Intel to bolster its mobile convoy

Faster and cheaper notebook-oriented Pentium 4 chips are on Intel's itinerary for later this year. How fast? Some will run at speeds of up to 3.06GHz, sources say.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
5 min read
Intel plans to release faster, cheaper notebook-oriented Pentium 4 chips this year, even as manufacturers continue using less-expensive desktop Pentiums in notebooks to cut costs and attract buyers in the cutthroat consumer market.

Sources indicate that the new mobile Pentium 4 processors will run at speeds of up to 3.06GHz, coming closer than previous notebook chips to matching the speed of desktop Pentium 4s.

At the same time, the new notebook chips will cost far less than current ones--including the existing Pentium 4-M mobile chip, which costs more than similar chips in the desktop line. Intel's top-of-the-line 2.4GHz Pentium 4-M sells for $562, significantly higher than the desktop Pentium 4 version at $193.

But the new mobile Pentium 4 chips are expected to sell for only a slight premium, as little as $15 more than the price of a corresponding desktop chip, according to sources.

The development should please major PC makers such as Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard, which began offering hybrid "desknote" Pentium 4 notebooks about a year ago. Although the machines are heavier and more power-hungry than standard laptops, the desknotes' lower prices and near-desktop performance have won over a slew of buyers looking to replace their PCs with portable machines they could easily stow away.

Caught somewhat flat-footed by the popularity of Pentium 4 desknotes, Intel executives initially believed the trend would quickly pass. But the Pentium 4-based desknote persisted throughout 2002 as more manufacturers launched new models in the category. HP, for one, has said it intends to continue its desknote lines as long as it can fit desktop chips into a reasonably sized machine.

The upcoming line of mobile Pentium 4s will kill two birds with one stone. Because it's expected at speeds of up to 3.06GHz initially but with a lower price than an existing mobile Pentium 4-M, the new chip line will let Intel address the desknote market but won't put price pressure on the company's flagship processor line.

Intel's mobile family
Pentium 4-M The current mobile Pentium 4. Good battery life.
Pentium 4 A desktop chip used in some "desknote" PCs. Cheaper and faster than the Pentium 4-M, but offers less battery life in notebooks.
Pentium-M Formerly code-named Banias. Promises more battery life than Pentium 4-M. Coming in March.
Centrino A Pentium-M combined with wireless gear in one package.
Pentium 4C A hybrid chip that was cheaper than P4-M but better on batteries than P4.
Mobile Pentium 4 Tentative name for the new P4-M/P4 hybrid, coming in 2003. Ultimate replacement for P4-M.
Mobile Celeron Low-priced mobile chip.
That's because the chipmaker will debut a new mobile processor, the Pentium-M, under the Centrino brand in March. Pentium-M is designed to give Intel the room it needs to realign the mobile Pentium 4 line.

"Part of this is Intel coming to grips and recognizing that this phenomenon isn't going away," said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research. "And, as the saying goes: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Chip after chip
Don MacDonald, director of mobile platforms at Intel, acknowledged that Intel will change its mobile Pentium 4 lineup but wouldn't go into details about prices or clock speeds for the new chips

Meanwhile, MacDonald said, Intel's Centrino family--which includes a forthcoming Pentium-M chip (formerly known as Banias) along with a new chipset and a wireless radio module for 802.11b--will become the company's new flagship mobile-processor line for tackling the higher end of the market, which has heated up as a result of the growth of wireless.

Intel will also continue selling the current version of its Pentium 4-M chip and will quite likely add new speed grades, but its focus will be on delivering the new line of mobile Pentium 4s, MacDonald said.

MacDonald indicated that although the new mobile Pentium 4 chips will offer desktoplike speeds, they won't offer the same features as their desktop counterparts.

Much like Intel's Pentium 4C--a short-lived, special-order processor used by HP--the new mobile Pentium 4 chips are expected to essentially offer a desktop processor in a mobile package. As a result, the chips are not expected to offer hyperthreading or Intel's faster 800MHz bus designed for the desktop chips.

The new mobile Pentium 4 chips will likely lack some of the power management features of Intel's more standard notebook chips as well. They're not likely to offer Intel's SpeedStep, for instance, which lowers a notebook chip's clock speed to extend the amount of time the machine can run on battery power.

But the new chips, expected midyear, will run at a much higher range of clock speeds--between 2.4GHz and 3.06GHz--and include a 533MHz bus, sources familiar with Intel's plans said. The speeds will put the chips only a few clicks behind Intel's desktop Pentium 4, which will be available at 3.2GHz or faster by the time of the new mobile chip's release.

Although Intel's new mobile Pentium 4 may grant consumers only slightly more megahertz, analysts say it could do a lot for manufacturers looking to cut prices and compete in the consumer notebook market.

The wireless factor
Expensive notebooks won't fade away. But the desknote trend could begin to dwindle with the popularity of wireless computing, which requires a notebook with a fairly long battery life, something the desknotes don't have. Some Centrino laptops, meanwhile, will be able to run up to six hours on a single charge, according to Intel estimates.

Mercury Research's McCarron said that Intel's combination of a new mobile Pentium 4 and the higher-end Centrino line covers both those bases.

"The advantage to the manufacturer involves a couple of things," McCarron said. "If he already has a Pentium 4-M system, he can take advantage of the cost savings of going to a desktop processor without doing a new motherboard. The reverse is, if he designs a system around the (mobile Pentium 4), he has the option of putting notebook processors in it. The manufacturer has the flexibility of going in the direction the market may dictate...as opposed to being locked in.

"Part of what Centrino is about is pointing out the sexier aspects of mobile computing. Those aspects--things like hanging out in Starbucks doing 802.11 Web browsing--are not well supported by these desktop processor systems."

Centrino will appear in most Intel-based notebooks built for businesses and in the remainder of notebooks weighing less than about 7 pounds that are aimed at consumers or small businesses. Whereas consumers are moving toward larger, less-expensive machines, businesses continue to buy lighter notebooks and often equip them with wireless capabilities.

"For people who have a need for mobility, we've got Centrino mobile technology," said Intel's MacDonald.

Over time, MacDonald said, "what generally happens--and it depends to some extent on your behavior--is that people begin to get untethered to use wireless and take (the notebook) with them. Then the rules change. But we're not trying to ram that down people's throats."