Intel Centrino, AMD Athlon XP-M Spark Lightweight Laptop Blitz

Wednesday Mar 12th 2003 by Eric Grevstad
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According to Intel's Centrino team, it's a new day for portable computing -- one in which long battery life and seamless wireless networking are just as important as the new Pentium M processor's faster-than-mobile-Pentium-4 power. Meanwhile, AMD has impishly picked the same day to debut a dozen mobile Athlon XP-M chips. Here's your first look at the new technologies and the notebooks that use them.

Everybody Get Unplugged

This article also appears on Jupitermedia's CPU Planet site.

Desktops? Those old things?

If you've seen the advertising spreads in this morning's papers, you know Intel Corp. today started spending a reported $300 million-plus to launch its new Centrino mobile technology -- a combined processor, chipset, and 802.11b wireless networking solution that the CPU king says empowers "a new generation of mobile PCs that will bring business users and consumers greater freedom to connect in new places and new ways."

Intel boasts that top laptop manufacturers worldwide -- four times as many as embraced the mobile Pentium 4 CPU at its rollout -- are offering lightweight, long-battery-life notebooks sporting the magenta Centrino logo as of today. And it's subsidizing the construction of WiFi hotspots at outlets ranging from Borders bookstores to McDonald's restaurants to spread the gospel of wireless Internet and e-mail access.

Actually, the Centrino combo and its centerpiece, the new Pentium M processor -- which delivers faster performance and longer battery life at lower clock speeds than the mobile Pentium 4 -- would be more than news enough for today. But rival AMD, in a totally noncoincidental move, chose the same date to introduce a dozen new mobile versions of its Athlon XP processor, including the company's first CPUs in the microPGA packaging format for thin and light notebooks. Let's take a first look at the suddenly all-new notebook arena.

Just Add M

At first glance, it's tempting to dismiss AMD's announcement as a me-too marketing move -- we couldn't help noticing a few weeks ago, just about the time Intel confirmed that the mobile CPU known by the codename "Banias" would be officially called Pentium M, that AMD's Web site stopped referring to the mobile Athlon XP and started referring to the Athlon XP-M.

But there's real technology behind today's 12 new 0.13-micron-process CPUs. Five are low-voltage mobile Athlon XP-M processors -- performance ratings 1400+, 1500+, 1600+, 1700+, and 1800+ -- with small-form-factor microPGA packaging for slimline notebook designs. They're based on AMD's "Thoroughbred" (128K Level 1 and 256K of Level 2 cache) core.

The other new mobile Athlon XP-M processors use AMD's faithful Socket A packaging. They include 2000+, 2200+, 2400+, and 2600+ chips intended for full-sized, desktop-replacement portables; and 2200+, 2400+, and 2500+ CPUs aimed at mid-sized, mainstream notebooks. All, like the low-voltage XP-Ms, use a 266MHz front-side bus.

The last two (mainstream 2400+ and 2500+) skip the "Thoroughbred" for the newer "Barton" core, with 128K of Level 1 and 512K of Level 2 on-chip cache -- which AMD promises will be available for all mobile market segments by mid-2003. For today, the company says, the Athlon XP-M 2500+ outperforms Intel's 2.4GHz mobile Pentium 4 by up to 10 percent on assorted benchmarks.

AMD adds that the mobile "Barton" will appear in laptops from Fujitsu Siemens (Europe) this month, from Epson Direct (Japan) in April, and from HP in the U.S. in the first half of this year. The low-voltage Athlon XP-M 1700+ (1.47GHz) processor goes on sale today in the U.S. in Fujitsu PC Corp.'s 4.4-pound LifeBook S2000, which squeezes a 13.3-inch XGA display, 256MB of DDR memory, a 40GB hard disk, and modular DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive into a 9.3 by 11.5 by 1.4-inch package. It's $1,349 (or $1,439 with a 30GB hard disk and integrated 802.11b wireless networking).

