First Tests of Intel's New Pentium M

Intel expands its mobile CPU power this week with the release of three fast new models of its Pentium M processor, formerly code-named Dothan. The first notebooks to run the new chips post about a 10 percent jump over comparable older models.

The chips are featured in four new notebooks from Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. The notebooks blazed through early tests and also offer the same top-notch battery life typical of the Pentium M family.

The new Pentium Ms come in speeds of 1.7 GHz, 1.8 GHz, and 2 GHz, and boast several improvements over the last generation of Pentium Ms. Most notable is a larger level 2 cache--2MB, up from 1MB. They're also the first to bear Intel's new naming scheme for processors, which replaces clock speed with a processor model number.

These chips are at the core of Intel's Centrino mobile platform, which is made up of the Pentium M processors, the chip set that supports them, and Intel's wireless (Wi-Fi) implementation. Like the CPUs, the platform also is upgraded in this generation.

Faster Overall

PC World tested the four notebooks configured with 1GB of RAM and Windows XP Professional. They came with different Pentium M processors. Dell's Inspiron 8600C, priced at $2899, and HP's $2499 Compaq Business Notebook Nc6000 both use the 2-GHz Pentium M 755. The Gateway 450XL, priced at $2432, uses the 1.8-GHz Pentium M 745, and the $1994 IBM ThinkPad T42 has a 1.7-GHz Pentium M 735.

As expected, the Inspiron 8600C and Compaq Nc6000 notebooks, which have the fastest processors, posted the top scores on PC WorldBench 4: The Inspiron 8600C hit 137, and the Compaq Nc6000, 136--which are leading scores for Windows XP Pro laptops.

The Gateway 450XL and the ThinkPad T42 aren't far behind; the 450XL scored 130, and the T42, 133. That's about a 4 percent gain for the 450XL compared with an older model running an original 1.7-GHz Pentium M.

The gain is about 8 percent for the Nc6000 and ThinkPad T42 notebooks versus older versions of each system with a 1.6-GHz Pentium M. All of the older units had less RAM than these new models, at 512MB. Overall, the new Pentium M notebooks scored about 10 percent better than the 122 average of a dozen 1.6-GHz Pentium M notebooks.

The four new units also perform well on other tests. On average, they completed both our AutoCAD and Photoshop tests in about three-quarters of the average time it took three 1.6-GHz Pentium M notebooks that were introduced a year ago. In raw numbers (seconds), the averages were 201 versus 264 for AutoCAD and 263 versus 348 for Photoshop. They also earned impressive scores on the Premiere 6 test. The Dell Inspiron 8600C and Gateway 450XL, which have the best graphics cards, prove worthy gaming machines as well. The 8600C pumped out 111 frames per second and the 450XL, 96 fps, on the Return to Castle Wolfenstein test. The 8600C hit 207 fps and the 450XL, 179 fps, on Unreal Tournament.

Battery life remains consistently good, with each of the units posting running times of more than six hours.

Notebook Specs

All four notebooks are packed with features and have modular bays that accept various components, such as a second battery, a second hard disk, or optical drives.

The Dell Inspiron 8600C's 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD boasts a 1920 by 1200 resolution, and is powered by an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 Pro graphics chip, using 128MB of RAM. This configuration also comes with a 60GB hard drive; a DVD+R/RW drive that also handles CD-RW; two USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire port; stereo speakers; and modem, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi connection capabilities. The unit is no lightweight, though: This 1.7-inch-thick unit weighs about 8.3 pounds with an AC adapter ready for travel, and 7.1 pounds on its own.

The Gateway 450XL's 15-inch screen offers a 1600-by-1200 resolution run by ATI's Radeon 9600 graphics chip using 128MB of RAM. Our unit came with a 60GB drive, a combination DVD-R/RW and CD-RW drive, and a touchpad that doubles as a fingerprint reader for biometric security. It has two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire port, along with the usual connectors. Like the Inspiron 8600C, this unit also provides ethernet and modem connectivity and has stereo speakers. It weighs 7.7 pounds ready for travel and 6.9 pounds on its own.

HP's Compaq Nc6000 business notebook is also well-stocked, but weighs less than the Gateway and Dell units. It tips the scales at 6.6 pounds ready for travel and 5.8 pounds alone. It has, however, a smaller screen at 14.1 inches with 1024-by-768 resolution, and an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 graphics chip with 32MB of RAM. The hard drive is comparable to the others, at 60GB; our review unit also had a CD-RW drive, both a pointing stick and a touchpad, two USB 2.0 ports, and Bluetooth, gigabit ethernet, and 802.11a/b/g connectivity.

IBM's Thinkpad T42 is the lightest at 5.7 pounds ready to travel, and 5 pounds system-only, and is also the thinnest at 1.1 inches. Like the HP Compaq Nc6000, it has a 14.1-inch screen with 1024-by-768 resolution. Its ATI Radeon 7500 graphics chip has 32MB of RAM, and its hard drive is 40GB. It comes with both a touchpad and a pointing stick, a combination DVD and CD-RW drive, and both wired (gigabit) and wireless connectivity.

Under the Hood

That 2MB of L2 cache and some improved handling of instructions helped the new chips' test scores, but it's thanks to the 90-nanometer manufacturing technology that the battery life remains good. Going to the 90-nanometer process helps keep the overall power envelope below the older generation of Pentium M, says Roger Kay, IDC's vice president of client computing. The new units run at 21 watts, as opposed to 24.5 watts for 1.7-GHz CPUs, he notes.

The platform's wireless capability is also upgraded. Users with a Centrino notebook get Intel Pro/Wireless 2200BG, which, as the name implies, supports both 802.11b and the faster 802.11g. The new standard is backward compatible, so it will work well in mixed Wi-Fi network environments, but it will run at the slower speed in Wi-Fi network environments with B adapters.

The one thing lacking in the new Centrinos is a better chip set. That will be coming later this year, when Intel releases the chip set code-named Alviso. That chip set and the Centrino "Sonoma" platform will offer many significant improvements including a 533-MHz frontside bus (up from 400 MHz) and support for fast DDR2 memory, the PCI Express bus, better audio, and an 802.11a/b/g wireless solution.

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