Intel launches Centrino 2
With the original Centrino if you wanted to have the Centrino label, the processor, chipset, and WiFi module all had to be from Intel and the processor manufacturer has stuck to this principle with Centrino 2. Developed under the code name Montevina, the platform was announced at CeBIT in some detail. It contains chipsets from series 4, which was only presented for desktop PCs in June. Specifically, the GM47, the GM45, and the PM45 provide a faster front side bus, an accelerated memory interface, and in the GM versions, a better graphics core. The new wireless modules in the 5 series support the draft N standard, which has been ramped up to 450 Mb/s from 300, and optional WiMAX.
Version 2 of the Centrino platform still uses the dual core Penryn processor, but with an accelerated connection FSB1066. It has long been clear that it would be able to reach higher clock rates with much lower power consumption than its predecessor, and now as expected, Intel has created a new category for this class of efficiency: processors with a P in their name have a TDP (thermal design power) of 25 watts instead of the 35 watts of the T modules, which will allow notebooks to be smaller, lighter, and quieter. The fastest member of this category is the P9500 with a clock rate of 2.53 GHz and 6 MB of L2 cache; the slowest, the P8400 with 2.26 GHz and 3 MB of cache.
35-watt processors are still part of the Centrino 2 program, though there are initially only two of them: the T9600 is the fastest, with a 2.8 GHz clock, while the T9400 offers 2.53 GHz. The previously fastest Core 2 Duo T9500 with 2.6 GHz falls slightly short of Centrino 2.
Intel also offers an Extreme Edition: the X9100 runs at 3.06 GHz, only a bit faster than the current X9000 at 2.8 GHz. The Extreme versions do not have a fixed multiplier, which allows them to be overclocked if you change your BIOS or use special tools. With a TDP of 44 watts, they require a better cooling system than you would find in normal notebooks; mainly, such coolers are found in a few 17" gamer notebooks.
Centrino 2 processors
L2 cache [MByte]
Price per 1000 [$]
Intel does not yet offer its energy-saving processors in the LV – TDP 17 watts – and ULV series – TDP 10 watts, whose maximum power consumption has been further reduced, with FSB1066 – in fact, they have not even implemented the Penryn core with FSB800, but use the 65 nm predecessor Merom instead.
The higher front side bus speed, FSB1066, mainly accelerates memory connections; memory-hungry programs then run slightly faster, perhaps by a few percentage points. Intel has also accelerated the memory interface. It now not only supports DDR2 memory at higher speeds – DDR2-800/PC2-6400 instead of the previous DDR2-667/PC2-5300, but also DDR3 modules at the stages DDR3-800/PC3-6400 and DDR3-1066/PC3-8500. Up to eight GB of RAM is supported, which can be implemented with only two 4 GB modules.
DDR3 promises to reduce power consumption, with voltage lowered from 1.8 to 1.3 volts, which Intel says affords a reduction of up to 25 per cent. But a great overall difference in system consumption should not be expected because DDR2 memory uses so much less power than displays and graphics that the power savings from DDR3 will probably only make themselves felt with sub-notebooks that consume less than 10 watts.
The South bridge ICH-9M lops off a connection to an old friend: mass storage can only be attached via Serial ATA (SATA), so you'll have to say goodbye to Parallel ATA (PATA, aka IDE). While this switch has already taken place with hard drives, SlimLine form factor optical drives with a SATA connection, using the smaller micro-SATA connector, are not yet sold in retail shops.
Finally, Intel has completely implemented the external version of SATA (eSATA); previous South bridges do not completely support it, so that the few notebooks with eSATA make use of a separate SATA chip. A hard drive connected via eSATA can now unfold its full transfer rate instead of being limited to around 25 MB/s via USB2 or to around 35 MB/s via FireWire. Manufacturers have not, so far, agreed to a power supply for eSATA, so such hard drives still require separate power.
Graphics and WiFi
The GM45 and the GM47 chipsets contain graphics core X4500, which is an improvement over the current X3100 in several respects. It provides greater 3D power, supports more connections, and can handle hybrid operation in combination with an external graphics chip. The two versions also have different maximum clock rates: 533 MHz for the GM45, 640 MHz for the GM47. The core also reportedly supports DirectX 10, although most games with DirectX 10 effects require a graphics chip far more powerful than the X4500's chip set graphics. Likewise, it hardly matters that the T&L units that have allegedly been included in the hardware since X3100 may also now be used.