Centrino: It's Not Just the Pentium M

As for Intel, the chip giant is risking some confusion in that not all notebooks with the new Pentium M processor will bear the Centrino Mobile Technology brand. The latter honor is reserved for 100-percent "Intel inside" portables, so to speak, built around not only the Pentium M but one of Intel's two new 855 chipsets and its Pro/Wireless 2100 network adapter (codeveloped by Intel and Cisco Systems).

The new chipsets are the 855PM, which supports separate (third-party) AGP 4X graphics controllers, and 855GM, which integrates the latest version of Intel's Extreme Graphics (dubbed Extreme Graphics 2) for budget notebooks. Both combine Intel's latest battery-thrifty tricks, such as an internal timer that automatically turns off the chipset clock when the chipset is inactive, with support for up to 2GB of DDR266 memory; they share a Southbridge controller hub with two ATA/100 channels, AC97 audio, modem, 33MHz PCI/CardBus, and USB 2.0 support (Bluetooth wireless connectivity options will piggyback on the latter).

AMD has already issued a dig at Intel's house-brand 802.11b solution, noting that Athlon XP-M processors "are designed with an open architecture, helping to ensure that the best available 802.11 wireless solutions from leading companies can be easily integrated" into AMD-based systems. Lots of laptops already offer the faster if 802.11b-incompatible 802.11a or dual-band wireless network support that Centrino, at least for now, lacks, and many more are sure to adopt the high-speed yet backwards-compatible 802.11b successor 802.11g when silicon based on that new standard appears this fall.

Intel retorts that it'll add 802.11a and other wireless protocols to the Centrino platform soon, and that its current WiFi implementation is smartly optimized to do everything from coexisting with and automatically choosing between 802.11b and Bluetooth (if both are present) to seamlessly managing unplug-and-play, no-reboot-or-interruption transitions between wired to wireless office networks (or all the 802.11b hotspots in Borders, McDonald's, and other places it's helping to add to the WiFi roster of Starbucks and hotels).

Intel's Best Engineering (But No Hyper-Threading)

Meanwhile, AMD's PR-rating marketeers will be more than issuing a dig at the new Pentium M; they'll be singing "I told you so" in 20 languages as Intel joins AMD in declaring that instructions per clock cycle, not just raw clock-speed increases requiring big batteries and noisy cooling fans, are the key to PC performance. The fastest Pentium M runs at 1.6GHz, but Intel says its tests with BAPCo's MobileMark 2002 benchmark show it delivers 15 percent quicker performance than the 2.4GHz mobile Pentium 4 -- while getting up to five hours of battery life to a comparable mobile P4 system's three.

What's the secret to the new 0.13-micron-process CPU's performance? Well, for one thing, while it has the same 400MHz front-side bus speed as what we used to call the Pentium 4-M, the Pentium M has more on-chip cache -- 64K of Level 1 (32K instruction, 32K write-back data) and a whopping 1MB of Level 2 cache.

Deeper, darker Pentium M science includes advanced branch prediction -- not only capturing standard program behaviors but enhancing support for newer programming paradigms such as just-in-time and object-oriented code, and according to Intel reducing branch mis- (or miss-) predictions by more than 20 percent -- and a hardware-based (rather than more power-hungry, micro-operations-based), dedicated stack manager that reduces the overall number of micro-ops required.

More exotic yet, micro-op fusion combines two micro-operations into one, treating certain pairs of x86 instruction segments as a single segment through most of their trip through the CPU pipeline and then resplitting them just in time for execution. The Pentium M supports the SSE2 multimedia extensions to the instruction set first seen in the Pentium 4, but lacks the Hyper-Threading technology that optimizes the 3.06GHz desktop processor for multithreaded applications and multitasking environments.

Power-Saving Strategies and New Notebooks

The main Pentium M models -- available in 1.3GHz, 1.4GHz, 1.5GHz, and 1.6GHz flavors -- are built to get more out of a laptop battery charge than any previous Intel mobile processor. And a low-voltage 1.1GHz Pentium M and ultra-low-voltage 900MHz Pentium M are built to last still longer.

The target for the standard CPU is power consumption under one watt during normal use (less than half that of the mobile Pentium 4), with overall thermal design power or maximum power dissipation of 24.5 watts for the 1.5GHz and 1.6GHz parts; 22 watts for the 1.3GHz and 1.4GHz; 12 watts for the low-voltage 1.1GHz; and just 7 watts for the ultra-low-voltage 900MHz chip. By contrast, the thermal design power of the 2.4GHz mobile Pentium 4 is 30 watts, while the desktop Pentium 4s range roughly from 50 to 80 watts.

In addition to a power-optimized system bus and L2 cache (with parts of the latter turned off when not needed), the Pentium M also introduces an enhanced version of Intel's SpeedStep voltage- and clock-speed-regulating technology more akin to the most recent versions of AMD's PowerNow or Transmeta's LongRun.

While the mobile Pentium 4 could only switch between two voltages and speed settings (typically full speed and 1.2GHz), each Pentium M can dynamically shift through three to six power/performance levels based on application demand -- in the case of the top model, 1.6GHz, 1.4GHz, 1.2GHz, 1.0GHz, 800MHz, and 600MHz (with core voltages ranging from 1.484V to 0.956V).

Sampling Centrino Systems

Hardware Central's Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk has several hands-on tests of Pentium M and Centrino (as well as Athlon XP-M) notebooks planned for the coming weeks, but today's news wires are buzzing with announcements of new portables using Intel's new silicon. Fujitsu's LifeBook S6000, for example, is a 4.4-pound slimline featuring the Pentium M/1.4 and 855GM chipset plus a 13.3-inch screen; it'll ship in April starting at $1,499.

Sony says its new Vaio PCG-Z1A ultralight is "slim, sexy, and unattached" (wireless, get it?). Actually, the 4.7-pound Z1A is slightly thicker than the Vaio 505 series that Sony's been selling for years, but its swoopy, silver-matte case is designed to appeal to exotic-sports-car drivers and boardroom status seekers. The 1.3GHz notebook starts at $2,200 with a 14.1-inch XGA screen; a model with a 1,400 by 1,050 =-pixel SXGA+ display, 512MB of DDR, and a 60GB hard disk is $2,400.

Dell's 5.3-pound, 1.2-inches-thick Inspiron 600m combines the 1.3GHz Pentium M and 855PM chipset with ATI's Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics accelerator and a 14.1-inch screen for $1,399. A model with a 1.6GHz processor, SXGA+ screen, and Dell's 802.11b/g PC Card is $1,549.

Dell's corporate customers can check out the Latitude D600 and D800, available with a new desktop docking stand that elevates the LCD to eye level to make an external monitor unnecessary. Prices for the 14.1-inch-screened D600 start at $1,399, and for the D800 with its 15.4-inch, wide-aspect-ratio display and Nvidia GeForce4 420 Go graphics at $1,699.

Toshiba, too, offers both consumer- and business-oriented Centrino portables: The Satellite Pro M10/15 series puts the accent on multimedia with a 15-inch screen, GeForce4 420 Go graphics, and Harman/Kardon stereo speakers (starting at $1,999), while the 5.7-pound Tecra M1 ($2,154) boasts more than six hours of battery life and just-over-6-pound, desktop-replacement Tecra S1 ($1,979) offers a 15-inch display, full-sized keyboard, and integrated WiFi and Bluetooth. Finally, Toshiba's new Portege R100 is an ultraportable 2.4 pounds and 0.6 inch thin; it comes with a 12-inch polysilicon display for $2,199.

HP says the Compaq Evo N620c delivers up to six hours of battery life in an under-5-pound, 14.1-inch-screened package; it starts at $1,799 with a Pentium M/1.4 processor, 40GB hard disk, and DVD drive, but isn't an official Centrino system as a later, HP-brand business notebook will be (the Evo has an integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller and optional 802.11b and Bluetooth). By contrast, Gateway's 6.2-pound 450X wears the Centrino label; it starts at $1,599 with a 15-inch SXGA+ screen and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and you can choose any Pentium M speed from 1.3GHz to 1.6GHz.

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