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ISSUE 539: The high tech office- Feb 22 2000


Notebook users demand extended battery life

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 outpaced by the power demanded by ever-more powerful processors. A December 1999 report by market researchers IDC revealed that 80 per cent of notebook users felt their computer offered too little CPU speed for their needs.

Several recent announcements hold out the hope that notebook owners might soon 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 which brings portable computers mobile versions of Intel's Pentium III models. It runs at 600 and 650 MHz -- almost as quick
as 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. It will automatically shift modes depending on whether the computer is plugged into the wall or not. Battery-optimized speed drops the
system to 500 MHz, which is still pretty fast, but reduces the power-demand of the CPU from the 1.6 volts to a somewhat more economical 1.35 volts.

While unplugged, users can choose to run the computer at full, though battery draining-speed, simply by clicking on a power management icon. No reboot is necessary.

While original Pentium IIIs, which were aimed at the desktop market, shipped in a large cartridge, this is too awkward to use in portable models. The SpeedStep processors are the size of postage stamps and the thickness of a quarter.

Notebooks featuring these processors are already on sale, including Dell's Inspiron 7500 G650VT and HP's Omnibook 4150 models. Initial reviews have found these models fast and powerful, but expensive, and suggested that SpeedStep of-
fered only modest extensions in
battery life.

* Up until its recent product announcements, Transmeta was known for two things. Unlike most Silicon Valley startups, Transmeta kept its plans under tight wraps and was famous for hiring Linus Torvalds, creator of the open source Linux operating system.

Because of its penchant for secrecy, Transmeta's press conference held the day after Intel's announcement attracted attention.

The company announced a pair of processors, code-named Crusoe, aimed at portable devices. Steve Johnson, head of the company's software operations, first announced a low-power chip, the 3120, de-
signed to run at speeds around 400 MHz. The chip is designed to power handheld devices and a new generation of Internet appliances based on Linux.

The 5400-series chips will run
at speeds of 500 to 700 MHz and are aimed at Windows-notebooks users. According to Johnson, the 5400 chips will combine advanced power management with a meager power requirement of one watt, compared to power requirements of 5 to 8 watts for Intel's new processors.

As a result, he claimed that users would be able to run their notebooks on batteries all day.

* The 3120 is presently in production. Diamond Multimedia has an-
nounced the "WebPad," presumably the first of many devices using the chip. The 5400 is still in prototype, and it's not clear when notebooks powered by it will appear on the market. Transmeta does not have its own fabrication plants. The chips
are being manufactured for them
by IBM.

Unlike traditional processor de-
signs, 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.

This approach carries penalties. Translation takes time. It's expected that a 700-MHz Crusoe chip will actually run Windows software at about the same speed as a 500-MHz Intel processor. But the software layer also provides benefits. Bugs, for example, can be fixed by upgrading the software, rather than replacing the CPU, as was the case with Intel's well-publicized Pentium bug several years ago.

Portable computer users may finally be able to 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. *


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