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Cheaper, faster notebooks on way

Next year will likely be a watershed for the pricing and performance of notebook computers.

Next year will likely be a watershed for the pricing and performance of notebook computers.

Low-cost yet high-performance versions of Intel?s Celeron processor will begin to permeate the portable world in the first half of next year, say sources, joining a low-end notebook market being pioneered by Cyrix and Advanced Micro Devices.

The result could be a proliferation of Pentium II-class notebooks with chips running at 233 to 300 MHz and selling at inexpensive prices. Notebooks for $1,000 or less may not become as commonplace as in the desktop market, but consumers should expect to see a lot of performance for less than they have paid in the past.

Toward the performance end of the spectrum, Pentium II chips for notebooks running at 300 MHz will come out in the second half of this year while notebook versions of 350- and 400-MHz Pentium II processors incorporating the upcoming Katmai graphics technology are expected toward the end of the 1999. These higher-end notebooks will also contain greater power management features, said sources and chip executives.

At the same time, 3D graphics chips will move from being a luxury option in high-end machines to finding their way into close to half of all notebook models.

The flurry of activity comes as a result of heightened development efforts fueled by rising notebook sales. Notebook sales are currently climbing faster than desktop sales, according to Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of the Intel architecture business unit. Notebook sales will grow approximately 20 percent a year through 2001, more than 30 percent greater than desktop growth, he says. Portables are doubly attractive because they also typically provide larger profit margins to both chip vendors and computer makers. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

As a result, Intel is rapidly trying to advance its notebook technology so that portables will match the speeds and capabilities of current desktops. Currently, notebook processor speeds lag behind desktops.

The fastest Pentium II chips for notebooks run at 233 and 266 MHz and talk to other components at 66 MHz, based on an older system ?bus," while the fastest desktop models run at 350- and 400-MHz and have a 100-MHz system bus.

Under the current roadmap, that Intel will release a 300-MHz Pentium II for notebooks in the second half of 1998 and follow it up with a 333-MHz version in the first half of 1999, Otellini said. These chips will be available in both the integrated module design, which also holds high-speed cache memory, as well as the mini-cartridge package, which can be used for slimmer notebooks. The chips will continue to use the 66-MHz system bus.

Michael Slater, founder of MicroDesign Resources, asserts that the Intel notebook strategy will be broader, as he believes the company is currently developing a version of its Celeron chip for portables. Celeron, which was introduced earlier this year, is a cut-rate version of the Pentium II. Although the first version of the chip has met with disdain in some quarters because it lacks the extra cache memory, upcoming versions of the chip will contain an integrated cache of 128K. The additional memory will essentially allow the chip to perform more like full-fledged versions of the Pentium II, but will cost less and consume less power.

Intel will release integrated Celeron chips running at 233 MHz, 266 MHz and 300 MHz during the first half of 1999, Slater said. The performance of the chips, in fact, could be close enough to the performance of standard Pentium IIs to present a problem for the Intel marketing department. That is, there may not be much of a significant performance delta between the discount chips and the regular chips, which would make market segmentation difficult.

"They may have to artificially limit the clock speed of Celeron here," he said. There is also a possibility that Intel may come out with a mobile version of Celeron with 256K of integrated cache memory, which would boost performance further.

The upcoming Celeron processors will be coming into a market already being carved out by AMD and Cyrix. Cyrix's discount MediaGX chip is currently being used in a notebook from Compaq, and the PC maker has said that additional MediaGX-based notebooks should follow. AMD for its part has said that vendors are similarly looking at the K6 processor for notebooks.

On the high end, 350-MHz and 400-MHz Pentium II chips will appear containing the upcoming Katmai technology in the third or fourth quarter in 1999.

Katmai is a graphics enhancement technology that will come out in desktops in the first half of 1999. Notebooks will not get the technology until the second half, when Intel shifts to a more advanced "0.18-micron" manufacturing process. Chips made under this process technology will be smaller and consume less power than the processors, which currently use the 0.25-micron process.

3D will also become more prevalent, said Peter Glaskowsky, graphics analyst for MicroDesign Resources. Right now, 3D only comes in performance-class notebooks. Notebook 3D chips, however, will continue to get less expensive and become more common. Later this year, NeoMagic will come out with a new 3D graphics chips for notebook and will likely be followed by other graphics vendors.

A year from now, close to 50 percent of notebooks will contain 3D capabilities.