Mon, 17 Mar 2003

Centrino: New reason to dump your old notebook

Zatni Arbi, Columnist, Jakarta,

Remember Moore's Law? Gordon Moore, the cofounder of chipmaker Intel, made an observation in 1965 that the number of transistors that could be stuffed into a microprocessor would double every 18 months, virtually doubling the power of the microprocessor. In reality, this has frequently been achieved in less than that.

My first PC ever, an IBM PS/2 Model 30, ran on an Intel 8086 processor. The chip contained around 29,000 transistors. My next PC, a 386DX machine, had a processor that contained 275,000 transistors. According to Intel, the 8086 first appeared in 1978, while the 80386 was first manufactured in 1985. Today, each of the latest Mobile Pentium 4 M processors contains 77 million transistors. Not surprisingly, we have all come to accept Moore's observation as a law.

Actually, it was not only the number of transistors that made the microprocessor increasingly powerful. There is the application of new technologies that has made the entire system operation more efficient. Remember technologies such as MMX, Streaming SIMD and, recently, Hyper-Threading? Last week, Intel again introduced a new mobile microprocessor with new technologies -- even the integration of wireless networking capability -- into a package called Centrino.

* Mobile needs

Clearly, a notebook has additional requirements when compared with its desktop brother. Due to the notebook's much smaller form factor, it has to be smaller and it has to produce far less heat. In addition, because it is a mobile device, it should consume the least power possible. That is why Intel has designed a mobile version of its Pentium III and Pentium 4 processors that we find in most of today's notebooks. You will recognize the processors by the "M" in their specification.

You must have learned, too, that there are on the market notebooks that have been built using desktop components and are offered at a much more affordable price. However, since the desktop processors are not made with mobility requirements in mind, I have never considered them as serious notebooks.

What made Intel's latest mobile processor so special was that they reduced power consumption even further, and made the processor run cooler and more efficiently. Then Intel packaged the new Pentium 4 M processor with a new 855 chipset and a wireless networking module, chose the name Centrino and created a new logo.

At the time the processor was launched throughout Asia, a number of notebook makers announced the availability of their Centrino-based products. The list included big names such as IBM, Toshiba, Dell, Compaq, Gateway and ASUS. I was lucky to have my hands on a Centrino-based Acer TravelMate 800 two days before Intel's announcement. Acer was one of the first notebook makers whose products were ready on the day the Centrino processor was launched.

Centrino may not boast the high clock speeds that its predecessor did. A media release from Intel mentioned that the new Pentium 4 M processors that form part of the Centrino package are available with 1.6, 1.5, 1.4, 1.3, 1.2, 1.1 GHz and even 900 MHz speed. However, the integration of new technologies enables them to perform on a par with or even better than the older Pentium 4 M processors.

* Wi-Fi and Hot Spots

Since hot spots are not yet widely available here in Jakarta -- Starbucks Coffee does not have them yet, I have not been able to test the Wi-Fi capability of Acer's Centrino TravelMate 800 high-end notebook. Luckily, I am scheduled to go to Singapore this week, and I will be able to try it out at Changi Airport as well as in Suntec City.

The integration of Wi-Fi into Intel's processor package is really a boon to mobile workers. With a Centrino notebook, the dream that we can access our company's LAN or access the Internet from anywhere has become so much closer to reality. However, keep in mind that, if you are not planning to replace your current notebook just yet, you can still buy a Wi-Fi module offered by other vendors. ASUS, for example, offers its WL-100, a 802.11b wireless LAN PC Card, at US$84. NetGear also has a similar product that offers Wi-Fi connection with a maximum speed of 11 Mbps.

The more compelling reason for buying a Centrino notebook is perhaps the longer battery life. Again, I have not had the chance to test the battery performance of the Acer TravelMate 800, but a report in ZDNet says that it can last for more than five hours. IBM ThinkPad T40, which will be launched shortly, boasts a seven- hour battery life (unfortunately it still has a $3,500 street price). Nevertheless, I would certainly appreciate being able to work for five hours without having to find an outlet.

* Wi Fi at 30,000 feet?

I have a question, though. With the proliferation of notebooks with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities already integrated, should we still be allowed to power them up while our planes are up in the sky? If they do not allow us to use cell phones because "it may interfere with the aircraft's navigation system", then why should they allow us to turn on our notebooks, knowing that we may accidentally press the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth button?

Or, is it true, then, what many us have suspected: They have always told us to switch off our cell phones the moment we entered the airplane's door since the thought of having 200 people quacking "Goodbye", "I'll call you as soon as we land", and "Don't forget to pay the bills tomorrow!" on their cell phones at the same time inside the packed passenger cabin would be simply too unbearable?