At Last, A Laptop That Sips Juice

Sony's Vaio ultralight has a lot of new features--the best of which is its miserly processor

The Sony Vaio PictureBook is a very unusual laptop. But its most significant feature is not the distinctive built-in camera imbedded atop the display. It's not even the display, which is unusually wide, or the PictureBook's ultralight 2.2-lb. weight. Instead, the key feature is the use of a brand-new processor, the Crusoe from startup Transmeta, that could mark a breakthrough in battery life.

The Pentium-compatible Transmeta chip was designed from the silicon up for power savings. In addition, a technology called Long Run adjusts processor speed and voltage to the task at hand for further savings. While the PictureBook is the only Crusoe-based product to hit the U.S. market, it's clear that the Transmeta threat has caused Intel (INTC) to focus on power consumption, setting off a competition in which consumers are sure winners.

Battery life has long been the bane of ultralight laptops. They don't have room for big batteries. And while smaller displays use less power, other components are just as power-hungry as in bigger laptops.

The PictureBook is clearly a niche product aimed at real estate agents, insurance adjusters, and others with a need for a super-portable notebook with an integrated camera at the top of the display. But the rest of us can look forward to benefits from the chip. The original Pentium II-powered PictureBook generally ran out of power after about 1 1/2 hours. Sony (SNE) rates the Crusoe version at 2 1/2 to 4 hours, a claim consistent with my experience. As a bonus, this laptop runs cool enough to rest comfortably in your lap for long periods of time.

It may take a while to see long-lived, cool-running general-purpose machines. For months, IBM (IBM) has been showing journalists a modified ThinkPad 240 running on a Transmeta chip, causing speculation that the X20 line, which replaces both the 240 and the larger 570, would offer a Crusoe option. But IBM opted to remain all-Intel.

I suspect there are two reasons for the decision. First, Intel, which long regarded higher power consumption as the price of speed, has been producing less thirsty mobile chips and promises more improvement. Further, IBM executives believe that the X20 could become its first best-selling ultralight in the U.S. For that to happen, IBM must sell them by the thousands to notoriously conservative corporate technology managers who will likely look askance at anything as radical as a Transmeta chip.

IBM's hopes for the X20 could be well placed. It's a bit bigger and heavier than the 240, but offers a much bigger 12.1-in. display and a nearly full-size keyboard. While the 240 lacked any provision for desktop docking, the X20 has a full range of docks and linkups.

Neither the PictureBook nor the X20 has room for a floppy or CD-ROM so you need an external drive, or in the case of the ThinkPad, an optional "slice" that clamps onto the bottom ($325 for the CD-ROM). The X20 does have provision for removable storage of a sort. In addition to a single PC Card slot, the X20 has a slot that can take a CompactFlash memory card or an IBM MicroDrive ($279 for 340 megabytes).

About the only thing that keeps the X20 from being the perfect ultralight is battery life. IBM claims 2 hours from the standard battery, about right in my experience. But the PictureBook runs longer on a smaller battery. Both offer extended-life batteries, but for equal battery capacity, which means equal size and weight, the Sony will always have the edge.

The important thing here is that the industry now regards reducing power consumption as critical. IBM may offer a Crusoe version of the X20 in the future. Other computer makers are experimenting with Crusoe chips. Meanwhile, Intel, which has reduced the power demand of its latest mobile Celeron and Pentium III chips, promises further gains next year. If that means sacrificing speed for long life, I'm not worried. Though the processors in these two notebooks are far from the fastest on the market, they are zippy enough for nearly any task. The focus on battery life hasn't come a moment too soon.

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