What Intel's Opponents Are Up To

Rivals have forced the chip king to improve its processors

Intel (INTC ) may be inside the vast majority of the world's PCs, but competition is alive and well in the processor business, at least at the innovative edges of the market. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ) has been giving Intel a run for its money in consumer desktops, and upstart Transmeta (TMTA ) continues to nip at the low-power end of the laptop business. Intel's Pentium M processor remains king in the core market of thin-and-light business notebooks. But I looked at two non-Intel notebooks at opposite ends of the size and weight spectrum: an ultracompact Sharp Actius MM20 powered by a Transmeta Efficeon processor and a hefty eMachines M6809, run by an AMD Athlon 64.

Sharp chose Transmeta for its power-saving efficiency. The $1,499 Actius, which weighs just two pounds and is only .78 in. thick at its thickest point, is designed for mobility. It sells for $1,000 less than Sony (SNE )'s slightly thinner and lighter Vaio X505, its closest competitor. The Actius is intended to be a second computer -- to the point of including a docking cradle that lets it sync with a desktop. Notebooks based on Transmeta's earlier Crusoe processor suffered from sluggish performance. The MM20, while no speed demon, is a lot snappier -- perfectly adequate for light-duty use such as e-mail, Web browsing, some word processing. The keyboard is somewhat cramped but intelligently laid out and usable. The 10.4-in. display is very crisp, though some users may find the type too small, and the screen is a bit dim in the default power-saving "mobile" setting. Battery life of about three hours is acceptable. A $199 extended-life battery takes that to 9 hours but adds 9.6 oz. and a half-inch of thickness.

YET THE ACTIUS FALLS SHORT IN ONE KEY AREA of mobility: communications. Its wireless setup is one of the poorest I've seen, failing to connect to the Wi-Fi network in areas of my house where other laptops work without trouble. There is a jack for an Ethernet cable, but in the many places where dial-up is still the only option, you'll have to use a PC card modem, which is included but a bit of a nuisance. With improved communications capability, the MM20 would be ideal for the fleet-footed executive who needs more than a Pocket PC or a Palm but can get by with a minimal laptop.

At the other extreme, eMachines went with AMD for performance. Its $1,650 M6809 is one of the first to use a mobile version of the superfast Athlon 64. The M6809 is a screamer even though the processor won't reach its full potential until late this year, when Microsoft (MSFT ) releases a version of Windows that takes advantage of the Athlon's ability to gobble data 64 bits at a time. (The Athlon 64 can run existing 32-bit Windows XP and applications, but they take a toll on performance relative to 64-bit software.) Other specs, including an 80-gigabyte hard drive, 512 megabytes of memory, and a high-end ATI graphics adapter round out the M6809's performance profile. Its display is a 15.4-in. wide panel, ideal for movies, games, or applications such as Adobe Photoshop.

All this power comes at a price. While eMachines, now a unit of Gateway (GTW ), calls the M6809 "the Road Warrior," it's unlikely to stray far from home. Battery life is just a bit over two hours. At 1.6 in. thick and 14 in. wide, it's a briefcase-buster. And the 7.5-pound M6809 weighs nearly as much as four Actius MM20s. That said, it's a fine alternative to a desktop PC.

Despite relatively small market share, especially for Transmeta, Intel's rivals have driven important changes in the processor business. Transmeta pushed Intel to refocus its mobile-processor plans on longer battery life. And the success of the Athlon 64 and its server-based sibling, the Opteron, forced Intel to reverse strategy and announce a 64-bit Pentium. It may be tough for competitors to crack the mainstream, but what they do on the fringes is important for the future of PC technology.

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By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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