Getting a handle on notebook heat

Notebook PCs will soon include everything that's in a "dream-machine" desktop--if the industry can lower power consumption.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
4 min read
Notebook PCs over the next two years will include everything that's in a high-end, "dream-machine" multimedia desktop, but only if the industry can lower power consumption.

Faster processors, DVD-ROM drives, higher quality video playback, and eye-popping 3D graphics are coming for notebooks, provided computer makers, component vendors, and software developers join hands to lower the power consumed by all these wonderful features.

The power-performance dilemma forms the basis of Intel's Mobile Power Initiative, unveiled to the public today in San Francisco. Addressing a conference room full of technology partners, Stephen Nachtsheim, corporate vice president and general manager, rolled out a series of initiatives and goals Intel is creating with other industry players to reduce notebook power consumption so that that users can continue to expect desktop-like performance in portables.

The initiative will call for all notebook computer makers, chip vendors, software developers, and other component vendors to meet specific, defined power consumption goals that will bring overall notebook power consumption under 25 watts. Several committees have been formed to draft standards. Intel, naturally, sits on all of them.

The problem, of course, is heat. More complex components and faster chips generate more energy. Unchecked, notebooks will consume 40 watts of power by 1998. That is too high for even the largest notebooks, Nachtsheim said. But getting to 25 watts is a goal that will require not only the cooperation of all notebook technology vendors, but scientific breakthroughs as well.

"The main thermal challenge in mobile is a cost challenge, yes, but it's also a technology problem. There is only so much heat we can move off of the box," he said. "We can only do this if we have industry-wide cooperation. Users continue to want things that are smaller and lighter."

Initial drafts of several of the standards were released today. Intel said that it hopes to have final specifications available by October 13. Then, in the first quarter of next year, the company will try to publish power consumption specifications and targets for the next generation of processors.

Gross power consumption seems to exist everywhere, according to research shown at the conference. High-end features such as 3D graphics and MPEG-2 are the two applications which consume a disproportionate amount of power, Nachtsheim pointed out, eating close to 18 watts of power. Close behind is Microsoft Word 7.0, which consumes close to 16 watts of power.

Adalio Sanchez, a manager for IBM's ThinkPad division, said that one popular spread sheet consumes nearly 100 percent of notebook power when idle. "We are grossly overbudget on heat and battery power and the only way we can reduce this is to reduce consumption," he said.

Monitors are another problem. "Maybe backlit screens aren't the answer. How about a display that takes advantage of ambient light. We could call it the Guttenberg," he mused.

Intel itself is an offender. Although the company's latest Pentium MMX processors actually consume less power than previous chips, observers point out that graphics chips and logic chips, both of which Intel makes, will consume more power in the future.

"They've shifted it from the CPU to the chipset," noted one OEM executive.

Failure to tackle the issue head-on could also lead to increased competition for Intel, said Sanchez. "I'm talking about the people with 150-MHz chips and the folks that are selling palmtop devices that run on a battery for a month," he said.

Nachtsheim discounted the specter of competition, but said that if notebooks can't keep pace with desktop technology, customer indifference could set in.

Dan Lenehan, director of mobile architecture for Intel, said that the initiative will focus on three areas: hardware power consumption; system software consumption; and application software consumption. In each area, Intel will play the coordinating role, helping define the specifications and ensuring the mesh with other committee work.

The standards will examine power consumption from three angles: maximum power consumption; sustained power consumption, which will examine how components or software perform with all the applications running for a sustained period of time; and average power consumption.

Parts or software that pass these tests will then be able to advertise the fact to their technology partners.

If all goes well, low voltage parts will start to appear in notebooks in 1999.

In the meantime, features will continue to be added to notebooks, Nachtsheim said. In 1998, mainstream notebooks will include Pentium II chips, DVD-ROM drives, MPEG-2-based full-motion video capability, and high-quality AC3 audio. Intel's Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) 3D graphics capabilities will come to mainstream notebooks in the second half of that year.

Steady improvements will come in 1999. Both DVD and AGP will move to 2X speeds and support for 1394 ports will become standard.