A Cool New Chip in Some Hot Notebooks

Intel's Pentium M processor won't burn your lap--or burn up your battery

For the past few years, the introduction of a new processor for laptops has often been an unhappy event for computer makers and mobile executives alike. All too frequently, a new chip meant a notebook that ran hotter and gave less battery life in exchange for a bump in processing power too small to justify the cost. But Intel's (INTC ) latest chip family, called Centrino when packaged with an Intel Wi-Fi wireless adapter and called the Pentium M when the processor is solo, is a happy exception.

Intel and the manufacturers say Pentium M should allow them to achieve up to six hours of typical use on a standard battery in mainstream notebooks, and my testing of a variety of the newest products suggests that the claim is well-founded. In addition, the cool-running chip will allow even the ultralight notebooks, which until now have been limited to using older and slower processors, to rival their big brothers in performance.

IBM's ThinkPad T40, starting at $1,979, is a good example of this welcome development. The ThinkPad T series has largely defined the thin-and-light executive laptop. But last year, to accommodate the hot and power-hungry Pentium 4-M, IBM (IBM ) had to make the new T30 model thicker and heavier than the T23 it replaced.

IBM's T40
The T40, the first of a new ThinkPad line designed around the Pentium M, dramatically reverses the trend. At 1 in. thick and 4.9 pounds, it's more than 12 ounces lighter and 0.4 in. thinner than the bloated T30. Even better, the running time on a standard battery jumps from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours. IBM also offers an extra-life battery. It extends nearly an inch beyond the top of the laptop, making it a bit of a tight fit in a standard briefcase, but it gives more than six hours of use, plenty to get through a typical workday without plugging in. It also runs cool enough that you can comfortably hold it in your lap, something definitely not true of the T30 or other Pentium 4 laptops. Because of Intel's confusing marketing rules, the T40 will be sold both as a Centrino notebook and as a Pentium M in versions equipped with a Cisco (CSCO ) or Atheros wireless Ethernet adapter instead of Intel's Wi-Fi adapter.

While offering less dramatic thickness and weight reductions, other thin-and-light corporate notebooks are reporting substantial battery life gains, with the standard for this class leaping from around three hours to five. These somewhat larger competitors to the T40 include the Dell Latitude D600 (DELL ), the Hewlett-Packard Compaq Evo N620c (HPQ ), and the Toshiba Tecra M1 (TOSBF ). All start around $1,900.

Ultimately, Pentium M may make the biggest difference in ultralight notebooks. Nearly all of these are still running Pentium III-M processors because there was no way to cram a Pentium 4 into their compact systems without something melting. With the older chips, battery life has generally been limited. For example, the 2.6 lb. Toshiba Portégé 2010 claimed just two hours on a standard battery. Its replacement, the Portégé R100, should offer a big boost in performance but promises no increase in the rated two hours of life (optimistic in my experience) with a standard battery. Adding an auxiliary battery pushes that to over six hours.

The somewhat larger ThinkPad X31 gets a 10% to 15% rise in the already impressive 4 1/2-hour-plus running time of the Pentium III-M-powered X30. With an auxiliary battery, it can go up to 10 hours between recharges.

Intel doesn't have the ultralight field all to itself, though. Sharp has just announced the thinnest and lightest notebook ever, at a half-inch thick and two pounds, using Transmeta's forthcoming TM8000 processor.

The laptops that may benefit most from the new Pentium M processor are the Tablet PCs, which need more processing power to handle chores such as handwriting recognition and require longer battery life. The first Pentium M-powered tablets, however, are not due until later this spring.

Intel had long maintained a cavalier attitude about laptop battery life, concentrating on processing speed above all else. But the company's new emphasis on wireless-communications capabilities as its next big opportunity has focused its attention on power. After all, it doesn't do you much good to disconnect the network cable if you can't stray very far from a power plug. Laptops with enough computing power to handle on-the-fly encryption -- a business necessity with wireless -- and enough juice to run for most or all of a business day on battery power are becoming a reality. That will revolutionize the way we use laptops.

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