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Intel's mobile future: It's in the chips

The chipmaker is treating its new, custom-made Celeron for Sony as a one-off. But special-order processors often determine the direction of the company's upcoming products.

Intel is quietly manufacturing a new Celeron processor that could determine the direction of its notebook processor line.

The chipmaker is providing Sony with a new custom mobile Celeron chip, dubbed the Ultra Low Voltage 600MHz Celeron processor A, an Intel representative said. Sony is using the chip in a Vaio mini-notebook sold only in Japan.

Intel is treating the new Celeron as a one-off. The chipmaker manufactures special-edition processors for individual manufacturers frequently. It created another special-edition chip, a 1.6GHz Celeron, for Sony's Vaio W desktop PC. And the company recently launched a new 1.26GHz mobile Celeron chip, based on customer requests.

But special-order chips sometimes foretell the company's upcoming products. Some of Intel's first low-power mobile Pentium chips were specially built for early versions of Toshiba's Libretto mini-notebook, for instance.

Furthermore, Intel built a special-edition mobile Pentium 4, dubbed the Pentium 4C, for Hewlett-Packard that presaged the chipmaker's trend of delivering more desktop-like mobile Pentium 4 chips.

Intel hasn't yet made public whether it plans to offer a full line of Celerons like the Ultra Low Voltage Celeron 600MHz A, but the processor could again predict the future of Intel's mobile chips.

The Celeron A is different from the company's previous mobile Celeron chips in that it's based on Intel's flagship mobile processor, the Pentium M, introduced in March. The company markets Pentium M as part of its new Centrino family of chips for wireless notebooks.

Intel built the Celeron A for Sony by reconfiguring the Pentium M processor to strip it of features like SpeedStep technology. SpeedStep lowers voltage and clock speed to save power while the computer is running off the battery. Intel also cut the chip's level 2 cache in half, from 1MB to 512KB. The cache improves performance by storing frequently accessed data close to the processor core.

The changes follow a traditional path Intel uses to create a Celeron chip. The current mobile Celeron chip line, for example, is a version of the Pentium 4-M mobile chip with lower clock speed, no SpeedStep and 256KB of level 2 cache, instead of the Pentium 4-M's 512KB.

A bag of chips?
Intel spokeswoman Shannon Johnson said the company is considering a full-fledged mobile Celeron line based on the Pentium M, but it's not planning to release such a chip this year.

Right now, "it's completely based on customer need, in this case...subnotebooks or mini-notebooks," Johnson said. "Later, when there's a bigger need, we'll re-evaluate that, and...we'll bring it to our official road map--if it's needed."

Dean McCarron, a principal analyst at Mercury Research, believes Intel will probably try to avoid delivering a full line of Celerons based on the Pentium M.

"Intel is strongly incentivized to migrate people from desktops to notebooks with performance mobile processors, because it supports the company's revenue goals," McCarron said.

Intel can charge much more for its Pentium M than it does for its Celeron processors or its desktop Pentium 4, so it will likely want to maintain strong sales of the premium chip for as long as possible. The company could be reluctant to offer a comparable chip that delivers similar performance for a lower price.

Furthermore, Intel's current mobile processor strategy was crafted in such a way that the company may not need a Pentium M-based Celeron for a while.

The company plans to continue to offer mobile Celerons based on the Pentium 4. But instead of using the lower-power Pentium M, Intel is expected to shift to more desktoplike processors toward the middle of the year. These new chips offer notebook makers higher clock speeds and other features at lower costs.

This allows Intel to offer the premium-priced Pentium M for more expensive notebook models that weigh less and are designed to deliver long battery life while connected to a wireless network.