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Intel's Banias: Not built for speed

To promote its new energy-saving processor, Intel will have to overcome a marketplace obstacle that it helped create: buyers who judge a chip by its clock speed.

Banias, Intel's energy-efficient processor designed primarily for notebooks, will debut at three speeds when it arrives next year, sources say--but megahertz won't be its selling point.

Banias, which is due in the first quarter of 2003, will come out at 1.4GHz, 1.5GHz and 1.6GHz, according to sources close to the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company. The chip will initially be targeted at "thin and light" notebooks and eventually be incorporated into all types of notebooks, into blade servers and likely even into small desktops. A 1.3GHz version may also come out.

Although Intel has already been touting the performance characteristics of the chip, it will have to overcome a marketplace obstacle that it helped create: buyers who judge a chip by its clock speed.

Clock speed is measured in megahertz. At 1.6GHz, Banias will be far slower in terms of raw speed than Pentium 4 notebook chips, which will hit 2.2GHz in the fourth quarter of this year. Mobile Celerons for the budget crowd already run at 1.2GHz.

"They've got good performance, but they can't sell it on megahertz," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"It's going to be interesting," said a source at a PC manufacturer.

Like Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon and other competing chips, Banias' performance will actually be better than its numbers might indicate because it will complete more work per clock cycle than the Pentium 4, according to Intel and other sources.

"It will have higher performance and consume less power than today's Intel mobile processors," said an Intel spokeswoman who declined to comment on the chip speeds.

Notebooks using the chip will consume roughly 25 percent less energy, company executives have said, thus increasing battery life. Whole subsections of the chip will shut down when not in use to conserve battery power. Banias notebooks will also come with integrated 802.11 wireless connectivity.

"The general argument for Banias is more work per clock cycle," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "The Pentium 4 family relies on high clock speed to get performance, and clock speed uses battery power."

The public, however, has embraced chip speed as its yardstick, and Intel benefits from this. The company gained substantial market share in the second quarter from AMD, which has fallen well behind its rival in the speed race.

AMD's profits and prices have also been hurt by megahertz monomania. The Athlon XP 2000+ may perform as well as a 2GHz Pentium 4, but because it runs at 1.7GHz, it sells for around the same price as a 1.7GHz Pentium 4 in various markets, according to Converge, which tracks component pricing.

"That's the problem they (Intel) have been facing," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at The Microprocessor Report. "They are not going after high clock frequency with Banias. They are probably going to come up with some sort of metric to compare."

Most likely, the company will have to emphasize the total user experience--a strategy similar to one employed by Transmeta, which developed the first low-power notebook processors. Banias notebooks will weigh less, said Krewell, and likely have substantially better battery life.

The skinny on Banias
While word of Banias' speeds has leaked out, much of the technology behind the chip, which was designed in Israel, remains under wraps. The chip will include a cache--an internal reservoir of memory for rapid data access--but the size is unknown. Krewell predicts it will be at least 512KB but could be as high as 1MB of some versions of Banias.

How it resembles other Intel chips also remains a mystery. The chip will run the same software as the Pentium III and Pentium 4, but it's not sure which processor Banias will resemble more, if either. Intel maintains that Banias' design was created from the ground up.

The ultimate brand name is also unknown. Engineers at Intel casually refer to it as "Mobilium," said sources, but that is probably not the final product name.

"Hopefully it is better than Celeron," one source said. "I heard Duron (the brand name of an AMD chip being discontinued) is unavailable."

Details will likely come out at the Intel Developer Forum in September and the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif., in October.