December 9, 1996 10 AM ET

Potholes in Intel's mobile road map spook OEMs
Vendors check out alternatives

By Lisa DiCarlo

  Notebook makers are growing increasingly concerned over the apparent lack of direction of Intel Corp.'s mobile road map.

Several issues are causing some notebook PC makers to evaluate alternative processors to fill a growing gap in the chip maker's product line for 1997 and beyond: long lag times between mobile CPU rollouts, power dissipation design problems and the viability of MMX (multimedia extensions) applications on a notebook.

While Intel readies its MMX-enabled Pentium for early next month, the company's MMX-enabled Pentium Pro for notebooks, code-named Deschutes, is not due until the first quarter of 1998, sources said.

The company had told OEMs it had originally hoped to ship the chip in late 1997, the sources said.

The rescheduling is likely the result of major design work needed to reduce the power consumption of the processor, which today is more than 10 watts, sources said.

That wattage, which is more typical of a desktop PC, is almost double that of today's Pentium-based notebooks.

Redesigning a notebook for Pentium Pro-class processors is daunting enough without having to deal with increased power and heat issues, observers said.

Given the design-related concerns, "OEMs are unclear about what chip goes in a notebook," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research Inc., in Scottsdale, Ariz. "No one knows what the power consumption will be when [Deschutes] comes out, and it's freaking everybody out."

"There are technology issues about where [Pentium Pro] is headed for mobile and if we can and should incorporate it in a timely manner," said an executive with a top 10 notebook maker who requested anonymity.

The executive said those concerns have pushed his company to evaluate Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s mobile chip road map. "It's more impressive than Intel's on paper," the executive said. "We're looking at it, and we have some interest."

AMD's MMX-enabled K6 is due in the first quarter of 1997 and will be suitable for notebook use, said officials at AMD, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Similarly, Cyrix Corp. will release a mobile version of its MMX-enabled M2 in the second half of 1997. Cyrix and AMD claim their respective M2 and K6 processors will match Klamath, Intel's desktop version of the Pentium Pro with MMX.

But if the corporate need for MMX-based desktop applications is as small as many analysts predict, the market for MMX applications on a notebook will be even smaller.

"MMX is not as important to our customers as a larger internal cache to run business applications faster," said an executive at another OEM.

Some corporate users agree with that assessment. "I don't want to pay more [for an MMX notebook] until the business applications we run require it," said Don Spark, assistant vice president of audit at Protection Mutual Insurance Co., in Park Ridge, Ill.

Cyrix is banking on low demand for mobile MMX applications as it prepares to bring to market two non-MMX chips next year.

A mobile version of 6X86, which several independent testers have pegged at higher-than-Pentium performance, will be commercially available in the first quarter.

Later in the year, Cyrix, based in Richardson, Texas, will release its highly integrated GX86. The chip will combine PCI and memory controllers with 16-bit audio and graphics capability in a low-cost, single-chip solution.

"The GX86 is a very interesting product," said an official at another notebook OEM.

Intel officials were unavailable for comment.

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