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Laptops: AMD Gets Inside


Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has done well in getting its processors into servers and desktop PCs. But except for some large laptops used as desktop replacements, the mobile market has been all Intel (INTC) inside. Now the company is fighting its way into notebooks with a new chip, the Turion 64, that may be, at least briefly, the most advanced mobile chip around.

Turion's debut comes at a time of unusual turmoil in the mobile-chip business. Notebook sales have been strong, and supplies of Intel's Pentium M processor, also known as Centrino, are tight. Laptop manufacturers report that quotas on some Pentium M chips have forced them to trim production. What's more, Intel is planning a major change in mobile-processor technology just months before Microsoft (MSFT) plans to launch its long-awaited Windows update, code-named Longhorn. All of this spells considerable confusion for consumers in coming months.

AMD is aiming the Turion 64 at the heart of Intel's mobile market -- thin, light notebooks that are popular with business buyers and consumers alike. But corporate reluctance to use a new processor will limit sales of Turion-powered notebooks primarily to consumer and small and midsize business markets.

OF THE BIG THREE U.S. LAPTOP MAKERS, only Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has committed to Turion. And while Acer and other Taiwanese manufacturers will also produce Turion notebooks, the HP Compaq NX6125 is a good showcase for the technology. It weighs about 6 lbs. and is a hair under 11/4-in. thick with a 15-in. display. The $1,249 model that I tested comes with a built-in fingerprint reader, 512 megabytes of memory, a 60-MB hard drive, and a bit under four hours of battery life. It would serve the small and midsize businesses that are its target market well, and it is also a solid choice for students or home users who want a computer more for worklike chores than for entertainment.

But what about the AMD chip itself? I don't think there's any reason users should care what brand of processor is in a PC as long as it performs well. If it weren't for a Turion 64 sticker in place of the familiar Centrino butterfly, probably no one would know the difference. That's important to keep in mind because soon you are going to be hearing a lot of confusing pronouncements about mobile technology from both Intel and AMD.

The "64" in the Turion name indicates that the processor can handle programs and data 64 bits at a time, vs. 32 bits for the Pentium M. Having a 64-bit processor may become more important once Microsoft ships Longhorn late next year, but for now it won't buy you much. In fact, laptop makers plan to ship their Turion 64 models with the 32-bit Windows XP -- not the 64-bit version that Microsoft recently released -- because XP 64 is not yet compatible with some accessories and software. This means the Turion chip will stay in a 32-bit mode where, fortunately, it still performs well.

Intel's next laptop trick will be "dual core" Pentiums that combine two processors on one chip. Dual-core desktop PCs using Intel's Pentium D or AMD's Athlon 64 X2 have just started to ship. But Intel's dual-core laptop chip, code-named Yonah, won't be out until early 2006. To further confuse matters, the Pentium D contains a pair of 64-bit processors, but Yonah will stick with 32 bits.

Again, what matters to users is performance, not the technology. In theory a dual-core processor should do much better at simultaneous tasks, such as watching a movie while scanning for viruses. But the real-world benefits will depend on how well available software utilizes a two-headed chip. I'll be reporting soon on dual-core desktops. Meanwhile, the good news is that today's speedy processors -- either Intel's or AMD's 64-bit or 32-bit -- are more than adequate to power any notebook.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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