Notebook vendors introduce Centrino-powered models

Intel Corp. formally launched its much-heralded Centrino mobile technology today. Top-tier notebook manufacturers showcased products equipped with the new chip set, which features a five-hour battery life and built-in Wi-Fi capability at prices ranging from $1,399 to $2,200.

At the same time, rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif., introduced its new mobile processor, the low-voltage Athlon XP-M. The Fujitsu PC division of Fujitsu Ltd. in Tokyo, a launch partner, priced its new AMD-powered notebook at $1,199. Fujitsu also unveiled a Centrino notebook line priced at $1,499 and up.

The Centrino consists of a newly designed, low-power-drain Pentium-M chip set and a PRO/Wireless mini-Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) card that handles Wi-Fi connectivity. Intel will offer four standard versions of the Pentium-M running at speeds of 1.6, 1.5, 1.4 and 1.3 GHz and priced at $720, $506, $377 and $292, respectively, in 1,000-unit quantities. The company is also offering a low-voltage version that runs at 1.1 GHz for $345 and an ultralow-voltage chip running at 900 MHz priced at $324.

The Pentium-M offers higher performance than the Pentium 4-M, according to Intel, which said the 1.6-GHz Pentium M offers a 13% to 15% improvement in performance over the earlier 2.4-GHz Pentium 4-M. The 1.6-GHz Pentium M also offers 76% longer battery life than the 2.4-GHz model, according to Intel.

Intel has touted the Wi-Fi capabilities of its Centrino architecture -- and backed this with partnerships with Wi-Fi public-access networks and operators (see story). But competitors pointed out that the Centrino with built-in Wi-Fi can access only mature 802.11b wireless networks that operate in the 2.4-GHz band and have a raw data rate of 11M bit/sec. The Centrino doesn't incorporate the Wi-Fi 802.11a or the 802.11g standard, both of which provide 54M bit/sec. data speeds (in the 5- and 2.4-GHz bands, respectively).

Rich Redelfs, president and CEO of Atheros Communications Inc., a wireless LAN chip manufacturer in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that notebook vendors have the option of using the Pentium-M processor that is at the heart of the Centrino technology with Atheros 802.11a/b WLAN chip sets today and a 802.11g or combined 802.11a/b/g chip sets in the near future.

Major hardware manufacturers that have signed on to use the Atheros 802.11 chip sets include Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Toshiba Corp. and NEC Corp. But Intel -- which has backed the Centrino launch with a $300 million advertising campaign -- won't allow manufacturers to slap on a "Centrino Compatible" logo unless they incorporate both the Pentium-M processor and its Wi-Fi module.

Analysts expect Intel to eventually incorporate all three Wi-Fi standards into the Centrino architecture and view it as the beginning of the end of outboard Wi-Fi packaged in a PC Card. Keith Waryas, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said "the embedded card will eventually go away" as Centrino-equipped notebooks replace older models.

Large enterprise users view Wi-Fi as a business essential. Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp., said he plans to support thousands of traveling workers with Wi-Fi. Scott called the increase in battery life promised by the Centrino a "great step forward." Scott said GM intends to upgrade WLANs in its plants from 802.11b to 802.11g.

As part of Intel's Centrino launch, several hardware vendors announced products today that incorporate the technology.

  • IBM introduced a new notebook built around the Centrino. The ThinkPad 40 is a 4.5-lb. machine with double the battery life of older models, 5.5 hours vs. 2.8. IBM will offer customers the option of using either Intel's built-in Wi-Fi mini-PCI card or a dual-band 802.11a and 802.11b module. Prices for the new ThinkPad 40 start at $1,999.

  • HP rolled out a new notebook, the Compaq Evo N620c, which is equipped with Centrino technology that it said will deliver 70% better battery life than previous models. Pricing for the 5-lb. Evo N620c starts at $1,799.

  • Dell Computer Corp. introduced a new Centrino-powered notebook in its Inspiron line, targeted at small and medium-size businesses. Prices for Centrino Inspiron notebooks start at $1,399.

  • Other hardware vendors that introduced Centrino-equipped notebooks today include the Toshiba Computer Systems division of Toshiba in Tokyo, with five models with prices starting at $1,999, and Sony Corp., with a new Vaio model priced at $2,199.99. Motion Computing Inc. in Austin, Texas, plans to introduce a Centrino-powered Tablet PC.

These products are just the beginning of a tidal wave of new portable PCs equipped with Centrino technology, analysts said. IDC's Waryas said he expects that "within the next year, practically every notebook shipped will come equipped with Centrino."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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