First Tests of Intel's New Dual-Core Mobile Processors

Intel increased the multitasking power of notebooks this week with its introduction of dual-core technology into its mobile processor line. Our exclusive tests show the new Intel Core Duo chips can boost a system's ability to perform more than one task at a time, but they don't seem to have much performance impact on single, standard applications.

We evaluated two preproduction notebooks--one from Dell, the other from HP--each featuring the new 2-GHz Core Duo T2500 chip. The chips, formerly code-named Yonah, also come with a new platform (formerly code-named Napa) that boasts a faster frontside bus (now at 667 MHz, up from 533 MHz), support for faster memory that matches the frontside bus speed, a new chip set (the 945 GM/PM), and Intel's new wireless 802.11 a/b/g technology.

The processors come in two main lines: the T line for mainstream notebooks, and the L line of low-voltage models intended for ultralight laptops. The T line will range from the 1.66-GHz T2300 to the 2.16-GHz T2600; the L line will initially have two variants, the 1.5-GHz L2300 and the 1.66-GHz L2400.

Like the Pentium M line, Intel's previous generation of mobile processors, all of the new chips also offer a 2MB cache. In addition, the systems feature Intel power-management technology that can shut down one of the processor cores if the application workload is light, thereby improving notebook battery life.

Intel says notebooks with the new processors should be available from most major vendors at launch or in the coming weeks.

Multitasking Might

PC World tested two 2-GHz Core Duo T2500-based systems, a $1923 HP Pavilion dv1000 and a $2307 Dell Inspiron E1705. We found average speed for the processor class in everyday applications, and par-for-the-course battery life. But the pair rocked in our multitasking tests.

The two systems each had 1GB of memory, though the E1705 came with the slightly faster DDR2-667 SDRAM as opposed to the dv1000's DDR2-533 SDRAM. Both notebooks earned a WorldBench 5 score of 97.

That score makes them among the fastest notebooks we've ever tested, but not any speedier overall than Pentium M notebooks at an equivalent gigahertz level. For example, a recent Best Buy, the Acer TravelMate 8100, equipped with a 2-GHz Pentium M 760 chip and 1GB of DDR2-533 SDRAM, earned a mark of 94, a statistically insignificant difference of 3 percent behind the new systems' score.

We saw little difference in battery life, too. Equipped with an extended-life nine-cell battery ($99 more than the standard six-cell battery), the Inspiron E1705 ran out of gas after 2 hours, 32 minutes, fairly typical for a notebook with a 17-inch wide screen. The Pavilion dv1000, a 14-inch wide-screen model, did better at 3 hours, 51 minutes, nearly matching the 4-hour battery life we got with a single-processor version of the notebook last year.

But the dual processors showed their stuff when juggling multiple jobs. The two notebooks shone in PC World's multitasking test (in which we browse the Web while converting a video file from one format to another), completing the test almost 30 percent faster than the Acer TravelMate 8100 did. The dv1000 was speediest, finishing the job in 470 seconds (or a little under 8 minutes), while the Dell took 498 seconds (or 8 minutes, 18 seconds); the Acer TravelMate needed 682 seconds (over 11 minutes) to finish.

In video games, the speed of game play varied, but overall we did not notice much difference in visual quality or smoothness.

Both of our test systems ran fairly cool and quiet. Thermal design power for the new T line is 31 watts, while the L line is rated at 15 watts--up slightly over the last generation, which had ratings of 27 watts for mainstream Pentium M CPUs and 10 watts for the low-voltage versions.

Good Desktop Replacements

Strong multitasking will come in handy on notebooks like the Dell Inspiron E1705, whose Windows Media Center Edition operating system allows multiple media applications to run at once. A large but stylish-looking 8.2-pound (not including power adapter) silver desktop replacement unit with white trim, the E1705 offers a bright 1920-by-1200-resolution 17-inch wide screen, an 80GB hard drive, a good keyboard, and better-than-average notebook sound, including a subwoofer. Front media buttons let you pop in a DVD or CD, or even manage the digital photos on your hard drive, without booting. The unit replaces the Inspiron 9300 series, which will gradually disappear this quarter.

The 5.6-pound dv1000, a dual-core refresh of HP's popular consumer notebook, now boasts a basic Webcam built into the top of the 14-inch 1280-by-768-resolution screen, a 100GB hard drive, a handy touchpad lock, and dual headphones ports located on the front. The dv1000 also has a quick-play option that lets you turn the notebook into a stand-alone DVD and CD player. It should make a good entertainment notebook for students and mainstream consumers.

Both units offer built-in rewritable DVD drives and include media card reader slots, along with the usual complement of ports.

Additional Improvements

Intel expects speed boosts even greater than the ones we saw in our tests. On some tests, the company says, it saw a performance boost of 68 percent or more.

Keith Kressin, director of marketing for Intel's mobile products group, says that games should look better on Core Duo notebooks but that multitasking would benefit the most, as our tests show. "The more demanding the task--ripping a CD while watching a movie, for instance--the better the performance improvement," he says.

Gerry Purdy, an analyst with MobileTrax, expects improvements on simultaneous tasks but not on tasks you merely switch between, such as working in a word processing document and then in a spreadsheet. "But when you do two things simultaneously and at least one of them involves media management, such as music or video, that's where dual core will really make a difference. For example, playing a live CNN video while you answer e-mails," he says.

Leslie Fiering of Gartner agrees, offering the example of antivirus software's annoying tendency to stall other applications. "You can do real work while your virus checker is running in the background," she says.

The new notebooks should also benefit from new mini-card Wi-Fi boards based on the PCI Express design, which is half the size of older Wi-Fi cards. That leaves an open slot for manufacturers to add a WWAN card without increasing the size of the notebook, says Intel's Kressin.

Bahr Mahony, director of AMD's Mobile Division, says AMD plans to release a dual-core version of its Turion 64 processor some time in the first half of 2006 that will be optimized for longer battery life and for notebooks 6.5 pounds and lighter. Currently AMD's Athlon64 X2 Dual-Core Processor for desktop PCs is being used in a handful of desktop replacement notebooks.

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