Why you need a new Centrino 2 laptop

15th Jul 2008 | 08:00

Why you need a new Centrino 2 laptop

Centrino 2 is launched today. Why should you buy Intel’s new baby?

Centrino 2's progress towards the market has bumpy. Originally slated for release over a month ago, problems with Intel's new integrated wireless and graphics hardware forced delays. Even so, Centrino 2 – formerly known as Montevina, and released today – looks like it will be worth the wait.

Intel's Centrino brand – of which this is the fifth update – has always operated as a trinity: a processor, a chipset, and a wireless device. The new version sticks with the enormously successful formula – the big changes lie within the components.

Codename Cantiga

There's a new chipset – the GM45, codenamed Cantiga. The new chipset allows for a maximum frontside bus of 1,066MHz, up from 800MHz with Santa Rosa, Centrino's previous version. Besides supporting Intel's new Penryn-class processors, Cantiga will support DDR3 RAM for the first time in laptops.

Performance tests with DDR3 RAM in desktop machines has shown precious little speed increase for the extra cash, however, so it may be that DDR3 RAM may take a few years before becoming widely-available. One reason that it may do in laptops is the promise of more speed for less power.

Intel's new CPUs for Montevina follow its "tick-tock" approach. The Penryn-class CPUs set for release with Montevina are a relatively straightforward die-shrink of existing CPUs – the "tock" will follow next year with Nehalem chips.

The new Penryns are an interesting group, though: Centrino 2 processors will have up to 6MB of L2 cache to share between two cores, while the quad-core processors set to arrive later this year will share a staggering 12MB between four cores. Crucially, the new CPUs are going to be very easy on batteries. Intel is talking about a TDP (Thermal Design Power) of 25W becoming the "new norm" – current desktop chips typically run at 35W, but three of the standard Centrino 2 CPUs – the P9500, P8600 and P8400 – run at 25W, despite decent core clock speeds of 2.53GHz, 2.40GHz and 2.26GHz. Intel is even providing some competition for its own, ultra-low power Atom CPUs – the 1.2GHz Core Solo U3300 is the coolest-running Penryn chip in the group at just 5.5W.

All the Penryn chips support a range of power-saving capabilities, from selectively shutting down unused parts of the chip, to a deeper-sleep mode, allowing a laptop to use a negligible amount of power when in standby mode, but still letting it spring to life when needed.

Restricted mobility

The other end of the scale holds Intel's mobile quad-core chips. The upcoming 2.53GHz QX9300 will have 12MB cache, and while it's safe to say that its TDP (thermal design power) will be depressing for those looking to use their laptop on the train, its performance is going to be impressive. Whether users – particularly undemanding consumers – want quad-core capabilities from their laptops remains to be seen.

The new range of processors is impressive, but Intel's plans for WiMAX domination are just as ambitious. Centrino has always had wireless networking at its heart, but Centrino 2 comes with implicit support for WiMAX technology. Codenamed "Echo Peak", Intel's new chip integrates both WiMAX and 802.l1a/b/g technology onto the same component.

The upshot is less power consumption and a smaller physical footprint, as well as the obvious plus of being able to connect to WiMAX networks, which an Intel whitepaper claims will be capable of 4Mb/s uploading and up to 10Mb/s downloading. You should note, though, the use of "up to", and that WiMAX has yet to capture the imagination of the public.

It doesn't match 802.11 technologies for speed, and it can't match the wide-range of 3G and HSDPA networks, some of which already claim maximum download speeds of 7.1Mb/s. It's possible that the inclusion of 3G network compatibility would have been a more crowd-pleasing choice, but Intel is pinning its colours to the WiMAX mast, and it's possible that if enough users have WiMAX chips, service providers will follow with WiMAX networks.

Echo Peak follows

A bigger problem is that Echo Peak won't be available from the launch of Centrino 2: it's set to follow in a few months. In the meantime – and in the longer run for those who don't need WiMAX hardware at all, Intel's new "Shirley Peak" chips will supply 802.11a/b/draft-n, with the pre-release marketing unsurprisingly claiming record speed and range.

Centrino 2 will also come with Blu-ray support. Plenty of laptops sport Blu-ray drives, but Intel claims that its new X4500 will reduce the load on the CPU when playing back high-definition video. In theory, this will mean better overall system performance when watching films, and longer battery times when watching HD films.

In concert with the new 25W processors, Centrino 2 is shaping up to be the technology of choice for roving Blu-ray aficionados. Besides supporting DirectX 10, the X4500 has support for DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Intel claims the new chip is three times faster than the outgoing GMA3100, and while that doesn't mean you'll be playing Crysis at its most beautiful on an ultra-portable, there will be thousands of games already available which will run.

Coming soon...

So where can you get one? It's early days for Centrino 2, and the most fully-featured systems – laptops with DisplayPort, WiMAX, DDR3 RAM and quad-core processors are still some way off. But early adopters will be nonetheless spoiled for choice. HP has already announced the Centrino 2 EliteBook, and Sony will announce its first Centrino 2 range tonight. It's fair to expect every major notebook OEM to have Centrino 2 products before long – we'll cover them as they become available.

AMD has been quiet in the notebook stakes – Intel's Core 2 offerings have been extremely strong, but it may be hoping that Intel's Centrino 2 delays will be the forebears of bigger problems. AMD's offering is Puma, a Centrino-like collection of technologies.

Its Turion processors offer similar TDPs to Penryn chips, such as the ZM-86, which has a clock speed of 2.4GHz and a TDP of 35W. AMD's great strength over Intel – potentially, at least – is the graphical know-how it acquired when it bought AMD in 2006. Its problem is that Intel's Centrino brand is a modern-day colossus, and Intel's 45nm, 25W CPUs retain the technical edge.

So should you rush out now, credit card in hand? If you're after what many would consider the most important improvements in mobile computing – those of mobile performance and battery life – Intel should be of to a flying start with its processor releases. If you're after the bonuses – such as HD playback and WiMAX capabilities – a wait of a few months will give us a much clearer picture.

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