Road Warriors

Intel and AMD battle for attention at the next level of mobile processors--but are their new offerings even worth all the fuss?
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the June 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

"Price war!" sort of has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? (At least when it refers to products you buy, as opposed to products you sell.)

Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), who've been pounding each other on the desktop, are taking the skirmish on the road. You're about to be deluged by a bewildering array of laptops powered by new Pentium 4 Processor-M and Mobile Athlon 4 engines, respectively--at prices you'll find hard to resist.

Starved by two years of IT penny-pinching, the CPU giants are delivering "4" processors at pretty much the same price points as Intel's Pentium III-Ms. Their portable allies, who've suffered their own sales drought, are wrapping top memory and storage options around the new engines, throwing in the best displays and other amenities and charging as little as half what top-of-the-line portables fetched pre-recession.

Is "4" your magic number? It depends on whether you really need to refresh your laptops this year, as well as the mix of processing power vs. battery life vs. portability your company needs.

Early 4s give extra oomph to office-to-home-and-back luggables, but they're too hot to fit into anything you'd tote across the country. Even when manufacturers are able to squeeze slower-but-cooler Pentium 4-Ms and .13 micron Athlon 4s into thin-and-light notebooks, "old" Pentium III-M chips will be common--and they'll be the only thing suitable for mini- or sub-notebooks (with 12-inch LCDs) well into 2003. By then, both IIIs and 4s will be trumped by even better power-conserving Intel Banias and .13 micron AMD engines.

Mileage May Vary

Intel fired the first shot this spring with 1.6GHz and 1.7GHz Pentium 4-Ms (roughly equivalent to AMD's 1500+ and 1600+ Athlon 4s) that it says deliver about 150 percent the processing power of its fastest Pentium III-Ms. But drop one of those engines into a real-world portable, and the performance advantage is closer to 20 percent, says Kevin Krewell, a senior analyst with the In-Stat/MDR Microprocessor Report.

This, despite the fact that the 400MHz Pentium 4-M frontside system bus is three to four times as wide, and its Double Data Rate memory is at least twice as fast as the Pentium III-M's. The problem is, a Pentium 4-M crunches fewer instructions per clock cycle than a Pentium III-M. "The reality is, if you want to beat a 1.1GHZ Pentium III-M in desktop productivity applications, you'll need at least a 1.4GHz 4-M," says Krewell.

Faster clock speeds draw more power and generate more heat, adds Steve Andler, former head of marketing at Toshiba and founder of Steve Andler and Associates, a marketing and technology consulting company in Dana Point, California. Early 1.6GHz to 1.7GHz Pentium 4-M and Athlon 4 portables are a little on the chubby side to accommodate larger cooling systems and batteries.

They may be big, but they're also beautiful. Early 4s are packed with the components to be the only PC you need. That includes 15-inch flatscreen displays-the equivalent of a 17-inch desktop monitor-driven by top-of-the-line graphics processors like NVIDIA's GeForce 4. SXGA. Screen resolutions of 1,600 x 1,200 and high-end sound systems make desktop presentations look sharp. System memory and storage are equal to desktops, and besides onboard Ethernet and V.92-capable modems, they either come with 802.11a and Bluetooth adapters or can be easily upgraded.

Prices were clustered around $2,500 at launch, but now they're headed below $2,000 due to pressure from 1.8GHz and 2GHz Intel parts, says Andler. Be careful not to buy desktop replacements using desktop Pentium 4 processors, though. They're likely to be cheap, but also large, noisy battery drainers.

Free to Be III

Over the next few months, you'll find thin-and-lights with 1.4GHz and 1.5GHz Pentium 4-Ms and .13 micron Athlon 4 processors for around $1,600, says Andler. But you'll have to choose between those and similarly configured and priced Pentium III-Ms offering a little less clockspeed but longer battery life.

When Intel Banias and .13 micron AMD engines hit the street, you'll have three generations of processors to choose from. The longer you can wait, the better your portable buying options become-both from a technology and a price standpoint.

If you can't wait for the main course to arrive, try these inexpensive early pentium 4-m and athlon 4 portables:

All configurations include a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, 56Kbps modem, 10/100 Ethernet and 802.11b adapters.

Compaq Evo Notebook N115 Athlon 4 1500+ with 200MHz frontside bus, 256MB SDRAM, 14.1-inch XGA display, 20GB hard drive, 6.4 pounds

Street price: $1,935

Compaq Presario 2800 1.7GHz Pentium 4-M, 15-inch SXGA display, ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 with 64MB memory, 60GB hard drive, 6.4 pounds
Street price: $2,499

Dell Latitude C840 1.6GHz Pentium 4-M, 128MB DDR SDRAM, 15-inch UXGA display, NVIDIA GeForce4 440 Go graphics with 32MB memory, 20GB hard drive, 7.4 pounds
Street price: $2,657

Micron TransPort GX3 1.6GHz Pentium 4-M, 256MB DDR SDRAM, 15-inch UXGA display, ATI Radeon Mobility 7500 graphics with 32MB memory, 40GB hard drive, 7.3 pounds
Street price: $2,449

Toshiba Satellite Pro 6100 1.7GHz Pentium 4-M, 256MB DDR SDRAM, 15-inch UXGA display, NVIDIA GeForce4 420 Go graphics controller with 32MB memory, 40GB hard drive, 6.83 pounds
Street price: $2,699

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