Laptops: Do You Need That Speed?

Companies insist on the latest Pentium when cheaper chips work just as well

In the course of my job, I get to try out a lot of different computers, especially laptops. Models I have looked at lately have processors ranging from modest 400 MHz Intel Celerons to the latest 650 MHz Pentium III, and I have a confession to make: In nearly everything I do on a computer, I can no longer tell the difference between the fastest and the slowest machines.

That's not surprising. In the great bulk of computer usage, something other than processor speed is the limiting factor on overall performance. Word processing is limited by my speed of thinking and typing. Even large spreadsheets recalculate in the blink of an eye. And I spend a lot of time looking at the screen waiting for files and Web pages to download from the Internet.

SLOW MODE. Still, there's a relentless rush for speed. In the past year, processor speeds have more than doubled. Intel will push its mobile Pentium III to 850 MHz by yearend, and rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc., until now a minor player in the laptop market, plans chips with its own version of Intel's SpeedStep technology, which allows fast processors to run in a slower, low-power mode while on batteries.

In desktop computers, this horsepower race is harmless. There's even a chance you might be able to use the speed, since on a desktop you may well engage in activities that tax a processor, such as video editing or intense arcade games.

On mobile computers, however, excess speed carries some heavy costs. According to Intel's data sheets, a 650 MHz Pentium III draws a maximum of 21.5 watts, more than twice as much power as a 400 MHz mobile Celeron. Even in its power-saving 500 MHz mode, the SpeedStep chip draws 20% more wattage than the Celeron.

The first consequence of higher power demand is shorter running time on a battery of any given size. But more power also means more heat, and with buyers choosing thinner and lighter notebooks, dissipating the heat is getting harder. Engineers have gotten very, very clever at cooling laptops, with Toshiba turning to a sealed liquid cooling system in its newest models. But the laws of thermodynamics are immutable: All else being equal, faster processors mean shorter battery life and bigger, heavier, more complex, and more expensive laptop computers. And notebook manufacturers expect that within the next year or so, Intel will ship a mobile processor that burns 50% more peak power than current models consume.

It's no mystery why chipmakers want to push processor speeds ever higher. Intel's business model depends on a sort of planned obsolescence in which computer users regularly trade up to newer, faster models. And Intel is feeling competitive pressure from AMD, which recently hit the market first with a 1 gigahertz Athlon processor for desktops.

Why do laptop makers play the game? Because their big customers demand it. I asked a senior executive of one major manufacturer why they didn't just skip the hottest processors on laptops aimed at the executive market, where mobility and battery life are usually far more important than computing power. His reply: "Our corporate customers insist on the availability of the fastest processor Intel makes."

NO DIFFERENCE. Demanding the fastest chips in machines where slower might be better isn't the only sign of irrationality in corporate computer buying. Laptop manufacturers say it is difficult to sell companies laptops that use Intel's Celeron processor. Data sheets show that the 500 MHz Celeron and the 500 MHz Pentium III are essentially the same processor, and Intel's own benchmark tests reveal virtually no performance differences. The main distinction: Laptops using the Celeron typically retail for $150 to $200 less than otherwise identical units with a Pentium III. Laptop makers have begun testing the new Pentium-compatible Crusoe chip from Transmeta Corp. for compatibility and performance. Indications are that the processor could deliver dramatic power savings. But the manufacturers are worried they'll have a hard time selling a non-Pentium chip to corporate accounts.

It's time for corporate information technology managers and the executives they buy computers for to rethink their priorities. Both computer users and company budgets would be a whole lot better off for it.

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