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Mobile Pentium II questions raised

While the flashy new systems are being showcased, doubts lurk about whether the new chip represents a significant advance for notebooks.

Intel (INTC) and most of the industry's major notebook PC manufacturers will gather in Santa Clara, California, tomorrow morning to showcase the first mobile computers using the Pentium II processor.

But behind the veneer of flashy new systems lurk questions about performance. The Pentium II processor, or at least the first generation of the chip, presents a design dilemma for notebook vendors, some analysts and notebook executives say.

On one hand, the new processor will allow Intel-based notebooks to graduate to

Pentium II notebooks
Vendor Processor Price
Dell 233-MHz $3,000
  266-MHz $3,300/
Gateway 233-MHz $2,899/
  266-MHz $3,999/
IBM 233-MHz $3,000
  266-MHz $4,800
the chip architecture that represents the future for Intel and will likely account for the majority of desktops manufactured in the second half of 1998.

On the other hand, the first generations of the mobile Pentium II will use more power than the current 200-, 233-, and 266-MHz Pentium MMX Tillamook chips that came out last September, analysts said. This is a critical consideration for mobile users running their notebooks on batteries.

Intel avoids comparing the power performance of the new chips to current high-end Pentium MMX chips at public events, noted Michael Slater, founder of MicroDesign Resources. Instead, the company draws a favorable contrast to the 166-MHz Pentium MMX for mobile computers, one of the most power-hungry mobile chips produced by Intel, according to Slater.

The Pentium II also tends to add little in terms of performance for many everyday applications, especially the lower-speed versions of the chip. Many business applications run almost as effectively on Pentium MMX machines, according to analysts at Dataquest and Intel itself. Intel spokespeople have said in the past that the performance difference between Pentium and Pentium II chips appears most often when running certain game programs.

However, Intel said in a prepared statement that the chip is necessary for many of the more demanding applications now emerging. "These are the most powerful mobile [processors] in history, capable of running the most demanding applications," according to Intel.

"[The Pentium II can decompress] rich Internet content over standard telephone lines [and handle] emerging applications like speech recognition and language text translation," Intel said, adding that there is "plenty of performance to run new generations of [operating systems] that haven't even been released yet" including Windows 98 and NT 5.0.

But there are some in the industry which still question battery life. "The Pentium II is sort of a setback if you look at battery life," said Kelly Henry, semiconductor analyst at International Data Corporation. "They [PC manufacturers] are not hyped on it."

Some notebook executives indeed seem ambivalent about the move.

"Clearly, the increase in power consumption makes it more challenging for us," said a notebook executive from one of the top-tier vendors introducing new Pentium II notebooks. "We are moving forward with product designs but the fact that it uses more power than the Tillamook processors means battery life will be impacted."

Still, the executive said that the situation will improve over time as component and software vendors continue to emphasize power management.

Despite these doubts, all of the major manufacturers appear to be aggressively supporting the rollout of the chip with new systems. IBM, Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, NEC Computer Systems, Fujitsu and Digital, among others, will announce notebooks based around the new chips.

Several of the computers will represent new models. IBM will introduce the ThinkPad 600, a high-end Pentium II notebook which will come in a slim form factor, while Compaq will provide details on the Armada 700, a 266-MHz Pentium II notebook with a 13.3-inch screen, sources said.

HP will announce the OmniBook 7100, a 266-MHz Pentium II with a 14-inch screen, according to industry sources. Later in the year, HP will introduce a thinner form factor using the Pentium II called the OmniBook 4100.

Meanwhile, NEC Computer Systems will preview a Versa notebook that measures only 1.3 inches thick.

The two new Intel mobile chips will be part of the Deschutes family of Pentium II processors, meaning they will be made on an advanced manufacturing process referred to as "0.25 micron," the successor to the 0.35-micron technology also used by Intel. The more advanced 0.25-micron production process allows Intel to produce smaller circuits that consume less power and generate less heat than desktop Pentium II chips.

The power issue will be more fully taken care of in later editions of the chip. Late in the year and in early 1999, mobile Pentium II chips will integrate the secondary, high-speed "cache" memory into the same piece of silicon as the processor, said Ashok Kumar, semiconductor analyst with Piper Jaffray. The "Level 2" cache memory on other Pentium II chips is inside the chip package but on a separate piece of silicon.

Integration of the critical cache memory not only cuts manufacturing costs, but also reduces the heat the chip produces, noted Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Performance questions aside, analysts expect 1998 to be a big year for notebook sales.

Notebook sales tend to follow a two-year upgrade cycle, said Mike McGuire, portable analyst for Dataquest. Sales spiked in 1994, especially in the third quarter, but in 1995, sales growth was off. Similarly, sales surged again in the third quarter in 1996 but dropped off in 1997.

For 1998, "there is a user perception that it is time to upgrade," McGuire noted.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.