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AMD makes power play with Turion

Chipmaker gets back into the notebook processor race, but it's hard to say who has the performance advantage. Images: A peek at AMD's Turion

Advanced Micro Devices plans to release its Turion processor for notebooks on Thursday, the first stage in an effort to recover ground lost in laptops in recent years to Intel.

The Turion is essentially an energy-efficient version of AMD's Athlon 64 chips for desktops. Turions generally run at slower speeds than their desktop counterparts and contain dedicated circuitry that allows them to slow themselves dynamically to throttle power consumption.

The chips will be integrated into the "thin and light" notebooks that weigh a few pounds and can run several hours on a single battery charge. Acer, now one of the fastest growing PC makers thanks to its notebook line, will adopt the chip, AMD said, as will Fujitsu-Siemens and others.

In the past few years, AMD has concentrated mostly on the desktop and server market. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has released notebook chips during this time, but they haven't been aggressively optimized for energy conservation. As a result, they mostly ended up in the largish, "desktop replacement" notebooks that can weigh 8 pounds.

Unfortunately for AMD, demand for thin notebooks has grown dramatically in the past couple of years, benefiting rival Intel, which came out with the Pentium M processor and the Centrino chip bundle in 2003.

There are two broad classes of Turion. The ML family sports a thermal ceiling, or maximum power consumption, of 35 watts, while the MT family has a thermal ceiling of 25 watts. (Existing Athlon 64 notebook chips have thermal ceilings as high as 62 watts.) Standard AMD desktop chips have thermal ceilings in the 90-watt range. AMD has said it will also come out with even lower power notebook chips

Still, the thermal ratings for Turion are higher than the rating for Intel's Pentium M, which max out at 27 watts. Ultralow-power Pentium Ms run on 5.5 watts.

Four versions of the ML family will come out. The ML 37 runs at 2GHz, features a 1MB cache and costs $354 in quantities of 1,000. The ML 34 runs at 1.8GHz, features the same cache and costs $263. The ML 32 also runs at 1.8GHz, but contains a 512KB cache and costs $220. The ML 30, meanwhile, runs at 1.6GHz, comes with a 1MB cache and costs $184.

Current Intel Pentium Ms come with 2MB of cache and run at speeds up to 2.13GHz. However, Turion comes equipped with HyperTransport, an input-output channel that boosts performance. Third-party benchmarks were not available at press time. AMD, however, claims that it has a performance advantage.

"The performance (of Turion) should be as good or better, but I'm pretty sure the Pentium M will maintain an advantage on battery life for a year or so," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

AMD released three members of the MT family: the MT 34, MT 32 and MT 30. They are configured the same as their ML counterparts but cost $5 more.

In contrast to Intel, AMD will not make and promote a bundle of chips to go with Turion. (Intel's Centrino is a bundle that consists of a processor, the Pentium M, a chipset and a wireless chipset.) Third-party providers like SIS and Broadcom will provide those additional chips.

AMD first unveiled the Turion name at the Computer Electronics Show in January. The name is supposed to evoke "tour." The word also refers to vegetative dormant organs in aquatic plants.