Intel, IBM and Cadence are seeing whether lightweight mobile workstations are a practical reality with a pilot program for chip designers that takes advantage of the Pentium M's high performance with low-power consumption.

The program comes a month after Intel said it would base all its future chips on the Pentium M architecture rather than the more power-hungry Pentium 4.

Semiconductor design is a painstaking task that has traditionally required design engineers to depend on powerful Unix workstations to get their work done, said Kelly Perey, vice president of marketing for Cadence - which develops software apps for chip design.

But as more and more chip companies expand their operations around the world, the benefits of mobility become easy to understand, said Guru Bhatia, general manager of engineering computing at Intel. Engineers need to have access to their corporate network to access changes made by fellow engineers to the central design plan, he said.

Chip designers at Intel, IBM, and National Semiconductor are currently testing IBM's ThinkPad T42p mobile workstation with Intel's newest Pentium M 745 and 735 processors and Cadence's design software, said Tom Holt, IBM's director of global electronics.

The mobile workstations are custom designs that can run Linux or Windows, Holt said. The workstations can ship with both operating systems if the customer requests, he said.

The increased cache of the new Pentium M processors meant it could handle the requirements of Cadence's software, said Udi Landen, vice president of operations. Dothan, the 90-nanometer version of the Pentium M unveiled last month, contains twice as much Level 2 cache as its predecessor. Frequently accessed data is stored in a processor's cache close to the CPU for quick and easy access.

Intel's Pro/Wireless chip allows design engineers to connect to their corporate networks from wireless hot spots to download design changes or new design criteria, Landen said. Intel is in the process of finalizing its Linux drivers for the wireless chips and early workstations will ship with beta drivers, an Intel spokeswoman said.

Chip companies interested in trying out the mobile workstations can contact one of the three companies involved, Holt said. Pricing for the workstations will vary greatly depending on the number ordered and the specific configurations requested by the customer, he said. The T42p cost $3,409 when it was introduced in May without Cadence's software.

The mobile workstation is not a new concept. But mobile workstations of the past were usually very large and heavy due to the thermal shields required to protect the notebook from the heat dissipated by powerful processors. The Pentium M chip was designed to limit power consumption while still delivering high levels of performance.