Banias: The mobile chip to beat?

Intel moves beyond "recycled" desktop chips with its upcoming mobile-only, low-power Banias, which should please notebook users and give competitors a headache, says one industry analyst.

This is the first time Intel has designed a platform specifically to reduce power consumption, not for raw performance, Tom Halfhill, senior analyst at Microdesign Resources, said at the Microprocessor Forum on Tuesday.

"Intel's mobile x86 processors have been recycled desktop CPUs," Halfhill said. High performance was the design key. By tweaking and shrinking the process, Intel could create mobile processors for notebooks, but usually with a lag of at least 12 months, he said.

Intel has designed Banias--due out in 2003--as a mobile platform from the start, he said. The company has incorporated the best of its Pentium III and Pentium 4 technologies to make a chip that offers good performance and low power operation.

Mobility Optimized

When Intel decided to build Banias, its engineers' first challenge was how to boost mobile PC performance without increasing power consumption, said Mooly Eden, general manager of Intel's Israel Design Center.

To tackle the problem, Intel took a design approach that would maximize performance within a given power envelope. To do so, the company mapped out four focus areas: performance, battery life, wireless connectivity, and form factor, he said.

Banias is not just a chip, Eden emphasized. Intel considers it a new platform made up of a new chip, chip set, and wireless technology, he said.

The processor part of Banias is designed to achieve better mobile chip performance through improved branch prediction, larger cache and data buffering, streaming SIMD Extensions 2, and improved chip sets (code-named Odem and Montera), Eden said. The processor's target average power is less than 1 watt.

Intel also hopes to improve battery life by enhancing its venerable SpeedStep technology, improving its mobile voltage positioning technology, and implementing a power-optimized cache and bus, he said.

Wireless connectivity will be key in Banias-based systems, and the platform itself will enable wide-area networks, local-area networks, and personal-area networks, he said. Banias notebooks will likely offer 802.11a and 802.11b connectivity, and lower average power for all wireless applications.

Finally, the chip's lower power requirements will create less heat, allowing vendors to create notebooks less than one inch thick running on smaller, lighter batteries than ever before, he said.

Gunning for Crusoe

Intel's decision to create Banias was clearly a response to Transmeta's entry into the mobile processor market in 2000, according to analyst Halfhill. Transmeta's hype-filled launch of the low-power Crusoe clearly got Intel's attention.

Transmeta promised all-day computing on a single battery charge. The company hasn't quite delivered that--its capacity is more like six hours--and its chips continue to underperform Intel's on a per-clock-cycle basis, he said. However, Transmeta won some converts, and the Crusoe proved low-power consumption was something people wanted.

If Banias performs as Intel promises, however, Transmeta could be in trouble. If Intel's new chip performs notably better, and provides comparable power consumption, Crusoe could end up as just a low-cost Intel alternative, Halfill said.

And Banias could sting Advanced Micro Devices too, he said. While Crusoe will continue to compete with Banias in the area of power consumption, AMD's mobile chips (based on its desktop processors) will have to compete on performance alone since they lack serious low-power capabilities.

The problem for AMD: The company's desktop chips are falling behind the P4 in clock rates. That means the mobile chips will be hard pressed to keep up, he said.

Intel's Eden wouldn't offer specifics on the expected performance of Banias, but he noted that users "will be surprised."

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Tom Mainelli

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