Intel chimes in on ZDNet slam of Centrino brand

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."  


Yet, 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.