Intel Centrino 2 now available, offers big performance boosts

Intel’s Centrino notebook platform has carried the same simple brand for five years and four generations of the technology. But this week it gets renamed as Centrino 2 – a deceptively small exercise which hides a raft of sweeping updates to every part of the mobile mix.

Unveilled today in San Francisco with the Australian launch taking place tomorrow morning in Sydney the platform formerly known under the cypher of ‘Montevina’ is an all-new recipe which notebook vendors will use to bake everything from large-screen extreme gaming portables to super-slim subnotes akin to the MacBook Air and ThinkPad X300.

Indeed both of those specific products are expected to get an upgrade by years’ end once the pint-sized Core 2 Duo SU SL and SP Penryn processor packages start rolling out of Intel’s chip factories. These are not only two-thirds the size of the conventional CPU packages they boast a significantly lower overhead – the maximum power draw is 10 watts 17 watts and 25 watts respectively – while also packing more L2 cache (3MB in the SU and 6MB in the SL and SP) and clock from 1.2GHz to 2.4GHz.

Considering that the MacBook Air’s current 65nm ‘mini-Merom’ package draws 20 watts at 1.6GHz with 4MB of L2 cache you can see that a logical upgrade to the SL-class Montevina processors would boost the Air’s performance while potentially extending battery life.

In the meantime Lenovo’s X300 gets a smaller sibling in the form of the 12.1in X200 ultrathin laptop built using one of the standard Centrino 2 processors with more X-notes expected to follow.

At the other end of the scale sits the overclock-friendly Core 2 Extreme X9100 which redlines at 3.06GHz and a sizzling 44 watts. Mooly Eden general manager of Intel’s mobile platforms group and the self-confessed ‘chip-head’ who’s considered the father of the Centrino praised the X9100 as Intel’s “highest performing mobile processor” created with high-octane gaming in mind.

But he’s already looking to trump this later in the year with the Extreme QX9300 Intel’s first quad-core notebook superslab. The QX9300 will run at a slightly slower 2.53GHz backed by 12MB of cache to keep the thermals to 45 watts.

And while Intel is promoting its GMA X4500HD integrated graphics processor with its DirectX 10 support as suitable for more heavy-duty gaming than today’s Centrino crop it’s also borrowed an idea from AMD: on-the-fly switching between the inbuilt silicon and dedicated graphics. Users can run integrated graphics while away from an AC outlet to extend battery life and play longer or power up the discrete graphics card when hooked up to 240V in order to play harder.

As previously reported Centrino 2 also lifts front-side bus (FSB) speed from 800MHz to 1066MHz and upgrades the spec for standard system memory to DDR3-800.

All that grunt appears out of kilter with the desire for notebooks to draw less power and thus last longer between recharges – are we going backwards in the trek for all-day battery life? Not so says Eden: notebooks exhibit the greatest power-saving potential when they can drop into low-power sleep modes.

If you divide the laptop’s typical working day into tiny slices of time most of that day is spent in varying states of idle rather than being actively used. More processing muscle means the notebook can do the heavy-lifting faster so it’s quicker to return to a low-power state where the real savings kick in. Eden dubbed this design feature as HUGI or “Hurry Up and Get Idle” and calls it “the secret sauce of Centrino 2”.

So while the more energy-efficient 2.8GHz 45nm Penryn processors use up to 60 percent less power than the 2.33GHz 65nm Merom equivalent while running the same task that task is completed 30 second sooner – affording the system 30 extra seconds in its minimal power drain mode.

After the processor and chipset wireless is the final component of the Centrino 2 triple-play. Intel has split its WiFi offering from the current WiFi Link 4965AGN mini-card to a choice between the Wi-Fi Link 5100 and 5300. Both support 802.11a b and n (well Draft N 3.0 if you insist on being pedantic) but the 5300 is packed with more MIMO goodness than the 5100: three transmit antennae compared to one and three receive antenna over two. Additional WiMAX-compatible silicon is due later this year.

Check back tomorrow for our report from Intel’s local launch of the Centrino 2 and a rundown on ‘the shape of notebooks to come’ from leading local vendors.