A dramatic change has occurred in what promises to be one of the more lucrative notebook computer markets in the years ahead--desktop replacements--those systems that are designed to offer the power and performance of a desktop PC but in a portable form factor. Historically, desktop replacements have used desktop processors, such as the Pentium 4, that aren't designed for mobile use and thus often run hot and offer poor battery life when used in portable devices. To combat this problem, Intel developed its Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor - M family of microprocessors, which offers performance similar to the desktop chips but with slightly better battery life.

Some users will always demand the best possible performance, and for these users, Intel's desktop Pentium 4 chip will continue to be a viable system going forward. Such systems are large, heavy, and designed for intraoffice travel only. For example, a developer might use a Pentium 4-based desktop replacement in his office and bring the machine to meetings when he needs to continue working. But for a growing number of users, compromising portability for performance is no longer acceptable.

Sensing the market opportunity, Intel has, for the first time, developed a portable microprocessor from the ground up, rather than retrofitting existing desktop processors for mobile use as the company had done in the past with the Pentium 4 Processor - M and the Pentium III Processor - M. To fulfill this strategy change, Intel developed a new supporting chipset and a wireless chipset to work in tandem with the new CPU. The resulting solution is now marketed as Intel Centrino, and you've probably seen the advertising, which appears worldwide. The new CPU, confusingly, is called the Pentium M processor. Like its Pentium 4 cousins, it's a 32-bit CPU that's backward-compatible with previous x86-based chips. Also confusing, the Pentium M processor measures clock speed differently from the Pentium 4 family.

The Pentium M processor is available in a variety of speeds, each of which suits a particular purpose. The ultra low voltage processors run at 1GHz and 900MHz and are used in the smallest and lightest notebook computers available, especially in Far East countries. A low voltage chip is available in 1.2GHz and 1.1GHz speeds; this chip is used in the small and light systems often called ultra-mobile notebook computers. Examples include Dell's Inspiron 300m and IBM's ThinkPad X31. The standard Pentium M processor is used in mid-sized and desktop-replacement notebooks and is available in speeds of 1.7GHz, 1.6GHz, 1.5GHz, 1.4GHz, and 1.3GHz.

These speeds might not seem impressive compared with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 desktop chip, but remember the clock speed difference. In my tests earlier this year with a 1.6GHz ThinkPad T41, the machine regularly outperformed a 2.66GHz Pentium 4 desktop machine. So a Pentium M processor notebook can offer tremendous performance; the difference, of course, is portability. And Pentium M processor-based portable computers can offer tremendous battery life. Thus, today, you can get a machine that offers the best of both worlds.

Laptop of the Month: Compaq Presario X1012
HP's Compaq Presario X1012 is a machine that offers both performance and portability. The Presario X1012 is HP's retail version and comes preconfigured. HP also offers similar machines, such as the Presario x1002us and Presario X1015us, online, and the HP Pavillion ZT3000, which the company is launching today. All are basically the same machine, although some offer higher screen resolutions, and they symbolize the ways in which desktop replacements are evolving. The Presario X1000 series features a wonderful 15.4" wide-screen 1280 x 800 resolution display driven by a 32MB ATI Technologies' ATI MOBLITY RADEON 9200 video card, which is fairly high-end these days.

The system's core sounds somewhat pedestrian, but don't be misled. The Presario X1012 is powered by a 1.3GHz Pentium M processor chip and offers the full Centrino solution, meaning the device offers the Intel 855 chipset and the Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 network adapter, which offers 802.11b wireless compatibility. The rest of the system is also impressive: 512MB of RAM, a 40GB hard disk, a DVD/CD-ROM combination drive, modem, Ethernet, and three USB 2.0 ports. The system weighs a bit more than 6.5 pounds--afterall, it's a desktop replacement--but is only 1.3" thick and regularly delivers more than 4.5 hours of battery life with one battery, which is excellent for a system this size.

Nice touches abound on the Presario X1012. Between the trackpad and the keyboard bottom is a small wide button that toggles the trackpad so that you can turn off the trackpad when typing (why this feature isn't on all notebooks is beyond me). You can also toggle the speakers on and off with an easily accessible mute button, handily located next to the decent JBL speakers. The unit also includes an integrated Secure Digital (SD) card slot, perfect for use with the memory card type that many digital cameras, PDAs, and other portable devices use.

From a software standpoint, the Presario X1012 is pure retail-oriented, shipping almost exclusively with Windows XP Home Edition. But you can configure HP's Web-only versions of this machine to include better screens, faster processors, and other features and get Microsoft Office bundles and XP Professional Edition if need be. But the retail version comes with one huge advantage--price. At just $1300, the Presario X1012 is a steal. Other versions of this system cost anywhere from $1300 to $2200, depending on options. All in all, the Presario X1000 series is well designed, well built, and priced right. Recommended.