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AST LAPTOP IS FIRST WITHOUT INTEL CHIP Advance Micro processor offers 25 percent faster performance


AST Research Inc., one of the leading makers of notebook computers, recently introduced a new model that analysts said will be one of the fastest notebook PCs on the market.

The AST Premium Exec 386SX/25 is the first brand-name notebook based on a new microprocessor built by Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Until now, all of the major brands of high-performance, IBM PC-compatible notebook computers have been based on the i386SX microprocessor built by Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

Advanced Micro, based in Sunnydale, Calif., went to court to affirm its right to build its own version of the Intel chip, and subsequently produced a processor that is faster and more energy-efficient than Intel's.

The AST Premium Exec 386SX/25 has a basic list price of $4,795, which includes 4 megabytes of system memory, an 80-megabyte hard disk, a bright VGA-level display, a 3.5-inch diskette drive and the usual assortment of ports.

The computer weighs 7.3 pounds, which is at least 2 pounds heavier than a notebook computer ought to be, but it conforms to the standard notebook dimensions of 11 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep.

AST officials said the new notebook would be widely available later this month.

A key question is whether consumers will care that the central processor in the AST Premium Exec 386SX/25 is made by Advanced Micro instead of Intel, since, by all other measures, the AST notebook either matches or surpasses the features of other notebook PCs.

"I don't think so," said Bruce A. Stephen, director of PC hardware research for the International Data Corp., a computer industry marketing and research company based in Framingham, Mass. "There have been other AMD chips on the market and it doesn't seem to have hampered sales. People look at things like price, and the feature set."

Mr. Stephen noted the sales of millions of 80286-based (AT-class) desktop personal computers that were based on Advanced Micro or Harris Corp. chips, made under license to Intel.

Basically, the only way to tell the difference between an Intel 286-based machine and a non-Intel machine has been to peek at the chip itself. Otherwise, in terms of performance, the user cannot tell the difference, except when the non-Intel chips are faster.

The raw speed of a microprocessor is measured in megahertz, or millions of cycles a second. Any IBM AT-compatible computer with a rated speed greater than 12 MHz uses a non-Intel chip, since Intel quit making the chip at 12 megahertz.

Similarly, Intel has said it will not make the i386SX chip faster than 20 MHz. The Am386SXL chip used in the new AST notebook is rated at 25 MHz, yielding 25 percent faster performance.

"You can't get the equivalent level of performance out of an Intel part," said Dean A. McCarron, vice president of technology for In-stat Inc., a semiconductor industry market research company in Scottsdale, Ariz. "If a user's concern is performance, they're going to look for the AMD part."

Why is 25 percent faster performance important? For most notebook users the extra speed is largely gratuitous. But for the increasing number of users who use Microsoft's Windows operating system, faster is always better. Windows is sluggish on slower chips.

The Am386SXL chip also uses less power than the Intel chip, which early testers said results in longer operation on a single battery charge. AST claims a battery life of three hours, as against an average of two hours for most other 386SX-based notebooks.

Although Intel dismisses Advanced Micro as a copycat, it has begun an aggressive advertising campaign based on the slogan "Intel Inside."

It is encouraging computer makers to use the slogan on their i386- and i486-based machines to differentiate them from otherwise identical computers built around the Advanced Micro chip. Advanced Micro is the only company besides Intel to make 386-level chips.

It is unclear whether any other major computer makers will adopt the Am386SXL chip, although an Advanced Micro spokesman said that "we expect virtually every major computer maker to use one or more members of the AMD 386 family" by the end of this year or early next year.

Intel has essentially said that its own i286, i386 and i386SX chips are obsolete, although millions of computer buyers apparently have not gotten the message. Intel is aggressively promoting its i486 and i486SX chips, which it alone makes.

Advanced Micro recently filed a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Intel, asserting that Intel pressured its customers to buy Intel 386 chips as a precondition for buying the new i486 and i486SX chips. Intel officials angrily denied the assertion.

Andy Grove, Intel's chairman, called Advanced Micro the Milli Vanilli of semiconductor companies, a reference to the once-popular performers who merely moved their lips in synchronization with the recordings of real singers. With its Am386SXL chip, Advanced Micro appears to be saying "read my lips" to Intel.

AST Research is based in Irvine, Calif., and can be reached at (714) 727-4141.

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