Notebooks: No longer the PC's ugly stepsister

Notebooks: No longer the PC's ugly stepsister

By Michael Cheek

GCN Staff

The notebook computer has never been quite powerful enough to break free of stepchild status in the enterprise.

Even Cinderella eventually made it to the ball, and the notebook also appears destined for a happy-ever-after ending as an enterprise citizen.

Mobile computers will take the spotlight next year as enterprise management tools latch on to them and as processing power speeds to the Pentium III level.

Leading the way in this shift is Gateway Inc., a company that had not been a portable systems vanguard for some time. Compaq Computer Corp. is close on its heels, and the other leading notebook makers are distant followers.

In the Solo 3150, Gateway has integrated both a network adapter and a 56-Kbps modem. The notebook can connect in the office or on the road without using up a single PC Card slot. Compaq plans to add an integrated network adapter to its notebooks, which already integrate modems, but that won't happen until later this year.

The government's ever-growing mobile work force needs communication devices as much as free PC Card slots for other devices, such as Fortezza Type II encryption cards and flash memory.

One notebook maker recently told me that the trend has been coming for a while, but that putting modems and network adapters into smaller, lighter cases turned out to be fairly difficult.

Revision time

When Intel Corp. introduces its 600-MHz mobile Pentium III processors later this year, many notebook makers will revise their designs to integrate the communication devices. Like Compaq, they hope the Mini-PCI industry standard will take off.

In the past, integrating a modem or network adapter meant a notebook maker had to go to a communications company to figure out how to make all the hardware, much of it proprietary, work together.

The Mini-PCI standard lets notebooks, modems or network adapters developed separately come together quickly. New modems or adapters can become part of existing designs; new notebooks accept older comm devices.

Both Gateway and Compaq were part of the standards board that developed Mini-PCI, along with Dell Computer Corp. and 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

The biggest thing that portables need, however, is horsepower similar to that of desktop PCs. Earlier this summer, Intel started making mobile Pentium II chips by its 0.18-micron process. Previous processors were etched by a 0.25-micron process.

The smaller process means the chip runs faster and needs less energy'two important requirements of mobile users.

Another technology coming next year from Intel just might boost the all-important battery life even more than the smaller fabrication process.

Say you're on a plane typing a memo. Do you really need 600 MHz of Pentium III processing power? To conserve energy, the processor will throttle down to perhaps the equivalent of a 400-MHz Pentium II. The 30 percent loss in processing power could double the savings in power drain.

The technology, code-named Geyserville, will make new processors smarter about saving power, even putting them to sleep between keystrokes. How many people can type at 400 MHz anyhow?

Now, let's talk heft.

Notebook makers admit that thin and light is forever in vogue, even for the so-called desktop replacement portable that sometimes weighs as much as 9 pounds. New desktop replacements will slim down to 7 pounds, but most new notebooks will hover in the 5- to 6-pound range, with ultraportables or subnotebooks at 4 pounds or even less.

Compaq recently introduced a new moniker for desktop PC replacements'the workstation-class notebook. Maybe that will catch on in some circles. But I'm waiting for the next big innovation: the portable server.

Don't laugh. Some military units already install Microsoft Windows NT Server on 9-pound desktop PC replacements to run networks in the field.

And government organizations aren't the only ones needing full enterprise capability on the road.

The Pentium III will make decent workgroup-class portable servers possible, especially if Microsoft Corp. gets a working NT successor out the door early next year.

The notebook won't be a stepchild for much longer'probably not much longer than it takes to say Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo correctly.

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