When Intel Corp. introduced its Centrino technology for wireless notebook computers in 2003, the chip maker initially targeted business users willing to pay a premium for longer battery life and better performance.
It wasn't long before consumer interest rose, in part because of Intel's massive marketing campaign showcasing "unwired" computing. Still, Centrino notebooks were better suited for spreadsheets and Web browsing than advanced gaming and editing home movies.
That's beginning to change. Earlier this year, Intel updated Centrino to improve overall performance and bolster graphics and audio. It's also bumped up the speed of the Pentium M, the microprocessor at the heart of Centrino systems.
The strategy is paying off for Intel. Its notebook chip sales are rising along with its share of the portable market. And, this week, Apple Computer Inc. cited the chip maker's future plans to boost performance while reining in power requirements as a reason it's switching its Macintosh computers to Intel processors starting next year.
To get a flavor what Centrino has to offer, I borrowed a Toshiba Satellite M45-S351 notebook that incorporates most - but not all - of the latest improvements. Like all notebooks that carry the brand, it has a Pentium M processor, Intel chipset and Intel wireless radio.
It's an impressive, well designed notebook that could serve as a replacement for a desktop PC, provided there are no hard-core gamers in the house. The system also carries a relatively consumer-friendly price tag of $1,449.
The silver-cased Satellite includes a large 100-gigabyte hard drive, three Universal Serial Bus ports, one FireWire port and a CD/DVD burner. In all, it weighs about 6 pounds.
Performance benefits both from Centrino's fattened data pipe between the system's 512 megabytes of memory and 1.73-gigahertz Pentium M processor.
Running Windows XP Home Edition, the Satellite easily handled everyday computing tasks such as surfing the Web, reading e-mail, running a word processor and listening to music - often at the same time. It didn't stumble even when running queries and reports in Microsoft's Access database software.
Connectivity also was never a problem, whether I was wired into my home network or surfing wirelessly from a hotel, Starbucks or my own Wi-Fi network. It instantly found 802.11b or 802.11g Wi-Fi networks. (Toshiba, however, didn't use Intel's latest wireless chips, which now can connect to 802.11a wireless networks that are today found primarily in offices.)
But the most noticeable improvement over previous laptops I've tested was the graphics.
For years, Intel was known as being a step or two behind dedicated graphics chip makers. With the latest Centrino chipset, it's revved up its support of 3D acceleration, pumped up the bandwidth and ratcheted up the maximum clock speed.
I ran a number of games both on the Satellite and my home desktop, which has an ATI 9500 graphics card. I could discern little difference between the two. (The Toshiba laptop also features a bright, 15.4-inch wide-screen display.)
The exception was a demo of the first-person shooter Pariah. In the first scene, I noticed that leaves stuttered through the air on the Satellite while they floated much more naturally on the desktop. The demo, however, was playable on both.
Of course, one of Centrino's big selling points has been its low power consumption. With the update, Intel didn't tout any advances on that front, though it said the improved graphics and overall performance wouldn't reduce battery life.
It's a difficult claim to prove, given there's no way to yank out the new Centrino parts and replace them with older models. Plus, while notebooks that have Centrino stickers have certain components in common, vendors are free to use others that might have greater power demands.
That said, the Satellite's battery life was not spectacular in my tests. Under normal usage such as Web browsing, it lasted about 2 hours, 40 minutes before needing to recharge battery.
While continuously playing a DVD, the battery lasted 2 hours, 10 minutes before the system died. By comparison, a current PowerBook from Apple lasted 5 minutes longer during the continuous playback test.
So why did Apple jump to Intel?
The next release of Centrino, expected in early 2006, will include a processor with two computing engines on a single chip instead of one. It also will include a power-savings technology that can sense when one of the cores isn't being used and switch it off when it's not needed. Intel also has made no secret that Pentium M technology will continue to find its way into the company's mainstream desktop chips.
But even before the next release of Centrino, consumers have plenty of reasons to bite at the current generation.
On the Net:
Intel Centrino: http://www.intel.com/centrino
Toshiba notebooks: http://www.toshibadirect.com
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