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Intel chip for mini-PCs arrives

Intel's 120-MHz mobile Pentium processor with MMX technology is targeted specifically at the "mini-notebook PC" market.

Intel's (INTC) new chip for ultrasmall notebook PCs, a response to the growing list of makers announcing so-called mini-notebooks, is expected to create a market niche.

The chip, unceremoniously released by Intel this week, uses less power and generates less heat than the mobile Pentium commonly found in notebook PCs. The 120-MHz mobile Pentium processor with MMX technology is targeted specifically at the "mini-notebook PC" market, according to Intel.

As an increasing number of vendors roll out mini-notebooks on the back of newfound processor support from Intel, this category of computer could take on a life of its own and compete with both standard notebooks and handheld devices.

Mini-notebooks, at well under three pounds, fall into the diminutive handheld computer category. The mini-notebook market appears to have come out of left field and is being principally driven by notebook makers' innovations--not Microsoft or Intel, which typically engineer new markets.

Interestingly, this could bring Intel into a market where it has been virtually absent. Competing handheld PCs which use the Windows CE operating system run on processors such as Hitachi's SH-3 processor, but none currently use Intel processors.

Mini-notebooks such as Toshiba's Libretto and the Mitsubishi Amity are already on the market. Hitachi is also preparing to announce a new mini-notebook in November. NEC is also expected to follow suit.

The Toshiba Libretto currently uses a 75-MHz Pentium, while the Mitsubishi product offers a 133-MHz processor. Neither of these products, however, use a specially designed Intel processor, nor do they offer MMX technology.

The extra-low-power 120-MHz MMX processor announced by Intel's mobile processor division is expected to appear in mini-notebooks announced in the next few weeks, according to sources.

What?s intriguing about these tiny machines is that they offer many of the advantages of a six-pound notebook: They run a full-fledged version of Windows 95--allowing users to run all their usual software--and come with relatively large hard drives. (The Toshiba Libretto, for example, has a 810MB drive.) Typically, they also boast high-quality active-matrix LCD screens.

This contrasts with Windows CE handheld computers, which run a stripped-down version of Windows, have no hard drive, and are really only meant as an ancillary device to a desktop PC. While they are cramped, mini-notebook keyboards, like the one on the Libretto, are also more useable than Windows CE computer keyboards.

But mini-notebooks are pricey, typically just under $2,000. Windows CE devices range between $300 and $600.

The 120-MHz mobile Pentium processor with MMX technology is available now for $177.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.