From the April 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

If you've been thinking about picking up a new laptop or 10 for your mobile work force, now is a great time to go shopping. The first portables using Intel's Centrino Duo mobile technology platform are starting to fill retail and e-tail shelves, and AMD's dual-core entry should be here by summer.

The shift to multicore processing--in the case of Intel's Core Duo, two engines on a single chip--is a computing sea change with special significance for portables. It's not that chip makers won't continue to drive throughput by revving up processor clock cycles. The issue is that increased throughput tends to gobble battery power and generate heat--long the twin millstones surrounding portability. Today's microprocessor circuits are so thin--thinner than a human cell, in fact--that the more electricity pushed through them, the more they leak.

The new approach is to get more work done by adding lower-cycle computing engines that emphasize energy conservation. It debuted in the dual-core desktops AMD and Intel released last summer. But Core Duo represents such a vast improvement over those designs, says Jim McGregor, principal analyst for In-Stat/MDR, it's really in a class of its own. "They did this one right," says McGregor. "This is one good multicore processor."

Refinements that improve throughput and/or reduce electricity usage extend across the entire Centrino Duo mobile platform, which also includes the new 945 Express chipset and Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG Network Connection Wi-Fi transceiver. But principal among them, says McGregor, is the degree to which both Core Duo computation units communicate with one another and truly work in tandem. Both tap the same large cache, the entire amount of which can be used by either execution unit when necessary. Instruction allocation logic has been improved in half a dozen ways, so Core Duo does a better job shuttling instructions between processor, cache and main memory, making better use of processor cycles.

At the same time, idle portions of this version of Centrino go to sleep more quickly and deeply than previous architectures. That includes the faster 945 Express chipset, which has a more powerful graphics engine and a 25 percent faster front-side bus. For the first time, unused registers in L2 cache (occupying most die real estate) can be turned off. Basically, Centrino Duo packs more work into faster bursts than its predecessors, then goes to sleep.

"Our engineers call it HUGI--hurry up and get idle," says Karen Regis, marketing director for Intel's Mobile Platforms Group. "The goal is to get work done in less time and quickly transition into one of the lower sleep states." That approach lets Centrino Duo work 70 percent faster than its mobile predecessor overall, while using about 28 percent less electricity.

Results Can Vary
That's quite a leap ahead for any new architecture, but your laptop's performance and battery life could easily vary. It depends on how well its builder exploits the new technology, how it's appointed--for example, a 17-inch vs. a 14-inch display--and the uses to which you put it. When a range of industry-standard benchmarks were run on comparably appointed Lenovo Pentium M and Core Duo notebooks, the results, predictably, varied widely by application (see www.intel.com/performance/mobile/centrino.htm). But the Core Duo machine beat the older technology under every scenario.

Core Duo's strengths are most apparent when using multithreaded, media-heavy content creators like Adobe Photoshop CS2 and Roxio VideoWave. More math can be done faster when instructions are divvied up between multiple cores. But Windows XP is a multithreaded OS, so benefits can accrue anytime you're multitasking--especially with high-bandwidth combinations like creating a PowerPoint presentation while running background virus or spyware scans.

Of course, the large displays and special graphics adapters in media-oriented powerhouses like Acer's Travelmate 8204WLMi and Dell's Inspiron E1705 could quickly spend Duo's power savings. But laptops like Lenovo's ThinkPad X60 ultralight emphasize battery life, and others offer a balance of power and power savings. There's no question, though, that energy conservation is the new design mantra. In a reversal of history, Intel's mobile technology will become its pre-eminent architecture going forward.

"While Centrino looks like it was intended for mobile platforms," says Regis, "it's going into desktops, into ViiV systems and servers--anywhere customers are concerned about energy consumption, noise and heat."

Hurry Up or Wait?
Core Duo T and L versions are being released at Pentium M price points, so Centrino Duo portables should be at last-generation prices once Intel gets the distribution pipeline filled. In a market where vendors pass their savings on to customers fairly quickly, a single-core follow-on Intel calls Core Solo should pressure prices further.

Pentium M portables, of course, are being blown out of inventory, and that perfectly good technology is fine for staff with low-impact computing needs. The buying decision is more complicated if you're shopping at the top of the line.

Should you wait to check out the dual-core version of AMD's Turion 64 this summer? What about Intel's 64-bit Centrino upgrade--code-named Merom--a bit later? It depends on what type of portables you need and how soon you need them. The good news is, whatever you need only gets better and cheaper from here. But it wouldn't hurt to start shopping.

Two For the Show
Intel's new twice-as-fun mobile processor in four flavors:

  • Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi: A VoIP phone and rotating video camera in its 15.4-inch widescreen give Acer's 8204WLMi hands-free communications and videoconferencing capabilities. Starts at $2,500.
  • Apple MacBook Pro: Finally, an Intel-based Apple for the rest of us, with Mac's usual people-pleasing features like built-in video and DVD. Starts at $2,000.
  • Dell Inspiron E1705: Put a desktop display in an 8-pound portable, add NVIDIA graphics, and you get Dell's gaming powerhouse. Starts at $2,300.
  • Lenovo ThinkPad X60: With a 12.1-inch display and extended battery, the 3.7-pound X60 advertises a 37 percent power savings and a full day of computing. Starts at $2,000.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.