Dissecting Intel's Centrino hype

Summary:It is almost impossible to judge whether or not any particular component is to blame for poor performance compared to an identically configured (but un-branded) machine.

David's experience with the HP representatives aside, this Centrino branding issue sounds like plain old marketing hype to me.

If you buy all "premium-priced" components and you buy them all from Intel, Intel will not blame another vendor because you are not happy with the performance of the system -- because they cannot! Further, if you pay less for Celeron you should expect less "performance". Whether you really use that extra "performance" you are paying for is another matter. Like my father always told me -- "You get what you pay for!" Of course, sometimes you are just paying for peace of mind. (Let's save this one for another discussion!)

The difficulty is that, short of component failure, it is almost impossible for the user to judge whether or not any particular component is to blame for poor performance compared to an identically configured (but un-branded) machine.

Let's look at the four points brought up by Ms. Grimes:

Processor "performance" is a function of processor design - although matching the processor with the chipset may play a role. Intel claims that Pentium-M is more efficient than Pentium-4 so equal work can get done at lower clock speeds -- thus lower power consumption. Probably true -- but does it matter? Ms. Grimes admits that this is only 30% of total power consumption in an "average" laptop configuration. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that "average" configuration means the base configuration of each model -- not the configuration actually purchased by the consumer! If this is the case, CPU power consumption might account for considerably less than 30% of the total.

Longer "battery life" is function of many things, not just the processor. In my experience, RAM and display power consumption are dramatically greater than any other single factor. Mishandling of laptop Li-Ion batteries also plays an important role in shortened battery life. (See http://batteryuniversity.com/ if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of this one!) If Ms. Grimes is correct that the Wi-Fi radio only accounts for 1% of the total power consumption, the overall hit from a non-name IEEE-compliant 802.11b/g radio cannot be too significant -- especially since the biggest factor in radio power consumption is broadcast range, which is defined by the standard.

Ms. Grimes third point is a demand for "thinner and lighter form factors" -- "thinner and lighter" usually means that one has to give up features such as internal drives and extra RAM. Fewer drives ought to give you more time on the battery -- but battery capacity is usually reduced as well to reduce weight ever further.

Yes, "built-in wireless" is the big selling point in Centrino, but once the socket is there, does it really matter whose IEEE-compliant radio is installed? David says "no" and, as I read their dialogue, Ms. Grimes says "maybe". Apparently three top-tier OEMs (Dell, HP, IBM/Lenovo) agree with David or they would not risk the fallout from unhappy customers by using non-Intel components in their Intel systems. As I see it, the price-points they have chosen for the Centrino components does not indicate quality as much as it indicates how badly the OEM wants you to buy Centrino instead of the brand they have chosen to provide by default. This is clearly a business decision, not a technical one.

To be fair to Ms. Grimes, Intel's claim that they cannot test the interoperability of every combination of processor, chipset, and radio is true enough. Just the same, OEMs do test the interoperability of the components they ship with their systems. If they did not, they would have no way to judge the quality of the products they are shipping.

Topics: Hardware

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