The X4500 does score points in one important respect: it provides smooth play-back of Blu-ray movies with 2 GHz processors. So one of the two main reasons for the use of a separate graphics chip instead of chip set graphics no longer applies – the other reason being 3D games. This step is likely to pave the way for the mainstream use of Blu-ray.
The GM45 and GM47 come with a DVI/HDMI and DisplayPort interface, including an integrated HDCP chip, so that these digital outputs can be provided inexpensively without an extra chip. There is, however, no mention of dual-link DVI or HDMI 1.3. So while all HD resolutions work, the maximum resolution is 1920 × 1200, and 30" monitors (2560 × 1600) still lack a proper connection.
Intel's hybrid graphics architecture addresses the problem of high power consumption when separate graphics chips are used in 2D mode. Now, any additional 3D chip installed can be switched off, without having to reboot Windows so that the chip no longer consumes power; the GM45/GM47 then handles screen resolution. Because Vista cannot handle two display drivers at the same time, Intel had to come up with a clever solution: a kind of wrapper that presents itself to Windows as the only graphics driver and reroutes all Windows access attempts either to the Intel or the graphics card driver. This approach required some deep work within the graphics card driver, which Intel could only do in close cooperation with graphics chip manufacturers. The first announcements about Montevina only spoke about ATI, but the Nvidia version is reportedly now also available.
Four wireless modules in the MiniCard format are available for Centrino 2, all of which support IEEE 802.11a/b/g and draft N. WiFi 5100 runs with the previously published draft N speed of 300 Mb/s (gross), while WiFi 5300 supports the now possible 450 Mb/s. WiFi 5150 and WiFi 5350 also support WiMAX.
C't was able to have a look at three pre-production units for testing: the Asus F8Va, Lenovo's Thinkpad X200 and Sony's VGN-SR19. Not surprisingly, the processor performance of these newcomers reflected their clock rates: the T9400 – 2.53 GHz – overtook the T9400 – 2,4 GHz, but only just barely, and it still remained behind the T9600 – 2.6 GHz. The faster memory connection made itself felt when memory-hungry applications ran somewhat faster with DDR2-667 modules on a Centrino 2 system with T9400 than they did on a Centrino 1 with T9500; with DDR2-800 modules, an initial test conducted for SPEC CPU2000 was 17 per cent faster, with a second test showing 13 per cent faster. In other individual tests, the T9500 system's slightly faster clock rate kept it slightly ahead.
Using DDR2-800 does not improve things much because the two-channel memory interface manages to get a respectable transfer rate from two DDR2-667 modules – a rate that suffices for the FSB1066 connection. Some individual SPEC CPU2000 tests revealed improvements of around 9 per cent, though most of the time no benefits could be found. At least things do not slow down, so that your money – around one euro per gigabyte – is well invested in the 800-series modules, especially given the very low price.
The X4500 in Lenovo's X200 and Sony's SR19 leaves its predecessors, the GMA950 and X3100, in the dust for 3D benchmarks, with some of them being twice as good. In comparison, even the ATI/AMD chipset graphics are up to 50 per cent faster in 3D benchmarks. Only the X4500, clocked a bit faster in the GM47, could keep up, but you will have to look long and hard to find one in a notebook. Both notebooks managed to playback Blu-ray movies smoothly.
The main benefit of Centrino 2 is not speed. Even when supported by DDR3 memory, the processor does not run that much faster, and a quad core Extreme Edition has yet to be seen. The 25 watt version of the processor could turn out to be more interesting as it would allow notebooks to become faster while weighing less. While the X4500 graphics core is much faster than its predecessor and decodes Blu-ray movies perfectly, it still cannot keep up with chipset graphics from AMD/ATI or Nvidia.
Intel does what it can to remedy all other bottlenecks: draft N has been sped up to 450 Mb/s while everyone waits for the standardisation disputes to end; WiMAX can be had at a relatively low price as we wait for mobile communications providers to offer greater support; eSATA has been rounded off, sounding the death knoll for USB and FireWire drives; and DisplayPort and HDMI have been integrated so that the venerable VGA connection is finally a thing of the past.
In addition, salespeople can streamline their pitches. Centrino 2 notebooks have dual-core processors, and all of them support Blu-ray decoding, draft N WiFi, and 64-bit operating systems with 8 GB of RAM – and they do so without all of the ifs, ands, and buts that a select few current Centrino notebooks suffer from.