Intel to take low-power concerns beyond chips

The program, still under wraps by Intel, will create power consumption guidelines for the makers of monitors, fans, drives, and other laptop components, and will establish a budget for power consumption in all future Intel-based laptops, according to an Intel source.

Scheduled to begin later this year, the ambitious program will mark a major step towards realising Intel's vision of a full-size notebook computer that can run all day on a single battery charge.

"It stems from an earlier initiative called Power 97," the source said. "Intel has over 10 years of experience in the low-power processor field, and we want to take that same logic and apply it to monitors, etc."

Since last year's introduction of the first low-power Intel Mobile Pentium III SpeedStep processors, company officials have repeatedly said that power-saving chips are only part of the overall low-power equation. Certain Intel mobile chips may use only a few watts of power, but the surrounding components push overall power consumption past the 20-watt mark.

Because of this, Intel intends to scour every part of a laptop computer in an effort to save as many unnecessary watts of power as it can find.

"We're going to work with graphics vendors; we'll factor integrated wireless devices into the [mobile computing] power budget; we'll even factor in CD-ROMs and other drives, asking questions like 'do they need to power up at the same time the operating system boots?' " the source said.

Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linley Group believes that Intel's plans are timely but questions how effective such a program might be.

"With the growing popularity of mobile computing, Intel has more interest in the mobile side and is putting more resources into mobile," said Gwennap, who agrees that power savings in mobile computers is an overall system issue.

"I think that in terms of saying 'here are the design techniques you can use to reduce power' Intel's plan is pretty much benign. People do it or they don't," Gwennap said. For Intel to see real results in mobile power savings, the company may have to simply engineer better chip sets "to control systems and regulate power usage," Gwennap said.

Who will toe the line?

Within the initiative, Intel has not ruled out the creation of a mobile computing standards body, the source said. Whether or not the chipmaker will be able to flex adequate muscle to steer laptop component manufacturers remains to be seen.

"I think you could give manufacturers a certain [power budget] envelope to work within, but I don't think Intel could say 'you have to do this,' " said Stacey Wu, an analyst at Mobile Insights.

Unlike PCs, laptop computers already rely on narrow design specifications to achieve their form factors, and what little room is left to accommodate added features such as LED readouts, back-lighting, and speaker systems add important differentiation in a competitive market, Wu said.

Uncontrollable differentiation across laptop models from all types of vendors has worked against Intel's goal of all-day battery life, according to the Intel source.

"The power requirements [of laptops] has increased 10 per cent over just the last few years," the source said.

Also in the last few years, Intel has begun to face pressure in the low-power chip space from competitors such as Advanced Micro Devices and Transmeta. AMD's low-power Mobile Athlon processors with PowerNow compete directly with Intel's Pentium III SpeedStep processors in the PC-replacement laptop space. Transmeta, maker of the low-power Crusoe processor, has its sights focused on relatively light-duty, sub-2kg laptops.

Wu says Intel is on the right track with its thinking and that the company should take a leadership position in pushing for lower power consumption, but Wu doesn't feel Intel will reach its goal of all-day battery life in a PC-replacement notebook without sacrificing performance.

"Power consumption is out of control," Wu said. "And based on today's technology, there will have to be a sacrifice in performance if you really want low power."

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Dan Neel

PC World

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