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Analyst: Centrino offers stability, long battery life

Intel has high hopes for its new Centrino mobile computing program, but does it deliver? A Gartner analyst explains what Centrino is, how the technology works and why Centrino-powered notebooks might give a company's mobile workers an edge.

It's no secret that Intel Corp. has high hopes for its Centrino program. In fact, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip maker wants the new product set -- highlighted by the new Pentium-M processor -- to become its flagship offering. In support of that goal, Intel has already committed to a $300 million marketing program. asked Leslie Fiering, vice president of mobile computing with Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc., for the inside scoop on Centrino and how it may benefit an enterprise's mobile workers. Centrino is more than a processor. Can you explain what it is?
Fiering: It's a little bit of a departure for Intel because it's not a straight processor. They've branded a mobile technology that consists of the Pentium-M processor, a supporting chip set and a wireless 802.11b [Wi-Fi] radio. PC vendors can choose either to buy the whole Centrino-branded platform or just get the Pentium-M processor and add third-party Wi-Fi components. As you mentioned, Intel included a Wi-Fi radio module as part of Centrino. Does that take the place of a wireless network card?
Fiering: Yes, it's integrated with the processor, so you don't need to add a wireless LAN card to your notebook. It's the same as using a wireless LAN card, only it's on the chip set instead. The advantage for users is that, generally, you get better performance [because] the antenna placement can be optimized. Intel has spent over $30 million in live testing around the world and claims they get more robust connections and [that] it's a little easier to use. However, some of the large vendors, like IBM and HP and so on, are using third-party Wi-Fi radios as well as the Centrino radio, so I'm not sure that Centrino [Wi-Fi radios] make a big difference to the user. What are Centrino's strengths?
Fiering: One advantage is systems stability. That's something where there's a big cost factor. The larger [notebook] vendors -- IBM, Dell, HP, Toshiba -- all invest heavily in this, and one of the biggest sources of change they have to cope with from Intel is components and drivers. With Centrino, Intel has committed to six quarters of stable drivers, which will make it much easier for the larger vendors to maintain their systems, even if the components change. That stability will also lower some of the barriers for smaller vendors. How can a processor or related products improve a mobile device's wireless networking capability?
Fiering: The benefits from Centrino -- and also from the basic Pentium-M -- is that this is the first platform that's been designed from the ground up to support mobile computing. It focuses not only on the traditional performance parameters but also on supporting battery life.

One of the things we've seen with the integrated wireless radio is that it is constantly pinging and checking to see if there are any communications, so it's on all the time, and it would keep the battery in full operating mode. One of the new things in Centrino is that it tunes the battery so it's on just enough to support the radio, not drawing power all the time. So now it's possible to either build a notebook that's the same size but has much longer batter life, or to build a much thinner, lighter notebook where you need fewer battery cells to power it but still have the same battery life that the older notebooks had. How is Centrino an improvement for mobile workers?
Fiering: At the same time that Intel invested in integrating Wi-Fi in its chips, they invested heavily in hot spots. Now, with Centrino, you not only have the capability to work longer, but also you can use wireless in more places. People who are using wireless [computers] will stop someplace and spend 10 to 15 minutes to quickly sync up their e-mail, and then go on and work elsewhere. Someone might go into an airport lounge, sync up, and have e-mail to work with on the airplane. Even for companies that don't have wireless [capabilities] on their own campuses, we're seeing benefits for them almost immediately from employees using these external hot spots. Intel says the Pentium-M microprocessors actually run more slowly. Is that an issue?
Fiering: It's going to run more slowly than their screaming-fast desktop processors, but the performance is still pretty good. Intel didn't want to focus on performance [with Pentium-M]; they wanted to focus on the benefits of the mobile platform, and then -- oh, by the way -- you get good performance. How do you expect Centrino to impact the price of business-class notebooks?
Fiering: I'm seeing pricing all over the place on the early Centrino notebooks, but it's the processor that is more important. There's a lot that vendors can do in terms of the feature sets and positioning and, over time, as [Centrino notebook production] ramps up, we'll see less of a difference. Plus, this market is so competitive that no one can afford to offer a huge price premium on notebooks right now. Since Centrino technology is just starting to hit the market, how can an enterprise determine whether Centrino-based products are worthwhile?
Fiering: Basically, there needs to be an evaluation or validation period, where a company will [acquire] a few [Centrino notebooks], load its software, test them on its networks, send a few out with users, and make sure it's getting the performance, compatibility and reliability they expected. Typically, this period takes one or two quarters. Intel has been working with its PC vendors, and those vendors have had evaluation machines for their larger customers for some time. Are there any cases where it might be worthwhile for a company to alter or accelerate its product upgrade cycle to get Centrino-based products?
Fiering: Yes, to the extent that there are some benefits from the wireless connectivity. Unfortunately, because of the economy, that are a lot of companies that are putting off their technology refresh cycle and, while we don't believe that Centrino in and of itself will be the trigger for companies to buy new notebooks, companies sitting on the fence may find that Centrino pushes them over that fence.


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