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 premium?double or more the cost of a desktop computer to get a slower processor, less drive 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 technology have been more than out-paced by the power demanded by ever-more powerful 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 with nearly the power of their desktop counterparts, yet more than enough battery life for a cross-Canada plane trip.

First from Intel. The company is touting its new SpeedStep technology, bringing portable computers mobile versions of Intel?s Pentium III models, running at 600 and 650 MHz, near equals to the fastest desktop versions.

Unlike the desktop versions, however, these will operate in two modes?one to maximize performance, the other to optimize battery life, and will automatically shift mode depending on whether the computer is plugged into the wall or 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 full-speed 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 icon?no reboot is necessary. While original Pentium IIIs, aimed at the desktop market shipped in a large cartridge, too awkward to use in portable models, the SpeedStep processors are the size of a postage stamp and the thickness of a quarter?allowing their use even in extra-thin and light designs. Notebooks featuring these processors are already on sale, including Dell?s Inspiron 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 plans under tight wrap. It was known, however, that they had hired Linus Torvalds, the creator of the open source Linux operating system.

Because of the penchant for secrecy, when the company finally called a press conference in mid January, the day after Intel?s announcement, it attracted attention. There, they announced a pair of processors, code-named Crusoe, both aimed at portable devices. Steve Johnson, head of the company?s software operations first announced a low-power chip, the 3120, designed 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 planning to release a special ?Mobile Linux? version to help speed development of 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 meager power requirement of one watt, compared to power requirements from 5 to 8 watts for Intel?s new processors. The company hopes that entire systems can be designed around its processors to use as little as 3 watts, compared to the 15 watts needed by current models. The result, Johnson claimed will be users able to run their notebooks ?all day? on batteries.

The 3120 is presently in production, with Diamond Multimedia announcing a ?WebPad??presumably the first of many devices using the chip. The 5400 is still in prototype, with the company suggesting it will first show up 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 fabrication 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 instructions understandable by Transmeta?s models. The software is built into the chip itself, unlike the emulation software, loaded on a harddrive that, for example, allows some Mac user to (slowly) run Windows and Windows applications.

This approach carries penalties? even built into the CPU?s silicon, translation takes time. Transmeta?s VP for Product Development, Doug Laird 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 points 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 several years ago. As well, Transmeta suggests that as the code-morphing code is improved, process performance can be increased, simply by downloading an update patch. The company is hoping to optimize performance by about 20% over time.

Relying on the software layer also allows Transmeta?s designs to get by with fewer transistors than the Intel originals that they are emulating. Fewer transistors equals a smaller chip, resulting in less power drain.

Powered by Intel?s new designs now and Transmeta?s designs sometime soon, portable computer users may finally be able own models that are as powerful as they claim to need, while fulfilling the promise of being able to work anywhere anytime?even when not plugged into a wall socket. Expect this to translate into increased demand for notebook computers?as more buyers replace desktop models with a computer they can take with them.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan