Intel chimes in on ZDNet slam of Centrino brand

Intel chimes in on ZDNet slam of Centrino brand

Summary: Intel spokesperson Barbara Grimes has never let me get away with my criticisms of her company's Centrino wireless brand unscathed.  Dating back to 2003, I asked if a Centrino is a must have or whether a simple Pentium M would do.


Intel spokesperson Barbara Grimes has never let me get away with my criticisms of her company's Centrino wireless brand unscathed.  Dating back to 2003, I asked if a Centrino is a must have or whether a simple Pentium M would do.  Then, later that year, I wrote that Intel's Wi-Fi campaign still included a pitch that I found to be disingenuous.  I warned again that buyers should beware of the Centrino brand earlier this year and then remarked that the Centrino brand might actually start living up to Intel's claims based on some new work that Intel was doing at the chip level.   However, I may have been a bit premature in throwing Intel that bone.  ZDNet blogger George Ou pointed me to a story on Tom's Networking that discusses how Intel isn't the only one working at the chip level and that a competing Wi-Fi maker (Atheros) is actually ahead (timeframe-wise) of Intel on a similar technology. 

Then, last week, in my coverage of AMD's lawsuit against Intel (see Can AMD break the Intel code of silence?), I dredged up the issue again.  I talked about how system manufacturers that gave buyers the option of going with a Pentium-M/Intel chipset-based notebook with an Intel Wi-Fi radio (qualifies as Centrino system) or with a third-party radio (doesn't qualify as a Centrino system) were loath to discuss with me any performance comparisons between the two.  They knew what I was after, agreed with me in principle, but made it clear to me that they weren't interested in being the ones to publicly provide the smoking gun.  So, while Grimes made it clear that she had absolutely no comment on AMD's case versus Intel, she did want to respond to my continued assertions that Centrino-compliance isn't nearly as important as compliance with the various 802.11 Wi-Fi specifications.  

In response, via e-mail, Grimes wrote:

Our research has consistently told us that mobile PC users care most about four things: 1) performance, 2) battery life, 3) thinner & lighter form factors, and 4) built-in wireless capability. We conceived of Intel Centrino mobile technology to deliver on those four requirements. The idea of the brand is to give customers a simple, straightforward way to identify laptops that deliver the four things they care about most in buying a mobile PC.
My understanding of your objection is that you feel that the wireless component does not contribute to Centrino's great battery life, so it shouldn't be part of the brand. I see a couple flaws in this thinking. First, the wireless component DOES contribute to the platform battery life (certainly not as significantly as the processor or chipset, but it does nonetheless).

But just how much does it contribute? In a separate e-mail, Grimes wrote:

In an average laptop configuration, the processor and chipset together make up more than 30% of the platform's power consumption, and the wireless LAN makes up 1%.

In addressing why vendors may have refused to discuss how Intel's radio's compared to those of other manufacturers, Grimes offered this explanation:

Perhaps the reason vendors have not provided you with battery life comparisons between Intel and non-Intel wireless configurations is because it's not worth putting resources into such testing. Benchmarking takes time and money, and we and other vendors generally do it when there's a specific need or a point to be made. I suspect that if any competing wireless vendor provided a significant power savings, they'd be more than happy to provide you with benchmarks to demonstrate that advantage.

As I later pointed out to Grimes, I didn't believe that to be true.  My recollection of my conversations with systems vendors was that their data suggested that the choice of radio (Intel or non-Intel) was irrelevant to performance or battery-life and that there was really no obvious justification for the premium that one had to pay in order to get an Intel radio (as well as the Centrino sticker that goes with it) versus a non-Intel radio.  But none of the vendors I asked would allow themselves to be quoted on the matter.  Meanwhile, sellers of Centrino-systems such as Dell have statements like the following on the pages of their Web sites "Intel Centrino Mobile Technology is designed specifically for mobility with integrated wireless LAN capability, standards-based security support and power management innovations to enable extended battery life."  

dellcentrino.jpgYet, it is a fact that Centrino systems are no more so specifically designed than other other Pentium M systems with Intel's 855 chipset and a non-Intel radio (again, the difference in radio is what qualifies a system to be a Centrino system versus a non-Centrino system).  Also, as can be seen from the partial screenshot of a notebook configurator on Dell's Web site [above], not only does Dell charge $19 less for a system with an equally capable non-Intel radio that supports both 802.11b and 802.11a (as Intel's radio does), but it gives the radio away for free because buyers will save the same amount of money ($19) if they opt for no radio at all.  Lenovo, in its ThinkPads, charges the same amount too, whether it's Intel's radio or not ($10).   HP charges an additional $59 for Intel's 802.11b/g compliant radio.  In the You Can't Make This Stuff Up Department,  I was so confounded by that number that I engaged an online HP salesperson in a chat to see what logical explanation he could come up with (not just for the $59 upgrade but to further prove that buyers are being mishandled when it comes to discussing what the Centrino-brand stands for.   The resulting threadlog, which I blogged early today (see HP's Threadlogs: How to Mess with a Buyer's Head 101), is comical, shocking, and horrifying, all in one (even Grimes was horrified by most of what she heard as she listened to me read it back to her on the telephone).

Another interesting revelation that I think challenges Centrino's value proposition is the existence of Intel's Mobile Celeron processor -- the Celeron M.  In my ongoing debate with Grimes, I've routinely been reminded that buyers of Centrino-branded notebooks have greater assurance than buyers of non-Centrino notebooks that their systems will successfully get a connection in a Centrino-branded Wi-Fi hotspot. (In other words, pairing a Centrino notebook with a Centrino hotspot promises a better shot at a connection then does compliance with good old fashioned wired and wireless networking standards.)   Back in September 2003, Grimes told me:

We believe the customer does get some benefit from Centrino versus other offerings because we do a higher level of validation with third parties' products and services.  For example, you know that when you go to T-Mobile hotspot, it has been tested under Intel's wireless verification program and chances are that it will be a smooth user experience. Part of the Centrino promise is all the testing that goes on between our products and other vendor's products and all those services.

Grimes still stands by that party line.  But if that's the case, then what of all the notebooks that have Intel's Celeron M processor in them?  They, by Intel's definition, are not, and cannot qualify as Centrino systems.   To qualify, a system must have an Intel Pentium M processor, either an Intel 855 or 915M chipset, and one of serveral Intel PRO/Wireless radios (Grimes also reminded me that the three components do not necessarily contribute equally to each of the four aforementioned promises of the Centrino brand).  Therefore, it could be argued that the Celeron M is a bit of bogus offering because it might not be up to the same degree of interoperability (particularly with Centrino-certified hotspots) that the Centrino systems are? Knowing that, and with connectivity being such a core requirement, why would anyone want to buy a Celeron M system?  Why would Intel even sell such a product?   Via instant messenger I asked Grimes where she stood on my conclusive rhetorical questions.  Here's an excerpt from the threadlog:

David: so, if I understand the arguments you made on the phone the other day in favor of Centrino, then one could interpolate from that that you're much better off NOT getting a Celeron M-based system.
Grimes: i would certainly choose a Centrino system over a Celeron M system, but there's always a market for value systems, hence the existence of the celeron line
David: so, if your statements that Centrino systems are better assured of interoperability with Centrino hot spots than non-Centrino systems, then is it to be implied that the value systems you speak of are not as well assured of that interoperability... in other words, they are on par with with all other non-Centrino systems? 
David: and therefore, they are at an equal disadvantage?
Grimes: i would agree that non-Centrino systems have not undergone the same interoperability testing through our hotspot program that Centrino systems have. however, i would argue that all systems featuring intel's mobile architecture have an inherent advantage over the competition.
David: all this on the record?
Grimes: sure

It wasn't long before Grimes and I were on the telephone (this debate has so far spilled from e-mail to IM to the telephone).  In the ensuing discussion, Grimes argued that interoperability assurance isn't Centrino's only value proposition, nor is it Centrino's most important. I'd argue that it is the most important, or Intel wouldn't have made such a big deal about it when I first objected to the so-called Centrino value proposition and that many public hotspots have the Centrino brand on them as well. Grimes however rebutted, saying  that lack of Centrino branding on Celeron systems actually supports Intel's official message about the Centrino brand.  She reminded me:

The [Centrino] brand is designed to enable consumers or buyers to easily identify systems that deliver the four capabilities or features that they care about most in a laptop: great performance, great battery life, thinner and lighter designs, and built-in wireless capability.

