Mobile PC users take note



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1 April 2005 | 0

Lighter, faster, cheaper and more easily connected — today’s business notebooks have evolved considerably in the 12 months since ComputerScope last carried out its notebooks roadtest.

What a difference a year makes! In June 2002, you could expect to pay more than EUR3,000 for a reasonably powerful machine and you would be lucky to get away with paying less than EUR2,000 for an entry-level model. And at that price there would be some serious performance tradeoffs to be made in the areas of processor options, disk capacity and screen size.

Today you can get an infinitely more powerful machine for less than EUR2,500; the trade-off between portability and performance is less pronounced and wireless networking is fast becoming a standard option. There are also exciting new formats such as the Tablet PC which promises to make handwriting and speech input a genuine business option after a decade of false dawns.

Much of the size and performance benefits can be put down to the emergence of Intel’s Centrino technology, a chipset designed specifically for mobile computers that combines low-power high-performance processing and wireless networking capability. Independent tests conducted at InfoWorld’s test labs in the US indicate that Centrino results in longer battery life and better ease of wireless connection. Cynics may say that it is yet another example of the Wintel world catching up with innovations made earlier by Apple Computer, but for the vast majority of computer users who have never touched a Macintosh in their lives, that is a moot point.




Centrino Inside?

Intel is promoting Centrino with a worldwide marketing campaign of such force that it has been likened to the ‘Intel Inside’ initiative of a decade ago. To qualify for the Centrino logo, a notebook has to contain Intel’s Pro/Wireless 2100 circuitry. But wireless is not integrated into the Pentium M CPU or the accompanying 855 chipset family. Pro/Wireless 2100 is a separate component set that computer makers can choose to use or swap out in favour of wireless LAN chips from other suppliers.

Intel does 802.11b well, especially with regard to Windows system software. But the Centrino brand only covers the 11Mbit/s 802.11b. Intel’s other wireless products support the 54Mbit/s 802.11a standard. Another yet to be ratified standard is 802.11g, which is attracting interest as a fast alternative to 802.11b.

Centrino’s wireless component looks dated for having failed to support one of these two high-speed approaches. It is likely that many computer makers will opt out of using Intel’s wireless chips, even though it means eschewing the massive marketing support that the chip maker is throwing behind the Centrino logo.

In addition to Pro/Wireless 2100, Intel requires either the 855PM or 855GM chipset for the Centrino logo. Notebook makers are unlikely to opt out of this component; it’s a perfect fit for the Pentium M processor. The 400MHz bus provides a desktop-speed channel between the processor and memory, graphics, and I/O.

Computer makers that put out smaller machines, including Tablet PCs and subnotebooks, will take advantage of the 855GM, which has an integrated display adapter. But most importantly, the 855 chipset can power down battery-hungry components when they’re not needed. What the Pentium M processor does with its time off is as important as how well it performs.

Power down Pentium

Centrino’s Pentium M processor is based on a substantially improved Pentium III core. Unlike any Intel CPU before it, the Pentium M is capable of a variety of complex reduced-power states. During fluctuations in software’s demand for compute resources, Pentium M can alter its operating voltage and clock speed up and down over a series of steps. The CPU can also drift into one of several sleep states to further reduce power drain.

For the most part, the notebooks described here are more powerful and much cheaper than the machines we reviewed last year. The ever reducing price of mobile computing may be explained glibly as another manifestation of Moore’s Law, namely that the processing capacity of a given piece of silicon will double every 18 months or so, but that doesn’t explain the significant fall in the actual price of notebooks as opposed to an increase in price/performance.

Whatever the reason, the choice of notebook computers available to the business user today is broad and compelling; the prices at which they are offered, even more so. Have fun.


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