Battery Life Improves for Notebook Users
by Alan Zisman (c)
2000. First published
in Canadian Computer Wholesaler, March 2000
Pity the poor notebook computer owners. They pay a
more the cost of a desktop computer to get a slower processor, less
space, and a less comfortable screen, keyboard, and pointing device.
All so that they can take their work with them on the
road, only to
be limited by a battery that typically won?t hold a charge long enough
to fly from Vancouver to Toronto. Any improvements in battery
have been more than out-paced by the power demanded by ever-more
processors. A December 1999 report by market researchers IDC suggested
that 80% of notebook users felt that their computer offered too little
CPU speed for their needs.
But two product announcements in as many days hold out
the hope that
fairly soon, notebook owners will be able to get their hands on units
nearly the power of their desktop counterparts, yet more than enough
life for a cross-Canada plane trip.
First from Intel. The company is touting its new
bringing portable computers mobile versions of Intel?s Pentium III
running at 600 and 650 MHz, near equals to the fastest desktop
Unlike the desktop versions, however, these will
operate in two modes?one
to maximize performance, the other to optimize battery life, and will
shift mode depending on whether the computer is plugged into the wall
not. Battery-optimized speed drops to 500 MHz-- still pretty fast, but
reducing the power-demand of the CPU from the 1.6 volts needed for
performance to a more economical 1.35 volts.
If they desire, while unplugged, users can choose to
run at full, though
battery draining-speed, simply by clicking on a power management
reboot is necessary. While original Pentium IIIs, aimed at the desktop
market shipped in a large cartridge, too awkward to use in portable
the SpeedStep processors are the size of a postage stamp and the
of a quarter?allowing their use even in extra-thin and light designs.
featuring these processors are already on sale, including Dell?s
7500 G650VT and HP?s Omnibook 4150 models.
Up until its recent product announcements, Transmeta
was known for two
things?unlike most Silicon Valley startups, which tout their ideas long
before they have any real products to demonstrate, Transmeta kept its
under tight wrap. It was known, however, that they had hired Linus
the creator of the open source Linux operating system.
Because of the penchant for secrecy, when the company
a press conference in mid January, the day after Intel?s announcement,
it attracted attention. There, they announced a pair of processors,
Crusoe, both aimed at portable devices. Steve Johnson, head of the
software operations first announced a low-power chip, the 3120,
to run at speeds around 400 MHz, aiming to power handheld devices and a
new generation of Internet appliances based on Linux?the company is
to release a special ?Mobile Linux? version to help speed development
these devices. The 5400-series chips will run at speeds from 500 to 700
MHz and are aimed at Windows-notebooks. According to Johnson, the 5400
chips will combine advanced power management, known as LongRun with a
power requirement of one watt, compared to power requirements from 5 to
8 watts for Intel?s new processors. The company hopes that entire
can be designed around its processors to use as little as 3 watts,
to the 15 watts needed by current models. The result, Johnson claimed
be users able to run their notebooks ?all day? on batteries.
The 3120 is presently in production, with Diamond
a ?WebPad??presumably the first of many devices using the chip. The
is still in prototype, with the company suggesting it will first show
mid-year in a sub-4 lb notebooks?though just who the manufacturer would
be remains Transmeta?s little secret. Transmeta does not have its own
plants?the chips are being manufactured for them by IBM.
Unlike traditional processor designs, the Crusoe chips
make use of what
Transmeta refers to as ?code-morphing??a software layer that translates
computer code designed for one processor design such as Intel?s, into
understandable by Transmeta?s models. The software is built into the
itself, unlike the emulation software, loaded on a harddrive that, for
example, allows some Mac user to (slowly) run Windows and Windows
This approach carries penalties? even built into the
translation takes time. Transmeta?s VP for Product Development, Doug
suggested that a 667 MHz Crusoe chip will actually run Windows software
at about the same speed as a 500 MHz Pentium III. Transmeta?s Johnson
out that after the first time an instruction is translated, the results
can be re-used, for better performance.
The use of a software layer also provides benefits.
Bugs, for example,
can be fixed by upgrading the software, rather than needing to replace
the CPU, as was the case with Intel?s well-publicized Pentium bug
years ago. As well, Transmeta suggests that as the code-morphing code
improved, process performance can be increased, simply by downloading
update patch. The company is hoping to optimize performance by about
Relying on the software layer also allows Transmeta?s
designs to get
by with fewer transistors than the Intel originals that they are
Fewer transistors equals a smaller chip, resulting in less power drain.
Powered by Intel?s new designs now and Transmeta?s
soon, portable computer users may finally be able own models that are
powerful as they claim to need, while fulfilling the promise of being
to work anywhere anytime?even when not plugged into a wall socket.
this to translate into increased demand for notebook computers?as more
buyers replace desktop models with a computer they can take with them.