After reminding me that the brand stands for all four attributes in combination, she said the Celeron M systems don't qualify because they don't do as well on battery life and performance as the Pentium M systems do.  And Pentium M systems with with non-Intel radios don't qualify because they're not as wirelessly capable.   What's the bottom line?  I agree with aforementioned message as long as there's no official implication that you can't have those four things without a Centrino system.  You can.  System performance and battery life, by the way, are often dependent on other things  that the Centrino "requirement" says nothing about (amount of RAM and size of battery for starters).   If only HP would give me some idea of how its new Turion-based notebook fares in performance and battery life against the company's most comparably equipped Intel notebook, we might learn that they're equally capable of all four attributes plus one more: the 64-bit capabilities of the Turion's AMD64 architecture.   If only it wasn't for that stupid code of silence.  So far, Intel hasn't shipped any mobile processors with the 64-bit capability (beyond its servers, Intel has however finally shipped an AMD64-compliant desktop Celeron). 

Here's an idea.  Just suppose that Turion notebook can be equipped with an Intel radio (to give the supposedly legendary Centrino interoperability) and that with the right amount of RAM, it can deliver equal or better performance and battery life than the slowest Centrino system that has the worst battery life.  The Turion is marketed as a  processor for thin and light systems.  After satisfying all of the Centrino criteria while also having the 64 bit capability, what should HP call that (to reassure  buyers)?  Centblazo?

The debate will surely continue.

Topic: Intel

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  • My $0.02

    After my experience with my current laptop (Dell Inspiron 5150, P4(HT), generic Dell miniPCI wnic), I'll go to great lengths to make sure the built-in wireless adapter on my next laptop is NOT based on any Broadcom chipset. It was a nightmare to get it to work in Linux, and even then, I wasn't happy with the performance. I don't have experience with the Intel radio in Linux. Anyone out there have some experiences to share?

    Honestly, I don't care if the hotspot is centrino branded or not. I support a great many laptops professionally, with a wide variety of hardware, and I've only encountered one brand that consistently varied from its peers in communicating wirelessly. That was a Winbook.

    I try not to let Intel's marketing drivel influence my purchasing decisions. Since performance is important to me, I wouldn't even consider a Celeron-based laptop. And, for that matter, I think I'm done with Dell. My next laptop will be a Thinkpad.
    Real World
    • You should give Toshiba a try

      I've owned a Thinkpad, two toshibas and two HPs, and the best price/quality proposition so far has been Toshiba.
      • Toshiba

        I support some toshibas, and the users seem pretty happy with them. I have one in particular who puts it through it's paces, and has good things to say about it.

        I like the TPs because IBM/Levono does a great job supporting them (the new software installer is the cat's azz), and they're well-made and durable. Also, I think their system software is by far the best out there.

        Thanks for the reco.
        Real World
        • Toshiba

          In my experience, the best laptops out there are Toshibas. I've encountered Dell's and IBM Thinkpads, Acers and Toshibas - and the only one that has run reliably and consistently have been the Toshibas. The others all required more support.
  • Next!

    Pick a new subject. Nobody cares. Its not some great conspiracy.

    What's better, ZDNet or PCMag?

    Still don't care! Call it whatever you like!

    But I bet you want to keep ZDNet as it is BRAND RECOGNITION.

    Just like Centrino.

    Find another story. Give up.
    • Brand recognition?


      Thanks for writing. There's one difference. I don't believe ZDNet has ever misled anyone about what the brand stands for.

  • Warning - NT in action!

