Laptop makers mobilize Pentium-M models

PC makers are coming out with a slew of new notebooks containing Intel's Pentium-M processor, and executives claim that goes a long way toward improving the laptop experience.

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
6 min read
PC manufacturers are coming out with a slew of new notebooks containing Intel's Pentium-M processor, and executives claim that the underlying technology goes a long way toward improving the laptop experience.

Over the next day or so, Dell Computer, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others will start selling new notebooks for the business and consumer markets that feature the Pentium-M, an energy-efficient notebook processor. Because it consumes less energy, the chip produces less heat, meaning notebooks weigh less--they don't need as many fans or heat sinks. And Pentium-M notebooks generally run four or more hours on a single battery charge, longer than typical laptops in the past.

The chip, based on an entirely new architecture, also lives up to earlier claims from Intel that it would outperform the mobile Pentium 4 even though it runs more slowly to conserve power.

"The 1.6GHz Pentium-M definitely outperforms a 2GHz Pentium 4. It is even comparable to something like a 2.4GHz," said Robert Enochs, product manager for the T-Series of ThinkPads at IBM, which is coming out with three new notebooks. "We're getting considerably better battery life with the system...The Pentium-M runs a lot cooler than the Pentium 4."

The vast majority of the notebooks, which range in price from $1,399 to more than $2,000, will come with integrated wireless, or Wi-Fi, networking, but each manufacturer is approaching that matter differently.

Virtually all of the major manufacturers will sell notebooks containing Centrino, a chip bundle from Intel that contains a Pentium-M, a chipset and a Wi-Fi chip tested by Intel.

The new chips, announced Wednesday in New York, will have speeds ranging from 900MHz to 1.6GHz. List prices for the Centrino bundles range from $292 to $720, while the Pentium-M chip itself ranges in price from $209 to $637. At these prices, the Pentium-M chips are selling for premiums of more than $100 compared with equivalent Pentium 4Ms.

Centrino, however, currently only comes with the 802.11b wireless networking because of an earlier delay on Intel's part. Although 802.11b is the most common standard for Wi-Fi networks today, PC makers are also pairing the Pentium-M with chips from other manufacturers that can handle the faster 802.11a or 802.11g networking standards.

Dell's new Inspiron 600m for consumers and small businesses will feature Centrino as the standard wireless networking option. But for $20 more, consumers can get the Dell TrueMobile 1300 wireless unit that handles 802.11b/g connections.

Similarly, the new Latitude D600 and D800 notebooks for corporate America will come with Centrino but can be upgraded to include an 802.11b/g or 802.11a/b/g module from Intel rival Broadcom instead.

HP, meanwhile, is not integrating Wi-Fi into its new Evo N620c for the corporate market but instead is allowing customers to buy Wi-Fi modules that slip into its external Multiport slot.

"Enterprise customers still want to buy a mobile solution that is wireless or not wireless. It is all about timing the transition," said Margaret Franco, HP's product marketing director for business mobile products.

In the next few months, HP will come out with an Evo for the corporate world that will come with an integrated, non-Centrino 802.11a/b module and a Centrino notebook for the consumer and small-business markets.

High demand hopes
Although the high-tech world remains mired in a three-year funk, notebooks remain somewhat of a bright spot. Laptop shipments increased by 17.6 percent last year, according to research firm Gartner, and they're expected to continue growing, in part because of the increasing demand for wireless computing.

"There is going to be some uptick," Gartner's Mark Margevicius said. "Mobile is something like 20 percent of the market. We believe it will go up to something like 35 percent" over the next few years.

Corporate buyers also appear to understand the benefits of wireless, said executives from nearly all of the companies, although getting them to open their wallets could take some work. Customers perk up when wireless comes up in sales meetings, said Franco. But, when issues like security and other potential problems arise, "you can see their eyes (figuratively) shut," she said.

Still, by this time next year, the majority of HP's business laptops will have converted from the Pentium 4 to the Pentium-M, Franco added.

PC makers are trying to capitalize on the shift toward notebooks and competing on a variety of fronts.

IBM, for instance, is heavily emphasizing design, long a strong suit for the company, on its three new notebooks: the T40, the X31 and the R40.

The T40, a "thin and light" notebook for corporate users, weighs 4.5 pounds, about one-half pound lighter than its predecessor, the T30, and measures 1 inch thick, about 30 percent less. While the reduced energy consumption of the Pentium-M helped, IBM also worked with screen manufacturers and other component companies to lower energy consumption and reduce overall size, said Enochs.

A standard T40 with a six-cell battery will run about 5.5 hours on a single battery charge, about twice as long as the T30, Enochs said, and about 7.2 hours with a nine-cell battery. Slipping an auxiliary battery into the DVD bay will extend the battery life to 9.5 hours.

Designer showcase
With a typical IBM flourish, the T40's hard drive also rides on a series of springs and rubber padding to shield it from accidents. For wireless connections, the T40 comes with either the Centrino kit, an 802.11a/b chip from a third-party chipmaker, the Aironet Wireless 802.11b wireless unit from Cisco Systems, or no wireless component, depending on the configuration. IBM will begin to sell the 802.11g chip after that standard is finally solidified, company executives have said.

The ThinkPad X31, meanwhile, is an ultraportable machine. It features a relatively small 12-inch screen, but weighs 3.6 pounds and can last 11 hours on a battery charge. The R40 is a wireless notebook for budget buyers and comes with Celeron or Pentium-M chips.

Toshiba is one of the few manufacturers to adopt the low-voltage 900MHz Pentium-M, which consumes even less power. Most other manufacturers are sticking with the regular 1.3GHz to 1.6GHz Pentium-M chips. The Portege R100, which contains the low-voltage chip, can run 6.5 hours with a secondary battery.

The Japanese giant is also releasing one of the few Pentium-M notebooks, the Tecra M1, with a built-in recording DVD drive. In all, Toshiba is releasing five new notebooks. All come with Intel's Centrino built in, but they can be ordered with other wireless bundles.

For its part, Dell is emphasizing variety. Dell's three new notebooks can be configured in different ways. The company will also offer snap-on color accents that attach to the back of the screen for the Inspiron 600m. The colors include Venice Blue, Burlwood and Bamboo. The Inspiron 600m starts at $1,399.

By contrast, like HP, Gateway is taking a more gradual approach. Gateway's first Pentium-M laptop, the Gateway 450, is actually already being sold with a Pentium 4 chip. The company is merely swapping in the new processor. The chip change alone, however, has extended battery life by 1.5 hours, said Mike Stinson, vice president of the mobile products group at Gateway. Like HP, Gateway says that more and different models will come in the future.

"We think there is going to be a strong desire to upgrade," said Stinson. "Once you go wireless, battery life becomes important." The notebook starts at $1,599.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel will formally introduce the Pentium-M, an energy-efficient chip for notebooks, and Centrino in New York on Wednesday. However, PC makers began to announce their notebooks in Japan on Tuesday evening.