This time around, Intel's mobile division is all business, but salespeople like to play games, too.
The latest generation of Intel's Centrino product set is scheduled to make its debut in San Francisco on Wednesday. Code-named Santa Rosa, the newest iteration of the trinity of Centrino--a Core 2 Duo processor, chipset and wireless chip--will give notebook users a chance to play with Intel's tech manager-friendly vPro technologies, among other things.
There will be two iterations of Santa Rosa under the Centrino Duo and Centrino Pro monikers, said Connie Brown, an Intel spokeswoman. Most of the details surrounding the new platform already have been discussed at length, such as support for flash memory and faster Wi-Fi connections. (On CNET.com: "First Intel Santa Rosa systems reviewed")
The new platform will also set the stage for improvements in Intel's integrated graphics performance for notebook PCs, which the company is making a priority in the face of pressure from rival Advanced Micro Devices.
Despite that pressure, Intel has been on a roll lately, recapturing market share from its smaller rival thanks to a much-improved processor design that is paying special dividends in the notebook market. And market share gains are especially important this year because analysts don't expect it to be a strong year for PC buying.
"If you're displaying static text every hour of the day, integrated graphics has it covered. As a gaming platform, it's awful."
--Dean McCarron, analyst, Mercury Research
A rapid expansion in buying over the past three years, combined with a hesitation to upgrade to Windows Vista, has corporate PC purchases in a holding pattern. But Intel executives hope the combination of Centrino Pro and Vista will spur corporate buyers toward the end of the year. In fact, that's exactly what Intel's own information technology department is planning to do.
Centrino Pro will make it easier for companies to manage a fleet of notebooks inside a corporation, allowing tech managers to roll out software updates in a much easier fashion and take advantage of virtualization technologies. While the corporate world has been a little slower than other parts of the PC market in dumping desktops and switching to notebooks, it is expected to account for more than half of all PC sales by the end of the decade.
Integrated vs. 'discrete'
Centrino Duo, on the other hand, will improve the performance of Intel's graphics technology through the upgrade to the new 965 mobile chipset. Most notebooks use integrated graphics rather than separate "discrete" graphics chips from companies like Nvidia or AMD's ATI group to render images on the screen. This is partly because of cost and partly for battery life, because integrated graphics chipsets consume less power than separate chips.
Integrated graphics chipsets offer enough performance for those who spend most of their time in front of a PC typing up e-mail or surfing the Web.
"If you're displaying static text every hour of the day, integrated graphics has it covered," said Dean McCarron, an analyst with Mercury Research. "As a gaming platform, it's awful."
Video: Notebooks get a boost with new Intel Centrino
Intel's vice president and general manager of the mobile platforms group demos the company's next generation of mobile microprocessors.
And with that, AMD is hoping to exploit a weakness in Intel's notebook integrated graphics, the same way it sought to steer the debate away from its own troubles earlier this year.
One week ahead of the Santa Rosa launch, AMD held a lunch briefing for reporters and analysts in San Francisco slamming its larger competitor on the performance of its integrated graphics chipsets for notebooks. Executives demonstrated a notebook with AMD's M690 chipset--with an integrated graphics chip designed by the company's new ATI graphics division--running against the 965G, the best integrated graphics chipset offered by Intel's desktop division.
Not surprisingly, AMD won its own demo showdown, delivering smoother video playback and more frames per second with its mobile chipset during a demonstration of the game Far Cry. The intent was to show that AMD's current mobile chipset products are better than the mobile version of the 965G.
Hardware enthusiasts back up that contention, with several reviews noting that AMD has had an advantage in the desktop market with its integrated graphics products over the last several months. An Intel representative said the company focuses on designing its mobile chipsets with several factors in mind, including performance and battery life, to satisfy a wide variety of customers with different needs.
But as home PC users continue to snap up notebooks, they likely will start using those notebooks for more casual gaming or graphics-intensive programs. Serious gamers will still prefer desktops or bulky laptops for their hobbies, but most customers fall somewhere in between hardcore gamers and basic PC users, McCarron said.
"As the mobile market becomes more than half the market, it's going to have to reflect the same kind of diversity we see in the desktop market" when it comes to graphics, McCarron said. Desktop PC buyers have the choice between several different classes of discrete and integrated graphics, while notebook users are generally stuck with only one choice on the lower half of the pricing spectrum for integrated graphics.
Intel does plan to shore up this vulnerable area, executives said last week at a meeting with analysts. Intel wants to improve the performance of its graphics chipsets by 50 percent each year, rather than the 20 percent gains it has been making to this point.
AMD has made strong inroads into other parts of Intel's business--especially in the server market--but it's up against Intel's strongest segment when it comes to notebooks. And Intel's Brown suggested that a balanced approach to graphics, performance and battery life has a lot to say for Intel's 80 percent share of the notebook market.
"I don't think we'd be where we are today in mobile if we had just looked at one area or another," Brown said.
For its part, AMD expects to shore up its own mobile strategy later this year with its first processor designed specifically for notebooks. Until then, picking away at pixels will have to do.