing tasks.

To further reduce power consumption and save battery life, both chips use Intel's low-power chip set called the 440MX, he says. The chip set itself, already used in some systems, consumes less than half a watt of power on average.

Battery life improvements will vary depending on the notebook, but Spindler says IBM expects battery life in its new sub-3-pound ThinkPad to last up to 5 hours.

That doesn't stretch a battery quite as long as the original expectations for Transmeta's Crusoe. Vendors for some of the first notebooks with the processor, which appeared in October, boasted 8 or more hours of battery life. PCWorld.com's test results of Sony's Transmeta-based PictureBook show only moderate battery life savings.

Ironically, IBM was among the first major vendors to display a prototype based on the Transmeta chip before dropping the Crusoe in favor of the Intel chip. IBM has yet to release details on the notebook and has not announced when a version might arrive in the United States.

Spindler says he expects some U.S. vendors to begin offering the ultra-low-power PIII and Celeron chips in notebooks in the first half of this year.

PCWorld.com plans a series of comprehensive performance tests on notebooks using the low-power CPUs as soon as they become available.

Transmeta spurred Intel

Despite his comments about the Crusoe's performance, Spindler acknowledges that Transmeta has drawn considerable attention to what Intel describes as the ultra-portable notebook market. Popular in Japan, those notebooks today make up a very small percentage of the entire notebook market, he says. Intel expects they'll never be much more than a single-digit market presence. But in a growing market, that still means good profits.

While Transmeta didn't invent the subnotebook category, it did force Intel to properly address that market, notes analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight 64. It forced the much larger company to change the way it characterizes its products, he says.

"It's highly unlikely we'd be having this meeting [showing off Intel's new chips] today without Transmeta," he says.

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