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Notes from Intel's Centrino 2 launch


Montevina for the masses
— 5:31 PM on July 16, 2008

At Intel's Centrino 2 launch, one of the guests asked Mooly Eden, Intel's Vice President and General Manager of its Mobile Platforms Group, "technically this is the fifth generation of Centrino, so why is this one Centrino 2?" The answer, to paraphrase, was that Intel wanted the consumer to know that this is the new stuff. In some ways it is, and one can appreciate Intel's desire to make what amounts to a clean break from the previous four Centrino generations and start fresh.


The fundamental definition of Centrino hasn't changed since its inception; the platform continues to be made up of CPU, chipset, and wireless networking components. In Centrino 2, the processor remains a Core 2 Duo, this time with a 45nm Penryn, up to 6MB of L2 cache, and a 1066MHz front-side bus. The chipset and the wireless networking are the new hotness: Intel's skipped a generation (at least as far as nomenclature is concerned) with the Intel Mobile 45 Express chipset, which brings support for DDR3 to the mobile sector. The wireless component has also been updated to Intel's WiFi Link 5000, which offers support for 802.11n networking. WiMax support is expected in the second half of this year, as well.

Centrino 2's Penryn
Meet the new Penryn, same as the old Penryn. Centrino 2's 45 Express chipset brings the front-side bus up to 1066MHz, but other than that, this is the same Penryn we've already been playing with for months.

Leading the mobile Penryn pack is a Core 2 Extreme X9100 processor, which runs at a blistering 3.06GHz on a 1066MHz front-side bus. This chip is intended for hard-core gaming machines, and was demonstrated on a notebook running Assassin's Creed fluidly utilizing a pair of Mobility Radeons in Crossfire.

If two cores aren't enough for you, Eden let slip that a mobile quad-core CPU will appear before the end of the year with a TDP of just 45W. This chip may have been the most exciting thing announced at the Centrino 2 launch event, although the move to a 1066MHz front-side bus is certainly interesting. With that, Intel's mobile processors are finally up to speed with the first generation of Core 2 Duo desktop CPUs—with the addition of SSE4 support, a 45nm Penryn core, and roughly half the power consumption. That's no small feat considering that the X9100 is roughly as fast as many desktop Penryns already on the market.

The Mobile 45 Express chipset
With the Mobile 45 Express chipset comes the aforementioned support for 1066MHz front-side bus speeds, along with DDR3 memory and GM45 mobile integrated graphics.

DDR3 has struggled to make inroads on the desktop due to its high price when compared with DDR2, and that blunts the appeal of DDR3 support in the Mobile 45. However, DDR3's lower default voltage should be an attractive attribute for mobile applications, and the Mobile 45 should get the memory type's foot in the door with notebook makers. Intel didn't focus much on the chipset's DDR3 support in its presentation, relegating it to little more than a bullet-point.

Possibly the most interesting element of the mobile 45 express chipset is the GM45—an integrated graphics part that Intel claims offers 70% greater performance than its predecessor in 3DMark06. The X3100 acquitted itself reasonably well in 3DMark06, but unfortunately marred that success with poor or inconsistent performance in actual games, including a need to implement registry hacks to optimize performance with certain titles. The GM45's performance was actually demonstrated on two machines running World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, but Intel's choice of competition was a curious one. Rather than running the GM45 side by side against the X3100, Intel chose to showcase it against the older GMA 950. The GM45 showed a threefold performance improvement, but going from 5 to 15 frames per second isn't setting the world on fire, even if it was running at what appeared to be 1280x800 with medium detail levels.

While it's hard to get too excited about the GM45's gaming potential, Intel has introduced a "switchable" graphics feature that will allow the chipset's integrated graphics component to better complement a discrete GPU. As its name implies, switchable graphics allows users to switch a notebook's graphics output seamlessly between discrete graphics chips that should offer superior gaming performance and the GM45, which should be more power-efficient for video playback and desktop applications.

Intel has also beefed up the graphics component's video decoding capabilities to better compete with AMD's 780G and Nvidia's GeForce 8300. The GM45 features full hardware decode acceleration and post-processing for high-definition video. Eden estimated that the GM45 was capable of providing at least two hours of Blu-ray playback on a single battery charge, although actual run times will of course depend on how the rest of a notebook is configured.

Wi-Fi Link 5000 series
Intel's WiFi Link 5000 wireless networking brings with it full support for 802.11n, claiming speeds of up to 450Mbps. This new card is being offered in a smaller form factor to allow for integration into ever-shrinking ultraportables, such as the MacBook Air.

The eventual integration of WiMax into the WiFi Link 5000 is perhaps the most intriguing element to the component. However, the actual WiMax segment of the presentation was largely much ado about nothing. It's hard to get terribly excited about WiMax when the best example provided is the eventual wiring of Baltimore, which according to XOHM's (Sprint Nextel's WiMax brand) president, won't be up until some time in September

As for whether or not the forthcoming Wi-Fi/WiMax cards will be compatible with the Centrino 2 notebooks already en route, Eden was hesitant to grant the full thumbs up, stating that while support was likely, forward compatibility is tricky stuff.

vPro
Intel has bifurcated the Centrino 2 line into Centrino 2 for consumers and Centrino 2 vPro for enterprise and SMB (small and medium business) sectors. vPro adds some fairly interesting wireless remote management technology, including the ability to deploy patches and updates from anywhere, even if the client computer is actually turned off. Unfortunately, the demonstration of that technology was thwarted by a BSOD. It's promising, though, and if the kinks are worked out, the ability to power up a computer remotely to patch and update could be a boon for IT managers.

A few words from AMD
Prior to attending the Centrino 2 launch, I received a call from an AMD representative intending to steal a little thunder from Intel. AMD was quick to point out that notebooks based on its new Puma platform are already in circulation, and while this is correct, there don't appear to be many of them. A quick jaunt to Best Buy's website reveals two Puma-based HP models available. There are also a couple of Toshibas updated with die-shrunk 690G chipsets and what appear to be rebadged Turions, but as far as Radeon HD 3200-equipped Pumas go, it's just the two HPs. A visit to Newegg doesn't improve the Puma availability outlook, either. So while AMD did beat Intel to market with its new platform, Puma has hardly swamped retail shelves.

One thing AMD definitely has over Intel is the Radeon HD 3200, which features the same HD acceleration capabilities as the GM45, with the added benefit of what should be superior 3D performance and better game support. Sure, the 3200 is just an integrated graphics core, but its performance rivals that of budget discrete graphics cards.