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Intel notebook chips lag behind

The performance gap between desktop and notebook PCs may grow wider once Intel begins delivering its P6 family of high-performance processors.

The performance gap between desktop and notebook PCs may grow wider over the next 12 months once Intel (INTC) begins delivering its P6 family of high-performance processors.

Because notebooks are smaller and are built to rely on batteries, they require processors that use less power and generate less heat than the chips used in regular desktops.

Chip vendors that supply the notebook makers usually will design and manufacture low-powered versions of their processors. Intel does this as well, but the performance curve for notebooks often lags behind that of desktops, sometimes for as long as six months. But it looks like even this significant lag time may extend to more than a year with the next generation of Intel processors.

Currently, the fastest Intel notebook chip is a Pentium processor running at 150 MHz. The fastest available Pentium for desktop systems runs at 200 MHz. Workstation vendors can also use the even higher-performance Pentium Pro processors, which are not available at all for notebook systems.

This gap will widen when Intel announces a new chip in the second quarter of 1997: the MMX-enabled Klamath P6 processor, which runs at up to 266 MHz. The chip is intended to complement the company's current Pentium Pro processor offerings. Like the Pentium Pro, the powerful Klamath chip will run relatively hot and suck up a good deal of power, making it unsuitable for notebooks.

"As diverse as Intel's product line will be in 1997, it leaves one significant hole: a P6-class processor for notebooks," said Michael Slater, chip industry analyst and publisher of the Microprocessor Report.

Intel will introduce an MMX-enabled P55C Pentium for notebooks in January that will boost the high end of notebook Pentium offerings from 150 to 166 MHz. But while new notebooks will be running faster compared to current models, they will be running slower in comparison to their desktop brethren.

"The P55C [MMX-enabled Pentium] will be Intel's fastest mobile offering in 1997. Although the P55C offers a modest boost from existing mobile Pentiums, it leaves a significant gap between high-end notebook and desktop performance," Slater said.

The P55C will add MMX technology, which should eliminate the need for high-end, expensive graphics chips and some communications components for entry-level PCs. It may enhance the performance of multimedia hardware on more expensive PCs as well, but any performance boosts provided by the P55C processor for notebooks can't match the faster clock speed and other performance improvements to be offered by Klamath on the desktop.

Intel does have a plan to help speed up notebooks: It is expected to introduce a smaller version of the Klamath called Deschutes that will be suitable for notebook PCs in late in 1997. But this chip won't be ready for high-volume production until 1998, according to Slater.

The relatively long gap between the desktop and notebook versions of Klamath will provide significant lead time to competing chip vendors, according to Slater.

"Processors that provide P6-class performance in [low-cost Pentium systems] and with P55C power consumption could present a major opportunity for Advanced Micro Devices and Cyrix if they can deliver them before notebook makers make the switch to Deschutes," Slater added.

Intel may try to reduce this potential competitive advantage at least somewhat by pushing up the speed of the MMX-enabled P55C Pentium for notebook PCs later in 1997.

"The long delay before the introduction of mobile P6 processors may prompt Intel to push the P55C speed further...This would enable a 200-MHz P55C derivative to fit within the mobile processor envelope," Slater said.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.