Intel targets Crusoe with low-power notebook chips

The chip giant unveils five new notebook processors, including two low-power chips designed to compete against chip upstart Transmeta.

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.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Chip giant Intel today unveiled five new notebook processors, including two low-power chips designed to compete against Transmeta's Crusoe.

As previously reported, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company released a 750-MHz Pentium III and two Celerons running at 650 MHz and 600 MHz for the mainstream notebook market.

In addition, the company released

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two low voltage processors for the ultraportable market: a 600-MHz Pentium III that consumes an average of less than a watt of power, as well as a 500-MHz Celeron that consumes less than 2 watts.

Some of these ultraportable systems, which generally contain smaller screens than other notebooks but weigh three pounds or less, will be able to run for 5.5 hours on batteries, indicated Frank Spindler, vice president and general manager of Intel's notebook processor division.

Notebooks are an increasingly important focus for Intel. Not only are more companies shifting from buying desktops to portables for their employees, notebook performance is improving rapidly because of advances in computer design, changes inside software applications, and more energy-efficient processors.

New ultraportables with the 600-MHz Pentium III, for instance, "have more processing power than the fastest desktop a year ago," said Spindler. "If you open up a mobile unit, you see a lot of sci-fi technology."

Nearly all major manufacturers say they will incorporate some, or all, of these chips into notebooks in the coming weeks.

Intel also unveiled its 815 chipset for desktops, which will allow PC makers to marry the latest Pentium III technology without adopting expensive Rambus memory.

All this silicon comes at a critical time for Intel. Pentium IIIs and many Celerons have been in short supply since October because of a factory capacity shortage, higher-than-expected demand and, according to some, sporadic manufacturing difficulties. The shortage has stunted sales. Rival Advanced Micro Devices, meanwhile, has been grabbing more market share in the performance desktop sector.

"Intel's supply capabilities scared a lot of customers," Simon Lin, CEO of Acer Information Products Group, said in a recent interview. "Perhaps these alternatives will have a better chance."

Spindler said the standard mobile Pentium IIIs and Celerons and the lower-powered Pentium III and Celerons are made on the same production lines. This gives Intel insurance, to a certain degree, against inventory imbalances. If low-powered chip suddenly become popular, capacity can be shifted to them relatively easily.

All of the chips contain the QuickStep and SpeedStep technologies, which reduce overall power consumption. The difference between the standard mobile chips and the low voltage chips comes in a number of architectural tweaks that allows Intel to drop power consumption even further, Spindler said.

Notebook chips have remained one of Intel's more profitable segments, but the company will soon see the emergence of a new competitor in Transmeta.

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Chip competition
Transmeta, which has developed a low-powered chip for notebooks, plans to show off at PC Expo later this month a number of notebooks for the business market from major manufacturers using its 5400 Crusoe processor. Some of these notebooks will be prototypes, but some will be pre-production models, according to Transmeta executives.

"We're going to show a lot of great notebooks at PC Expo," said Jim Chapman, Transmeta's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

The company's coming-out party is significant in that no company to date has seriously competed against Intel in the business market. IBM has already said it will show off a Transmeta-based notebook. Compaq Computer and Gateway also are likely to be there, as both invested in Transmeta earlier this year.

Still, it won't be an easy sell. Corporate buyers are historically conservative and loath to adopt new technologies. Transmeta notebooks also won't run Windows and Windows applications directly. Instead, software has to pass through a "code morphing" step, which will impede performance to at least a slight degree.

"Intel is getting within striking distance, and that may be all they need," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources. "If I am an MIS guy, and I have a choice between Transmeta...and Intel, the corporate guy will probably go for Intel."

Intel's Spindler downplayed coming competition between the two companies. Intel's new low-powered chips "are in line with their stated claims."

In volume, the 750-MHz Pentium III will cost $562 while the 600-MHz low-powered Pentium III costs $316. The 650-MHz and 600-MHz standard mobile Celerons cost $181 and $134 in volume quantities while the low-powered 500-MHz costs $134.