As Intel Corp. prepares to slug it out in the 64-bit microprocessor market, the company is also setting its sights on the other end of the computing spectrum, where a no-holds-barred battle is shaping up in the so-called thin-and-light low-power notebook space.
Intel last week disclosed a processor roadmap for the popular laptop subsegment, which will pit Intel against Transmeta Corp., arguably the first company to champion low-power X86 CPUs.
Intel's latest salvo, slated for the third quarter, will feature the Pentium III-M notebook chip series, which includes an 800MHz-plus device the company said will consume less than 1W of power in 3 to 4lb. laptops. A 700MHz-plus chip is expected to consume less than 0.5W of power in mobile PCs weighing less than 3lbs.
The announcement coincided with Transmeta's debut last week of its Crusoe TM5800 processor, which is manufactured on a 0.13-micron process to boost performance by 50% while reducing power consumption by 20% relative to the company's previous chips. The 800MHz-plus device is said to eat up as little as 0.5 to 1W of power.
The comparison didn't sit well with Frank Spindler, vice president of Intel's architecture group and general manager of the company's mobile platform group. "Look at the measured performance and power consumption between Intel and Transmeta," Spindler said. "The Pentium III-M's power management delivers the lowest PC power consumption in the industry with a performance level that OEMs are looking for."
Transmeta countered that the new Crusoe beats Intel CPUs when tested holistically. "Intel has nothing like our north bridge chipset component, which is already attached to our chip," said Ed McKernan, Transmeta's director of marketing. "If you measure a Pentium III's performance in terms of the entire chipset, then you're looking at another 3 watts of power consumption."
PC makers weigh in
PC OEMs, which ultimately will decide the fate of each chip, were more balanced in their consensus, noting that competition between Intel and Transmeta will only lead to lower prices.
"Transmeta set the standard for low power and Intel had to chase that down, so today you get equivalent low-power performance with Transmeta, while you can still probably get more processor performance from Intel," said Ken Willett, vice president of product management in the commercial PC group of Compaq Computer Corp., Houston. "Transmeta will continue to move up its processor performance. It may not be in the gigahertz range, but it will get up there."
Gateway Corp., Lake Forest, Calif., said that if it is to use a Crusoe chip, it will do so within a year. However, the company observed that despite Transmeta's claim of total-system power efficiency, the approach is not without its design issues.
"The challenge with Transmeta is that you have to design the entire notebook for its power savings. You have to reconfigure the LCD, graphics, and other components that are specific to getting that maximum battery life with a Crusoe," said Ray S. Sawall, group manager of product marketing at the company's mobile systems division.
While much attention is devoted to pre-build performance specifications and benchmark tests, the new breed of low-power CPU won't be truly tested until it's running in commercially available OEM systems, according to analyst Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Associates, Mill Valley, Calif.
"People don't really care as much about the specs as they do about how much a notebook weighs, how hot it gets, and how fast it is," Peddie said.
To that end, Transmeta said its alignment with some of Japan's notebook PC makers will give it an early edge as consumers turn to their laptops to deliver high-end features like remote control DVD and wireless 802.11 LAN and WAN access.
"I don't think the U.S. makers are going to be successful," Transmeta's McKernan said. "Japan already has a two-year lead as they bring these products to the U.S."
Indeed, NEC Corp. and Compaq showcased notebooks last week at the TECHXNY Expo (formerly PC Expo) in New York, where their respective power management features were laid side-by-side.
NEC's Crusoe-based Versa DayLite notebook weighs 3.3lbs. and has a battery life of up to eight hours. The Pentium III-M-based Compaq Evo Notebook N200, which weighs less than 3lbs., requires an additional battery attachment to extend battery life of up to eight hours.
AMD mulls low power
In the longer term, Intel said it plans to launch a version of its Pentium 4 for notebooks next year, aimed exclusively at the high-speed, 5lb.-plus category in which the Pentium III now competes head-to-head with Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Athlon processor.
AMD said it will try to outstrip Intel's raw processor horsepower in the notebook sector, while mulling its entry into the low-power market. "We plan to enter this space eventually," said John B. Rowe, product marketing engineer at AMD's computation products group in Sunnyvale, Calif. "This year we should also introduce packaging that will enable our Athlon to be fitted into thinner devices."
In 2003, Intel said it will unveil a notebook processor built from the ground up, instead of basing its mobile chips on its most recent desktop CPUs. "You can't do a 0.5-watt, average power-consuming processor if you're taking a desktop processor and shoving it down," Intel's Spindler said.
The new processor's benchmark performance was not yet determined, he said, but it will build upon increased frequency and transistor counts for an architecture that will support both conventional notebooks and devices such as tablet PCs.
The processor will accommodate handwriting and speech recognition applications that Spindler said require algorithms based on general-purpose processing that must be fast and performance intensive. The chip will incorporate some of the PIII-M's higher-performance capabilities as well, according to Spindler. "The device will offer technologies that will offer faster frequencies and faster performance per clock." OR