Pentium 4: Too hot to handle?

When Intel's chip comes to notebooks next year, consumers will discover a boost in computing power--and possibly an extra fan.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
5 min read
When Intel's Pentium 4 comes to notebooks next year, consumers will discover a boost in computing power--and possibly an extra fan.

The new mobile Pentium 4 chip, which sources familiar with Intel's plans say will launch in late March or early April, will run at 1.6GHz and 1.7GHz--faster than any other portable chip.

But sources say the new Pentium 4 will also be much more power hungry than current Pentium III-M processors, which go up to 1.2GHz, or current Athlon 4 mobile chips from Advanced Micro Devices.

As a result, notebook makers will need to take extra precautions to fit the Pentium 4 into existing lines. Models that don't have a second fan for heat removal, for example, will likely have to add one. Larger, heavier batteries will also be part of the mix.

Some industry watchers have jokingly referred to the mobile Pentium 4 as the George Foreman Lean, Mean Grilling Machine.

"This baby cooks," said Kevin Krewell, senior analyst with MDR-Instat, publisher of the Microprocessor Report. Krewell estimates the chip will consume about 30 watts of power when pushed to its limits.

Because the mobile Pentium 4 will consume more watts than the Pentium III-M, the upcoming chip will be found only in two- and three-spindle machines. (A hard drive, a DVD drive and a port for extra batteries or 3.5-inch floppy disks count as three spindles.) These machines, weighing in at 5.5 pounds and more, generally offer better cooling capacity and extra space for larger batteries, when compared with notebooks that weigh 4 pounds or less.

"The consumer is going to have to recognize that higher-performance systems will be larger power consumers...will need to have a large battery and will be heavier if they're going to have a reasonable run time," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

When it comes to small, light notebooks with long battery life, McCarron said: "You can have that, it's just you're not going to have that with a Pentium 4. It comes down to the choice of what you want. If you want exceptionally long run times, you're going to have to sacrifice performance."

Going mainstream
Intel says the new chip will be for the "mainstream performance" market, which includes two- and three-spindle notebooks. Machines such as Dell Computer's Inspiron 8100 or Gateway's Solo 9550 are good examples of such machines.

Low- and ultra-low-power versions of the Pentium III, as well as mobile Celeron chips from Intel, will be used in thinner notebooks next year.

An Intel representative said the thermal design specifications--guidelines used by Intel and PC makers to handle heat removal from notebooks--remain basically unchanged from the Pentium III-M to the Pentium 4.

"We have not changed the specification," the representative said. As a result, a three-spindle notebook would be designed to remove heat produced by a chip running at 30 watts. And a thin-and-light, two-spindle notebook would be designed to handle a chip running at 24 watts, the representative said. Thus, the mobile Pentium 4 would not work in a two-spindle machine.

By comparison, Intel's 1.2GHz Pentium III-M thermal design requires a cooling system that can accommodate just 22 watts, according to Intel's Web site. And AMD's 1.2GHz Athlon 4 thermal design guidelines call for a system that can deal with 25 watts.

However, an Intel representative said that average power use, not thermal design guidelines, are what should concern consumers.

Average power consumption--the amount of power the chip consumes over a given amount of time during normal use--is what translates into tangibles such as battery life and heat produced by the chip. It is always lower than both maximum power and thermal design guidelines, due to idle time between tasks and power management tricks such as Intel's SpeedStep technology.

But even average power consumption for the Pentium 4 will be about 5 watts, analysts say. That compares with less than 2 watts for the 1.2GHz Pentium III-M.

The only game in town
Although designing the new Pentium 4 into notebooks may be a bear, Krewell said it will be the only game in town for mainstream performance notebooks with Intel chips until 2003.

Pentium 4 is "definitely an architecture that doesn't fit well in mobile. Obviously, Intel realizes that or they wouldn't be developing 'Banias' for 2003," he said.

Banias is the code name for a mobile chip in development. The chip, Intel has said, is being designed in Israel from the ground up to deliver both energy efficiency and high performance. However, analysts have pointed out that Banias incorporates technology from the Pentium III-M, not the mobile Pentium 4.

The mobile Pentium 4 could have been even more power hungry, except for the fact that it will come out of "Northwood," the code name for Intel's second-generation Pentium 4 core, which was designed around the newer 130-nanometer manufacturing process. Moving from older manufacturing processes generally serves to reduce power consumption and increase performance. The same applies to the Pentium 4, making the notebook debut feasible.

The mobile Pentium 4 will also use Intel's current power management technologies, including sleep modes and its Enhanced SpeedStep, which drops clock speed and voltage while the chip is running on battery power to lengthen run time. Enhanced SpeedStep also includes an intermediate mode, where the chip can scale up and down in clock speed to meet a person's demands.

The mobile Pentium 4 is expected to debut at speeds of 1.6GHz and 1.7GHz initially, and Intel has said it will hit 2GHz later in the year.

The chip will also sport, at minimum, a 200MHz front-side bus and, thanks to new chipset technology, will be paired with double data rate SDRAM, a faster version of the current single data rate SDRAM used in Pentium III-M notebooks, sources familiar with Intel's plans said.

Most notebook makers are expected to jump on the bandwagon with Intel, when the new Pentium 4 makes its debut.

Although Dell Computer, Compaq Computer and other manufacturers have recalled notebooks in the past few years because of fires, these flaws have not been caused by the processor's heat. Instead, defective batteries have been to blame.