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Notebooks to get speed, technology boost

This week, portable fans will think they have died and gone to notebook heaven.

Portable computer fans will think they have died and gone to notebook heaven this week.

Intel today will unveil its first notebook processors containing an eagerly awaited energy-saving technology, according to people familiar with the company's plans. The first "SpeedStep" Pentium IIIs also will run at speeds up to 650 MHz, a 150-MHz boost over current notebook chips and a significant move toward narrowing the performance gap between desktop and notebook systems.

Tomorrow, ultra-secretive Silicon Valley start-up Transmeta is slated to unveil the technology behind its long-awaited "Crusoe" processor for notebooks and other devices. The new design will likely be compatible with PC architectures and emulate the behavior of Intel chips, according to industry sources and experts who have reviewed company patents.

However, it will be smaller and less costly, these individuals said.

Both could improve key elements of portable computing, including overall performance, battery performance and price. Many users are chronically dissatisfied with their notebooks in comparison to their desktop systems.

SpeedStep and Crusoe have another thing in common: Both are coming out after delays.

SpeedStep, formerly known as "Geyserville," will allow a processor to run faster when plugged in than when running on battery power. The first SpeedStep Pentium IIIs, for instance, will run at 600 MHz or more when the notebook is plugged in and at 500 MHz when unplugged.

The change is important, because it will allow notebook makers to incorporate faster chips without compromising battery life, Intel executives and analysts have said. Currently, Intel's fastest notebook chip runs at 500 MHz while its fastest desktop chip runs at 800 MHz.

"It has taken us out of the constraint that we have to limit the performance of the CPU," Robert Jecmen, vice president of the mobile and handheld product group at Intel, said last February when the technology was detailed. "Battery technology is not scaling like silicon technology."

Faster, higher-performance notebooks have been a goal for both Intel and PC manufacturers, as portables generally carry higher profit margins. A 500-MHz Pentium III for desktops, for instance, sells in volume for $229, while its not-extremely-different mobile counterpart sells for $530.

Various computer manufacturers, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Electronics, will be on hand as well to show off their latest portable designs. Some products will emerge this week while others will follow soon.

Far less is known about Transmeta's plans. For the past few years, the company has established a reputation for being one of Silicon Valley's more reclusive companies. Indeed, the company's Howard Hughes-like behavior has become part of its marketing plan. For the past several weeks, the company has slipped clues onto its Web site about the Crusoe processor to build anticipation.

Employees at the company include Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, and Dave Ditzel, a former top designer at Sun Microsystems. Meanwhile, IBM and Toshiba have been rumored to be involved in some of Transmeta's work.

Transmeta's technology briefing is slated to last several hours. Although it will likely be well-attended, analysts have said that Transmeta's technology may not hit wide circulation for some time, if at all. PC makers generally test new processors for extensive periods before even addressing the question of adopting them for commercial use.

While the new Pentium III SpeedStep processors will give Intel an upper hand in performance, rival Advanced Micro Devices won't be far behind. AMD will incorporate a similar technology, called Gemini, later this year.

Despite these developments, consumers will likely see relatively stable prices and periodic difficulties in getting notebooks because of a lingering display shortage.