Notebook makers consider Pentium 4

Looking to soup up their notebooks, some big-name computer makers are eyeing Intel's desktop chip as an alternative to the company's mobile processors.

John G. Spooner
John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
5 min read
Looking to soup up their notebooks, but not their prices, some big-name computer makers are eyeing Intel's powerful but relatively inexpensive Pentium 4 desktop chip as an alternative to the company's mobile processors.

The manufacturers also hope to woo buyers looking for a second or third home or office system that marries desktop-like performance to greater portability.

According to sources, both Gateway and Compaq Computer are considering building consumer-oriented notebooks using Intel's desktop Pentium 4 processor, as opposed to its mobile-specific Pentium III-M or forthcoming mobile Pentium 4-M chip. Toshiba recently launched a Pentium 4-based notebook in Canada, with a U.S. version expected soon.

While using desktop chips in notebooks has been a common practice among lesser-known manufacturers--which aim to grab attention and buyers by advertising the higher clock speeds of a desktop chip--the approach only now seems to be hitting its stride with the big names.

"It's a trend that has really been amplified recently, due to cost and presumptions about what (mobile) Pentium 4 will look like," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "It's now happening in a pretty significant way."

Part of the trend comes from Intel's pricing on the desktop Pentium 4 and is an unexpected effect of the company's rapid cuts on the chip. A 1.6GHz Pentium 4 lists for $133 while a 1.8GHz Pentium 4 lists for $193--about $300 less than the price for Intel's 1.2GHz Pentium III-M mobile chip. The 1.6GHz Pentium 4 listed for $294 at its introduction in July of 2001.

Another reason is power consumption. The upcoming mobile Pentium 4-M will be hungrier on this score than a Pentium III-M, while the jump between the new mobile chip and a Pentium 4 desktop processor isn't seen as large by PC makers.

The trend is likely to produce a renaissance in so-called desktop-replacement notebooks, 7-pound to 8-pound machines that produce desktop-like performance but can be more easily moved between rooms or tucked away in a closet. Such machines are especially popular with second- and third-time PC buyers.

"It's about taking up less space in your home or office" than you would with a desktop PC, said Alan Promisel, notebook analyst with IDC.

Although notebook PCs have fallen quickly in price over the last year, desktop PCs continue to offer higher performance and lower prices due not only to component costs but also development expenses and other factors.

A Pentium 4 desktop-replacement machine would offer the best of both worlds, including a faster processor and a more reasonable price compared with today's top-of-the-line Pentium III-M notebooks.

It's likely that nouveau desktop replacements would be priced less than traditional machines of the kind--around the $1,500 mark--so as to better match with a desktop PC.

Toshiba debuted such a machine in Canada recently, with plans to offer it in the United States. The Pentium 4-based Satellite 1900 is priced around $1,700 to $1,800.

Normally, $1,800 buys a notebook equipped with a 1GHz Pentium III-M, a 15-inch screen, 256MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive and a CD-Rewritable drive. But in the case of the 8.3-pound Satellite 1900, the price yields the 1.6GHz Pentium 4 chip, a 15-inch screen, 256MB of RAM, a 30GB hard drive and a combination CD-Rewritable/DVD drive.

The Satellite 1900 would mark the first top-tier Pentium 4 notebook available in the United States, going on sale nearly two months before the official launch of Intel's Pentium 4-M.

Sources familiar with Compaq's plans say the company is considering portable designs that use desktop Pentium 4 chips but doesn't plan to offer such products until later in the year.

Gateway, sources say, may also be considering such a machine.

Sales of nouveau desktop replacements would slow an ongoing shift from larger desktop-replacement notebooks to more compact, 4- to 5-pound portables. But insiders predict it will expand the market for portables, instead of eating into it.

This would be good news for Intel, which would lose significant revenues if its mobile-chip sales slowed. About 85 percent of the chips that Intel sells are made for desktops, with about 15 percent made for notebooks. However, analysts say, notebook chips are priced higher on average--around $200--giving the segment a higher percentage of revenues.

Intel would lose money if PC companies stopped buying its mobile processors altogether. But that's unlikely to happen because lower-power chips are generally required in the 5-pound and smaller notebooks popular at corporations. And these machines make up the majority of the notebook market, analysts say.

Nice price, high power, but...
Still, Intel does not particularly like the new trend. It recommends its mobile chips for notebooks for several reasons, a company representative said.

The main differences between a Pentium 4 desktop chip and its Pentium 4-M sibling are power-management features and smaller and thinner packaging.

Intel's mobile chips generally start out at a lower voltage than its desktop chips and also include specific power-management features that allow chips to power down when not in use, go into sleep mode, and run at lower clock speeds when a notebook is running on battery power.

Indeed, a big downside to using a desktop chip in a notebook is that "the desktop processor isn't going to have the power-saving features a notebook part would," Mercury Research's McCarron said.

"There may also be some reliability or performance issues" based on the attention to detail in a company's computer design, McCarron said.

A poorly designed notebook equipped with a desktop chip could run hotter, which would place more wear and tear on its components and lead to potential long-term problems. Excess heat could also cause a chip to throttle back on its clock speed to avoid damage, hurting performance.

Despite what looks like an increasingly popular trend, PC makers are still divided as to whether the desktop-chip-in-laptop machine is a wise idea.

Dell Computer, for one, is less likely to make such a move.

"We very strongly believe in using the proper parts for the form factor," a Dell representative said when asked if a desktop Pentium 4 would appear in a Dell notebook.

Instead, the company feels it can match the price of a Pentium 4 desktop processor-based notebook with a forthcoming new entry-level Pentium 4 notebook, due out soon, the representative said.

IBM has no plans to offer a desktop Pentium 4 in its ThinkPads.

Because the "desktop Pentium 4 was not designed for (notebooks), using it in a mobile environment significantly impacts attributes that users value. Among those (attributes) are battery life, performance, size and weight," an IBM representative said.