    Its not very hard to detect your MBTI "personality type" David. NT's turn the analysis spotlight on - and liars get angry. Its a great way to get to the truth - and to bring negative perceptions down on you. (All conspiracies exposed! All rhetorical questions answered!) Its what keeps "nerds" social outcasts, and others to mutter that "he just doesn't get it". </rant>
    Roger Ramjet
  • Marketing, marketing

    When are consumers going to learn-'Centrino' branded products, marketed at what seems to be higher prices, are the products at the center of another marketing gimmick. Unless of course Centrino branded products offer a true, significant (and I stress the word significant) performance advantage over other wireless products manufactured to operate at the same WIFI standards. Whats significant? To justify a higher price, I would say wireless performance would have to be at least 20% better than any other manufacturer's products made to comply with the same wireless standards? Admittedly, I don't own a laptop and never will. I build my own computer systems and just recently put in my own wireless network. My own common sense rule of thumb is if brand B doesn't perform significantly better than brand A, yet brand B is marketed at a higher price point and is said to have bogus 'performance' advantages--then I buy brand A--brand B is the source of marketing hype with no real world advantanges and thus not worthy of my hard earned money. Strange there are no real world data available comparing Centrino and non-Centrino branded Intel systems. Has no one done this? Buyer beware.
  • Intel are like any other corporate

    The think tank says, ok to get an extra $2,000 out of a car that everyone is already buying we will put some chrome bits here and there, have a 6 stacker CD player in it instead of the standard single CD player, some furry dice hanging from the rear view mirror for that extra sex appeal and viola a $50 makeover with an added profit of $1,950!!!
  • Centrino Branding is just maketing

    Your absolutly right, the whole Centrino package is a marketing ploy,appearently created the way it was in order that Intel can sell more wifi gear. I also agree that paying an additional $59 for a laptop just because it has the Intel wifi unit as opposed to another brand, so you can sport the Centrino sticker on the outside of your laptop it a little silly and certainly a rip off to be sure.
    On the other hand, your going to an awful lot of trouble to make the point. When I see people laying out large sums of money for a brand name desktop computer at the local electronics chain store and that same peron could go down the street to a reliable custom builder and have all the same gear put in a case of their choosing for about 40% less, you have got to understand that these people could really care less about the argument you make regarding the Centrino brand vs cost issue. Alot of people I know would pay more then an extra $59 for the Centrino sticker simply because they are under the impression that if all the gear is made by the same company it will all work together flawlessly. Wasting precious time and energy carrying on this argument is pointless because the people who are interested and fully understand your point were convinced along time ago and the rest of the public will never care about the extra $59 they are getting hooked for when they are prepared to lay out hundreds extra on a desktop because its handy to go to the local chain outlet instead of having the same thing built for them.
    • Centrino Branding is just marketing

      I have built a few computers and troubleshot hundreds but this long drawn out thread has been quite beneficial to me to help me understand the Centrino bullhockey. I am in the market for my first laptop. The one I'm seriously interested in is the Toshiba Qosmio F14 which has the Centrino sticker, a huge price tag, and Windows Media Center 2005. The marketing hype has made me feel very stupid indeed if I don't purchase a Centrino. The very point that this whole thread makes is not to be intimidated by the salespeople who don't know what they're talking about anyway. The Qosmio only gets 1.8 hours on a charge and that is worse than most any laptop out there. "Longer battery life" has been the standard answer I've received at Best Buy, Fry's, CompUSA, and Circuit City. So...thank you David Berlind. Now I don't feel so threatened. It would be nice if Barbara Grimes could quote numbers instead of supposed generalizations based on 4 items.
    • Yeeeeeeee Dogie!!!!!!.........

      I have to agree with you
  • Centrino Brand

    Make that a Toshiba Qosmio F15 from my last post.
  • If performance is the number one centrino component...

    The why the heck would I want one of these?

    Intel(R) Graphics Media Accelerator 900
  • There IS a price justification!

    In order to get the configured price of a new Dell D610 over the threshold to qualify for the $500 promotional discount, I needed to add the $19 cost of the Centrino (IntelPRO 2200) wireless card. Now I just hope it works *as well as* the Dell wireless cards. I have never had a problem with the Dell 1450 in my Inspiron 5150...but the last time I worked with the IntelPRO 2200 in a client's Toshiba M35, it refused to get an IP address from a Linksys wireless router unless SSID broadcast was enabled on the router. I'm just hoping that in the few months between then and now, the much-heralded Centrino interoperabilty has been improved.