Centrino: a new dawn for notebooks?

Intel's most important launch since the Pentium sees notebook PCs deliver new levels of performance and battery life, and the chip giant take on the wireless market. See our system reviews and Tech Guide for more details.

Mobile computing is one of the few islands of profitability in an otherwise perilous sea of falling sales and margins for technology companies. Little wonder, then, that the silicon supertanker that is Intel is steering full speed ahead for the safety of the mobile archipelago. In fact, Intel chairman Andy Grove has gone so far as to claim that the company's 12 March Centrino launch is second only in importance to the introduction of the Pentium back in 1993.

Centrino, in case the pre-launch publicity storm has passed you by, is Intel's brand name for a bundle of technologies comprising the Pentium M processor (formerly codenamed Banias), the 855 chipset and the PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection (currently an 802.11b solution).

Centrino is of such importance to Intel for several reasons. Up to now, notebooks have been able to deliver either excellent performance or long (> 3-hour) battery life, but never both -- at least, not in a system that could be described as portable. The Pentium M/855 chipset combination goes a long way towards breaking that trade-off, thanks to a ground-up CPU redesign that includes a massive 1MB of Level 2 cache, the ability to handle more work per clock cycle and a power-management regime that allows most of the processor to be turned off most of the time. The result: notebooks that deliver superior performance to the previous generation of Mobile Pentium 4-M systems, and battery life that's in a different league -- so far, we've seen 3-5 hours, depending on the size of battery used.

Intel's move into the wireless market may be somewhat belated, but it's bound to make waves. At the moment, Centrino systems come with an 11Mbps 802.11b wireless connection. In a few months, Intel's dual-standard 802.11a/b (11/54Mbps) solution will be available, and beyond that a tri-standard a/b/g part is mooted. Notebook vendors who don't wish to buy into Intel's wireless scheme can use the Pentium M and 855 chipset plus a third-party wireless solution, but won't be able to use the Centrino branding. Beyond the wireless hardware, Intel is making a big investment in promoting wireless hot-spots and verifying Centrino technology with the various service providers.

The next few weeks will see a flurry of Pentium M/Centrino products launched, so keep coming back here, because we'll add more reviews and analysis as the market develops.