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Portable Lite

Centrino is the new diet pill for that bulky device you've been schlepping through airports. Are you ready to lose some weight?

They're finally here-a new generation of notebooks based on Intel's long-awaited Centrino chip package. The first beneficiaries of Centrino technology are cooler- and longer-running portables in slimmer, lighter profiles.

Intel's low-power Pentium M processor, formerly called Banias, is the central feature of a mobile chip trio that also includes a new 855PM chipset and optional 802.11b wireless silicon. It's a novel idea to marry a power-conserving processor with power-hungry networking technology.

For its part, Pentium M is focused on power conservation rather than processing power, with initial speeds in the 1.3GHz to 1.6GHz range. Intel hopes to keep them a step behind its 1.7GHz to 2.4GHz Pentium 4-M mobile processors. But even the slowest Pentium M laptop is still likely to be twice as fast as the 2- to 3-year-old Pentium III-M portables most workers now carry around, says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst for the Microprocessor Report.

In fact, Pentium M may even crowd the big 4-M number crunchers in application performance because they're equipped with twice as much cache memory for quick access to larger amounts of your most-often-used data. Pentium M's 1MB cache runs slower than 4-M memory and has other power-saving refinements. But again, that shouldn't slow down real-world applications, because M cache still dishes up data faster than other notebook components can use it.

In fact, Dell's new Latitude D800, equipped with a 1.6GHz Pentium M, actually outperformed a similarly configured 2.4GHz Pentium 4-M laptop in tests on the most common applications, reports Kathleen Astl, product manager for Dell. That's a remarkable commentary on the relative importance of cache memory vs. processor clock speed.

Electron Savings and Loan
Clearly, though, Pentium M is all about portability and battery life. Drawing less power, M chips run cooler, needing less precious real estate for fans, heat sinks and metal insulators. The first to reap those benefits is the thin-and-light class of (formerly) 6-pound notebooks. These usually come with 14-inch displays, a single hard drive, and a multipurpose bay that can accept a second battery or a variety of optical drives.

Though user preferences on size, weight, battery life and performance are clear in other notebook categories, here's where they intersect and force tough design tradeoffs. Betting that size and weight are the priorities of most users, Dell shaved a quarter inch off its Latitude D600, making it 1.2 inches thick and less than 5 pounds. Pentium M let Dell switch to a smaller, lithium ion polymer battery, keeping the same three-hour battery life as last-generation Dells. Toshiba, on the other hand, decided to try to make good on Intel's boast of six hours of battery life. The Tecra M1 should run longer than five hours between charges, but to get there, Toshiba had to use a lithium-ion brick. That makes the M1 the same 1.5-inch thick, 5.4-pound package as its predecessor.

Releases of still more power-efficient Centrino chips a month from now will give a similar boost to ultraportable designs. Known as minis or subnotebooks, this class is usually outfitted with 12-inch displays, a hard drive and an external multipurpose drive. Ultraportables have never gotten good battery life because they don't have much room inside. Centrino technology should help.

If those early performance tests are accurate, it may even have an impact on 7- to 8-pound "performance" notebooks, where battery life is low on the wish list. Intended mostly for the office-to-home-office commute, these portables have plenty of everything, including a 15-inch, high-resolution display and a Pentium 4-M processor. But Pentium Ms may start crowding Pentium 4-Ms out of this space. At the same time, says Krewell, price cuts in 4-Ms make them attractive alternatives for manufacturers who've been putting cheaper desktop processors in large 9- to 10-pound portables.

Time for a Change?
What should your company do about Centrino? That depends on the age of your portable fleet. If, like so many firms, you refreshed your notebooks going into Y2K, Centrino comes along at an opportune time in a three-year lifecycle.

But if your 4-M notebooks are only a year or two old, you may want to pick up a few extra at fire-sale prices-especially if your vendor's parts availability guarantee is running out. Analysts say system management and support savings accrue to those with as few hardware profiles as possible-the exception being Pentium III-M notebooks, whose time has simply passed.

THIN IS IN
Thin is in: The following include 1.3GHz to 1.6GHz Pentium M processors with 1MB of cache, a 400MHz frontside bus, 14.1-inch color displays, 256MB RAM expandable to 2GB, gigabit Ethernet and Wi-Fi adapters.
Latitude D600
Dell Computer 12.4 x 10.1 x 1.2 inches 4.68 lbs./3+ hour battery
Street price: $1,799
www.dell.com
Tecra M1
Toshiba Computer Systems Group 12.0 x 10.6 x 1.5 inches 5.7 lbs./6+ hour battery
Street price: $2,154
www.toshiba.com
ThinkPad T40 IBM
12.2 x 10 x 1.0 inches 4.5 lbs./5+hour battery
Street price: $1,999
www.ibm.com

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.Write him at mhogan@entrepreneur.com.

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This article was originally published in the May 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Portable Lite.

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