Notebooks faster, lighter, have shorter battery life

Users are paying for faster, lighter, smaller notebooks with shorter battery life and over-heating.

For one corporate road warrior, faster isn't necessarily better when it comes to notebooks.

"The president of my company complains that his 133-MHz Compaq notebook gets only 45 minutes of battery life," says Douglas Moran, information systems analyst at CRSS Constructors in Denver. "He has started telling me he misses his 486. With the 486, he used to make it almost all the way across the country on just one battery."

Moran's boss isn't alone. "Faster, lighter, smaller" has been the mantra in the notebook industry and is the driving force behind new releases. But users must trade the advantages of lighter-than-air desktop replacement notebooks for shorter battery life and overheated components, including PC cards.

"Heat dissipation is always a challenge in a laptop," says Dan Coolidge, an attorney at Sheehan, Phinney, Bass & Green in Manchester, New Hampshire. "But for users like me, the issue is reliability and battery life. It's up to the notebook makers to work around the heat, and they don't always do such a good job of it."

The "press test" is an offbeat measure for how well a notebook vendor has dealt with the heat problem.

"Some portables get so hot they can take a crease right out of your pants," says Gerry Purdy, an analyst at Mobile Insights in Mountain View, California.

Notebook vendors downplay the design challenge. But according to Purdy, "There's this constant battle between performance in a notebook and the management of the power in the unit."

"As you increase performance, you are going to increase the power consumption and the heat load applied to the system," he explains. "There is a real challenge here that we didn't see just two years ago."

Users and industry observers say the problems posed by the faster chips and the thinner, lighter designs include the following:

--PC cards have been particular victims of the higher temperatures caused by the faster chips. Recently, users have complained about chronic overheating in two PC cards from US Robotics. US Robotics downplays the problem and says it would have to replace only a few cards from the notebook line.

--The faster speeds of the new laptops increase the heat of the system and drain batteries. Internal fans also drain the battery.

--Notebook vendors are concerned about the 150-MHz mobile Pentium chip, which Intel plans to release in the third quarter. Industry observers say the 150-MHz chip provides only a 5% boost above the 133-MHz chip.

The problem for PC cards is that there is only so much room in the laptops for electronic components, and they are often placed close to the chip.

But Mike Stinson, product marketing manager at Dell Computer, says PC card makers have to work more closely with chip makers such as Intel to resolve the heat issue.

He says Dell's solution to the heat problem is to use a "clam shell", which is a piece of flat metal mounted on the board that dissipates heat.

IBM uses heat pipe technology. Under this technology, heat is dissipated without having to use a fan.

As for battery technology, industry observers say lithium polymer is the next battery advance on the horizon.

But it isn't expected to be on the market until later this year or possibly 1998.

But the design challenges will continue, fueled by Intel's campaign to nudge the vendors on the path of faster chips.

The release of the 150-MHz chip will pose further difficulties.

Robert Levin, director of product marketing at NEC Technologies, says: "The 150 runs on a 60-MHz bus, which in some configurations is slower than the 133 on a 66-MHz bus."

(Online editor Michael Fitzgerald and senior writer Michael Goldberg contributed to this story.)

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