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Intel swings at Transmeta with new chips

The chipmaker is looking to boost its position in the market for low-power chips as it releases a new mobile Pentium III chip that will best Transmeta's current 5600 chip in power consumption.

When it comes to mobile processors for notebooks, there's low power and there's ultra-low power. Now, Intel has both.

The Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker plans to power down its 2001 mobile processor offerings with a slew of new low-power chips.

It will begin this month by launching what it has described as an "ultra-low-power" mobile Pentium III chip.

With notebook sales going strong, especially compared with the current desktop market, Intel is looking to protect its mobile market share from rival chipmakers Transmeta and Advanced Micro Devices, analysts said.

Intel is taking the "buckshot approach," said Mike Feibus, principal analyst at Mercury Research, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based market research company. "The idea is to achieve total coverage so as to not leave the other guys a beachhead," he said.

The 500-MHz chip originally had been planned for introduction in the second half of the year but was moved up in direct response to a perceived threat from Transmeta, Intel representatives have said.

The chip, a 500-MHz Pentium III, will be released on or around the last week of this month, sources said. Pricing is expected to be about $200.

Intel also plans to introduce an ultra-low-power 500-MHz mobile Celeron chip this month for around $100.

Intel will achieve its power reduction goals by turning to its SpeedStep technology. SpeedStep acts to reduce clock speed by lowering the processor's core voltage. As a result, the chip runs slower, but it uses less power.

The new ultra-low-power mobile Pentium III chip runs at 500 MHz and 1.1 volts while on AC power but powers down to 300 MHz and less than 1 volt on battery power.

When running at 300 MHz, average power consumption for the chip is less than half a watt. The chip also produces very little heat, which eliminates the need for a fan, the company has said.

The new Pentium III picks up where the current line of low-power mobile Pentium IIIs leaves off. These chips offer higher clock speeds, with core voltages of 1.35 volts on AC or 1.1 volts on battery.

This gives Intel two flavors of mobile Pentium III chips to aim at different market segments.

Intel is aiming the new ultra-low-power chip at subnotebook PCs--ultra-light laptops usually weighing in around 3 pounds.

The current mobile Pentium III is targeted at mini-notebooks. These notebooks are larger than subnotebooks, weighing roughly 4 pounds and offering a larger keyboard. Currently, the low-power mobile Pentium III comes in at 600 MHz. Intel will also announce a 700-MHz version in February, sources said.

"Battery life is good, but Intel was definitely motivated by competition. There's no doubt about that," Feibus said.

Transmeta has touted low-power consumption as one of the chief advantages of its notebook processors.

Transmeta chips are currently found only in subnotebook products, such as Sony's Vaio PictureBook. However, it is eyeing the larger mini-notebook market as well.

The new mobile Pentium III chip will best Transmeta's current 5600 chip in power consumption. The chip, running at 600 MHz, consumes about 1 watt of power, the company has said.

But Santa Clara, Calif.-based Transmeta intends to one-up Intel with even lower power chips due out in the second half of this year.

"The only way to go thinner and lighter is to reduce the power consumption even more," said Ed McKernan, director of marketing for Transmeta.

Transmeta plans to do this by improving its code morphing software (CMS) to increase the efficiency of the chips. The software works to translate instructions from Windows-based PCs into code optimized for 5600's own language.

At the same time, Transmeta will release a new version of its chip, dubbed 5800. The 5800 series will offer higher clock speeds, starting at about 800 MHz, and lower-power consumption, based on a new 0.13-micron manufacturing process from IBM, which makes Transmeta chips.

Transmeta, in the interim, is planning two new versions of its 5600 chip and an update to its code morphing software. The new chips will run at about 667 MHz to 700 MHz and are due this quarter, along with the first code morphing software update, CMS 4.2. The combined faster clock speed and new version of the software account for a 40 percent increase in efficiency, McKernan said.