Laptops Catch Up To Desktops

Intel is turning them into speed demons. Now how about boosting battery life?

For a couple of years, Intel and some computer makers have been trying to persuade businesses to abandon many of their desktop computers in favor of laptops that plug into docks that let you use a full-size keyboard and monitor. The idea of one computer for use in the office, at home, or on the road makes a lot of sense and has had some success. But two factors have discouraged wider adoption: Laptops still command a huge price premium, and even the most powerful notebooks fall far short of the best desktops in performance.

Cost remains a serious problem, one that has gotten worse in recent months as display prices have risen. But a new wave of laptops incorporating the latest technology from Intel has largely banished the performance gap.

DESIGN FEAT. The difficulty has always been that the fastest processors drain batteries quickly. The Pentium III SpeedStep processors finesse the problem by running at up to 650 MHz when connected to AC power, but slowing to 500 MHz and running at lower voltage on batteries. The result is a processor that approaches the 800 MHz of Intel's fastest desktop Pentium IIIs while giving acceptable battery life.

When Intel began discussing the technology, laptop makers were wary. Although throttling back the power would solve the battery problem, it would not reduce the amount of heat generated when the chip was working at full speed. Engineers pondered such exotic solutions as refrigerated docking stations. At best, they figured, the superfast chips would never work in the thin, light notebooks that were becoming the corporate standard.

A dual engineering triumph solved the problem. Intel made the chip run cooler. And designers found ingenious ways to exhaust heat from even tiny cases. The Hewlett-Packard OmniBook 900 is just the sort of notebook in which SpeedStep was not expected to work. It's 1.4 inches thick and weighs a mere 4.3 pounds. But not only did engineers manage to cram in a SpeedStep chip, but the OmniBook 900 actually runs cooler than most Pentium II or Celeron notebooks I have used. As long as you don't need to use the external drive (floppy, CD-ROM, or DVD) unit that attaches clumsily with a short, stiff cable, it's a laptop you can comfortably use on your lap. I got about 212 hours of battery life on a charge, typical for a notebook in this class even with a slower chip.

It's worth asking who really needs a 650 MHz processor in a notebook--or a desktop, for that matter. In my typical mobile applications--Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, Web browsing, and reading e-mail--there were two ways I could tell I was running at high speed. First, a little flag icon in the system tray changes from solid blue to checkered. Second, a rather noisy fan came on more frequently to shoot a blast of hot air from a vent on the side of the unit. When a program such as Word loads in under five seconds at the "slow" speed, it's hard to see meaningful improvement at high speeds.

More demanding applications will show some difference. In Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking, the OmniBook did a better job of keeping up with dictation at the higher speed. And people who manipulate large images in Adobe Photoshop or other graphics-intensive programs will appreciate all the speed they can get. Users of the new Windows 2000 operating system may also appreciate the extra power.

DONE DEAL. In any event, new notebooks will give you that speed whether you want it or not. Intel has discontinued desktop Pentium IIs and is phasing out the mobile version. It has also quietly redone the Celeron, originally a derivative of the Pentium II, so that it now shares its design with the Pentium III.

By the end of the year, Intel plans to offer just two mobile chips. The Celeron, probably at speeds of 400 to 600 MHz, will be found in value notebooks, especially those costing under $2,000. The SpeedStep Pentium III, with a top speed of at least 800 MHz, will go into higher-end products. Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices will bid to become a bigger player in the mobile market with a dual-speed version of its K6-III-P chip later this year.

Personally, I would love it if some of the engineering genius devoted to producing faster machines without sacrificing battery life went into making slower notebooks that run longer. But speed sells, and the power of these new notebooks should make the desktop-replacement idea a lot more attractive.

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