Leading notebook vendors IBM, Toshiba, and Compaq will show the next generation of mobile PCs with even faster Intel processors behind closed doors at Comdex later this month. But the vendors' strategies behind the metal cases that house these processors may be even more interesting.
The first-generation mobile Pentium IIs are expected to ship by the second quarter of 1998 at a scaled-back 266-MHz system performance, and will include the BX chip set on the mobile module, according to sources. The BX core-logic chip set supports the Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP), as well as 100-MHz synchronous DRAM.
However, Intel also will deliver in the first half of 1998 a 266-MHz mobile version of the Pentium, leaving IT managers with a choice between two CPUs that roughly have only a 10-percent difference in performance.
"There are too many processors and it's hard to distinguish one from the other," said Marc Perl, business manager at Visa USA, in Foster City, Calif., and a member of InfoWorld's Corporate Advisory Board.
Some analysts agree.
"It is not optimal for them to have two products with the same clock speed. But the Pentium II core delivers better performance at the same clock speed, [by] at least 10 percent," said Linley Gwenapp, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "[Intel] will charge a premium for the performance."
According to sources, Intel would have preferred to ship a faster mobile Pentium II, but heat problems forced the company to scale back performance.
"Intel may have to adjust the frequency of the offering of the Deschutes [Pentium II] to insure that the power profile is adequate for those who use these [notebooks] sitting on their legs," said Gerry Purdy, president of Mobile Insights, in Mountain View, Calif.
However, Intel also will offer a second, minicartridge version of the Pentium II to PC vendors, which does not include the Intel core-logic chip set, said one source.
"Companies such as Compaq and Toshiba don't want to get locked into Intel's feature set," said the source. "Both of these companies still design their own chip sets."
Compaq and Toshiba believe they can get some differentiation using enhanced chip sets that allow them to add features, such as multimedia enhancements and the capability to more easily upgrade processors on a minicartridge.
An Intel representative, however, provided a slightly different product schedule.
"You can expect to see the processor [mobile Pentium II] in first half, and probably in the second half of 1998 AGP will be added," said Jason Ziller, an Intel mobile-platform marketing manager, in Santa Clara, Calif.
AGP generates more heat, and behind the scenes Intel is working furiously with notebook vendors to stay within the 7.9-watt CPU consumption and the 25-watt total system power-consumption ceilings that Intel and PC makers set for themselves.
"We are working very closely with Intel to improve the heat dissipation, but there's no doubt about it: The [Pentium II] runs hot," said Sam Palmisano, senior vice president and group executive at IBM PC Co., in Somers, N.Y.
Heat may cause the gap between mobile and desktop systems to widen. Although the mobile Pentium II will be shipped at 266 MHz, the Pentium II for desktops may enter that market at speeds as fast as 333 MHz, said one source within Intel.
"They can solve the [heat] problem at 266 MHz, but can they solve the heat problem at 300 MHz?" Gwenapp said. "It may force them to delay some of the higher clock speed until later in the year."
The first generation of mobile Pentium IIs will require a fan that will prevent thin designs, vendors and analysts also said.
Intel Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., can be reached at (408) 765-8080.
Dan Briody and Ed Scannell contributed to this article.