By now you've certainly heard about Centrino, Intel's latest offering for the mobile platform. Like its predecessors, Centrino has an unusual moniker that seems to have nothing to do with its functionality. For Intel, creating an understanding of what the technology entails will certainly be an uphill battle. The challenge stems from the fact that Centrino isn't the name of a microprocessor; rather, the name reflects several technologies that collectively aim to provide a better mobile computing experience.

The Centrino mobile technology label encompasses three enabling technologies for Intel's mobile computing push: An Intel Pentium M microprocessor, the Intel 855 family chipset, and an Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 network adapter. Systems equipped with these technologies should deliver better performance, longer battery life, and broad wireless network interoperability in a thinner, lighter package than previous generations of mobile systems. Intel has designed the Centrino components specifically to deliver on these claims.

The Intel Pentium M Processor
Intel's previous mobile-computing processors have been reworked versions of the company's desktop processors, but Intel designed the Pentium M family specifically for mobile users. The standard Pentium M CPU is available in 1.7GHz, 1.6GHz, 1.5GHz, 1.4GHz, and 1.3GHz speeds. The Low Voltage model for mini-notebooks is available at 1.2GHz and 1.1GHz, and the Ultra-Low Voltage processor designed for subnotebooks and tablet PCs is available at 900MHz. Some of the most notable enhancements to the new processor include Micro-Ops Fusion, advanced instruction prediction, a power-optimized 400MHz processor system bus, intelligent power distribution, and support for Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology.

Micro-Ops Fusion merges multiple CPU operations so that the CPU can accomplish more with fewer resources. The end result is better performance and lower power consumption. Advanced instruction prediction is a technology that the processor uses to study previous instructions to recognize patterns, then anticipate and preload the instructions the next time you perform the same operations. By correctly predicting series of instructions, the Pentium M makes significant advances in performance and power over previous-generation processors. The Pentium M communicates through the power-optimized 400MHz processor system bus, which remains in a powered-off state until it senses incoming data. The Pentium M also exhibits advances in intelligent power distribution by using hardware click gating to partially turn on hardware devices. This feature lets devices consume as much power as they need based on demand without wasting power when it isn't necessary. The Pentium M adds multiple frequency and voltage operating points to Intel's SpeedStep technology, which means that systems with dynamic switching capabilities can automatically select a mode to provide the best balance of performance and power savings.

Additionally, Intel has leveraged the latest developments in packaging and process technology to ensure the efficient use of power. The flip-chip packaging technologies that the Pentium M processors use result in more efficient delivery of power to the processor, and the 0.13 micron (less than 1/300th the width of a human hair) process technology that the Ultra-Low Voltage processor uses delivers lower power consumption with better performance.

Intel 855 Chipset
The second component of Centrino mobile technology is the Intel 855 chipset family. Intel optimized the chipset to provide a mix of performance and power efficiency while reducing the overall size and weight of the system. Tight integration of chipset-supported components, including a USB 2.0 hub, 10/100 Ethernet adapter, 20-bit audio, and 56Kbps modem, provides the core features you need while occupying minimum space. Two versions of the Intel 855 chipset are available. The Intel 855PM chipset uses an AGP 4X interface to provide flexible support for a variety of discreet graphics solutions, and the Intel 855GM chipset includes an integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 solution that reduces space requirements by eliminating the need for an integrated video-controller hub and lowers power consumption by clocking the display and 3-D engines only when you need them.

The performance and power features that both chipset versions share include dynamic I/O buffer disabling for memory and the processor system bus and a mobile clock manager. Dynamic I/O buffer disabling lets the processor system bus and memory shut down and power up as required to lower the overall amount of power that the processor, memory, and chipset consume. The mobile clock manager lowers the operating frequency of the chipset during periods of inactivity so that power isn't consumed on null cycles.

Other notable improvements that the Intel 855 chipset family offers include support for 2GB of Double Data Rate (DDR) memory at 266MHz and 200MHz, Intel Stable Image Technology support, and Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) 2.0 and Advanced Power Management (APM) 1.2 power management. Intel Stable Image Technology is an Intel initiative that seeks to minimize the need to requalify system images when a change to the chipset occurs.

The Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 Network Connection
The third component of Centrino mobile technology is the Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 network connection. Although support for industry security standards such as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), Light Extensible Authentication Protocol (LEAP), and 802.1x are worth mentioning, the PRO/Wireless 2100 network connection's power-saving features are what make this component an attractive option for truly mobile network users. Power Save Protocol (PSP) lets you choose one of five power/performance options when using the wireless network connection while running on battery power. Intel's intelligent scanning technology gradually decreases the frequency at which the wireless network connection scans for available Access Points (APs) to save power when a connection isn't established. However, note that currently, the PRO/Wireless 2100 network connection supports only 802.11b wireless and mainstream wireless security initiatives.

Centrino Offerings
As you might expect, many tier-one and tier-two system vendors already offer systems that feature Centrino mobile technology. As of this writing, tier-one vendors Dell, HP, and IBM each offer Centrino-equipped consumer- and business-class systems. I was able to get my hands on a Dell Latitude D800 with Centrino mobile technology to substantiate Intel's performance, power management, and wireless connectivity claims. Because the D800 is a desktop-replacement model, trying to gauge whether it was lighter or thinner than previous generation notebooks was difficult, but I found its weight of 7.4 pounds to be reasonable considering its 15.4" display, CD-ROM drive, and nine-cell battery configuration.

Looking solely at the frequency ratings for the Pentium M processors might lead you to believe that they're not as fast as the currently available Mobile Intel Pentium 4 processors. Intel's internal testing, however, shows that the 1.6GHz Pentium M processor significantly outperforms the 2.4GHz Mobile Intel Pentium 4 using the MobileMark 2002 benchmark. Intel has taken some flack for these results from competitors who have asserted for years that more hertz doesn't always mean a faster processor. But I'll never decline better performance, even if my system's clock speed is measured in mere megahertz, rather than gigahertz.

The significant performance and power savings enhancements make the benefits of the Pentium M processor and Intel 855 chipset family clear. If your organization has been in the wireless game for a while and you've standardized on a certain vendor's wireless products, you might want to forego the complete Centrino solution. Instead, consider purchasing systems that use the latest Pentium M processor and Intel 855 chipset family but that don't include the Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 network connection and are therefore technically not Centrino systems. This option is also attractive for organizations that aren't ready, and might never be, for wireless networking. Most vendors selling systems equipped with Centrino mobile technology also offer what amounts to the same system without the Intel wireless component for less money.

Mobile users have a lot to gain from the new features and enhancements that are part of Centrino mobile technology. Although the road map for the Centrino wireless component might be slightly behind other wireless vendors, the benefits of the new processor and chipset are undeniable and worthwhile. Whether you choose a subset of the technologies or go for the whole package, you'll like what you get.