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PC makers think small with new laptops

When it arrives in October, Compaq's tiniest notebook yet, the Evo N200, will be among the first to make use of Intel's new low-power Pentium III-M chip.

PC makers will launch a huge wave of tiny notebooks in coming weeks, using new Intel chips.

Compaq Computer will be among the first when it ships its tiniest notebook yet, the Evo N200, in mid-October. The new 2.5-pound mini-notebook will follow by a couple of weeks the launch of a new low-power Pentium III-M chip expected from Intel next week, sources familiar with Compaq's plans said.

A smattering of other systems should also come at midmonth. IBM, for example, is expected to announce a new X-series ThinkPad ultra-portable model based on the new Pentium III-M. Later in the year, Dell Computer will likely release a new ultra-portable Latitude model.

Intel is expected to release the new chip, an ultra-low-power 700MHz Pentium III-M, along with a 1.2GHz Pentium III-M.

Intel offers three flavors of mobile Pentium III chips: standard, low power and ultra low power. The latter two offer low voltage and clock speed and are designed to be used in smaller notebooks. All three also include the company's SpeedStep technology, which allows the chip to scale back in clock speed and voltage to extend notebook battery life. The 1.13GHz Pentium III-M, for example, operates at 1.4 volts at full clock speed but drops to 733MHz at 1.15 volts when a notebook switches to battery power.

The new 700MHz ultra-low-power chip is designed for the smallest mini-notebooks. It is likely to begin at a core voltage of 1 volt or less, but to scale back its clock speed and voltage to less than half a volt when on battery power. Intel's previous such offering was a 600MHz ultra-low-power Pentium III.

In addition, Intel is expected to announce an 800MHz low-power Pentium III-M for midrange, thin-and-light notebooks.

Mini-notebooks and ultra-portables, which are usually lumped into the same category, are somewhat different. Separated by weight, screen size and keyboard size, mini-notebooks generally weigh less than 3 pounds, and offer screen sizes around 10 inches and smaller keyboards--80 percent to 90 percent the size of a regular notebook keyboard.

Ultra-portables, by comparison, generally weigh about 3.5 pounds and offer larger 12-inch screens and full-size keyboards. The new Dell, for example, is expected to fall into this category, offering a 12-inch screen and weighing about 3.5 pounds. Compaq has similar ultra-portables, such as the 3.5-pound Presario 800, a more consumer-oriented offering.

The smallest of the lot
Of the systems using the new Pentium III chips, Compaq's mini-notebook promises to be the smallest.

The Evo N200 was shown for the first time at last June's PC Expo trade show. It weighs just 2.5 pounds and includes a 10.4-inch display and a minimum 128MB of RAM and 20GB hard drive. It is expected to be priced between $1,800 and $2,000, sources familiar with Compaq's plans said.

Using an additional external battery that weighs half a pound, the notebook can run 6.5 to 8 hours on a single charge, Compaq executives have said.

The new Evo N200 will be one of the first Intel-based mini-notebooks to be made available in the United States.

The devices are popular in Japan, but they have seen only limited success on this side of the Pacific. Analysts attribute this largely to the mini-notebook's smaller keyboard. Ultraportables, which sport full-size keyboards but weigh about a pound more, have seen greater success.

Transmeta kicked off the mini-notebook craze in the United States and helped to add a number of new systems in Japan, with the January 2000 launch of its low-power Crusoe processor.

Analysts say the new Evo's small stature could hit home with executives who travel frequently.

"This is a considerably smaller form factor than other ultra-portables that ship volume," said IDC analyst Alan Promisel. "So perhaps it's attacking a different niche market. It could definitely take on the (Toshiba) Libretto or the (Sony Vaio) PictureBook."

The PictureBook offers a 667MHz Transmeta Crusoe chip and an 8.9-inch display, and weighs in at 2.2 pounds. Though the current Libretto ships only in Japan, Toshiba is expected to bring a similar notebook to the United States next year.

When it comes to the new 1.2GHz Pentium III-M, however, buyers shouldn't expect much fanfare. Most PC makers, such as Dell and Gateway, will incorporate the new chip into existing notebook lines almost immediately. Others, such as Hewlett-Packard, may wait longer. Dell will add the 1.2GHz chip to its Inspiron 8100 notebook for a price starting around $2,100, sources said.

This is likely because Intel just announced a new Pentium III-M at speeds of up to 1.13GHz, only 67MHz below the 1.2GHz chip.

Intel is also expected to announce a new mobile Celeron chip running at 900MHz on Monday. This chip will appear in lower-priced notebooks from most major PC makers.