Intel pushes laptops to desktop speeds

Intel this week will unveil its SpeedStep technology, long touted as having the potential to narrow the performance gap between desktop machines and portables. But users and analysts say other issues -- such as cost of ownership and durability -- will keep them from abandoning desktop systems in droves.

"The theory has always been that notebooks would replace desktops," said Roger Kay, a research manager with International Data Corp. But, he said, sales of notebooks as a percentage of total PC sales "have remained remarkably constant", mainly because of falling desktop prices and the performance gap.

SpeedStep lets a laptop run at near-desktop speeds when it's powered by electricity but lowers both the voltage and the clock speed of the processor when running on batteries. It will be included in mobile Pentium III chips that Intel is expected to introduce this week.

The fastest will run at 650MHz but will move down to 500MHz when working on its battery, though one analyst said she doubted users would be able to tell the difference. The second will run at 600/500MHz, sources said. Intel wouldn't discuss unannounced products.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at GartnerGroup, said the speed boost is "not dramatic", but still called it "a necessity" for some demanding users. Users, however, say clock speed isn't the main factor that's keeping them from rolling out more notebooks.

"The total cost of ownership [for notebooks] is much higher" than for PCs, said Pamela Summers, manager of workstation technology at Nabisco in New Jersey. Price, size and weight are Nabisco's main criteria when choosing a laptop model. About half of Nabisco's computers are notebooks, and that percentage is set to remain stable or fall slightly.

In fact, some notebooks for mobile workers are being replaced by handheld computers and pen pads, said Summers.

Mike Rakestrow, information systems director at Ironwood Lithographers in Arizona, said his main concern with notebooks has been about durability and reliability, not performance. "A good percentage of our people have lost data" due to laptop malfunctions, Rakestrow said.