Intel goes for low power with notebook chips

Intel launched five new mobile processors last week, including two low-power chips that may help the company compete more effectively against upstart chip maker Transmeta.

The new processors include mobile Pentium IIIs running at 750MHz and 600MHz, and a trio of mobile Celerons running at 650MHz, 600MHz and 500MHz.

The 600MHz Pentium III is the first high-performance processor from Intel to consume less than 1 watt of power on average, making it well suited for use in ultraportable notebooks such as Sony's Vaio, officials said. The processor has been designed in such a way that it can drop its power consumption when the processor isn't actually doing any work, the officials said.

Also aimed at the ultraportable market is the 500MHz Celeron, which consumes less than 2 watts of power on average, Intel officials said. The Celeron family is aimed at the value segment of the PC market.

Intel officials wouldn't be drawn on exactly how much additional battery life the power-saving chips will bring. Battery life depends on a multitude of factors, most of which have more to do with overall design of a PC than the processor itself, said Frank Spindler, vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile products group.

"If everything else [in the PC system] is identical, you should see more and more performance without any sacrifice to battery life," Spindler said.

The new processors have been shipping to PC makers for a month or more, and should be available soon in notebooks from Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Compaq, NEC and others, Spindler said.

Building low-power processors has become a major focus for chip makers, as users seek out notebooks with longer battery life. Transmeta sent a ripple through the PC chip industry in January when it unveiled its Crusoe chips, which the company claimed can be used to build notebooks with all-day battery life. Transmeta is expected to announce customers for its Crusoe 5400 notebook chip at the PC Expo conference in New York next week.

Intel, meanwhile, introduced its Speedstep technology in January, which allows its mobile processor to drop to a slower speed when a notebook is unplugged from a mains outlet. The recently launched 750MHz mobile Pentium III for example, drops to 600MHz when the notebook is running on a battery.

Spindler said the low-power technology introduced with the 600MHz mobile Pentium III stacks up well against Transmeta's power-saving technology, called LongRun.

"The numbers we're showing . . . are in line with [Transmeta's] stated claims," Spindler said.

Not surprisingly, Transmeta didn't agree. In a statement issued last week, it contested the way Intel measures the power consumption of its processor.

"Intel measures 1 watt with the processor idle [sleeping] 80 per cent of the time. Transmeta's Crusoe chip runs all sorts of Windows and multimedia applications at 1 watt or less," Transmeta said in the statement.