Intel Launches New Santa Rosa Laptop Platform

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Today, Intel has introduced its upgraded Centrino platform, formerly code-named Santa Rosa, along with several new mobile processors. In PC World tests of two systems equipped with the new Intel products--the $1309 HP Pavilion dv6500t and the $2270 Gateway E-475M--we found that the new platform offers users a good technological leg up, though it doesn't establish tremendous new performance records.

(Also check out our photo tour of another new notebook from HP with the latest Intel technology, the $2999 Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook, which features a whopping 20.1-inch display, a TV tuner and HD DVD drive.)

As you'd expect, other major vendors--including Acer, Dell, Lenovo, Sony, and Toshiba--will have new systems of their own available, some at launch, and others within the next month or so. Check our staff blog for news about Santa Rosa-based business notebooks and about consumer notebooks, including models from Sony and Acer and HP's new line.

Lots of New Technology

New processors launching include the 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo T7700 (the new top speed in Core 2 Duo mobile, up from 2.33 GHz), the 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, the 2-GHz T7300, and the 1.8-GHz T7100.

All are made with the same 65-nanometer process as previous Core 2 Duos. The 2-GHz and faster CPUs offer 4MB of L2 cache (just as the earlier T7000 line of chips did), while the new 1.8-GHz model has 2MB of cache. The new CPUs have better processing capabilities, thanks to improvements to their microarchitecture such as a full four-wide superscalar pipeline, which enables the processor to handle four instructions per clock; macro fusion capabilities, which allow the processor to combine several commonly used instructions into a single instruction for more efficient execution; and Intel's Advanced Smart Cache, which is optimized to reduce access times to frequently used data. The CPUs also have better power management, permitting them to turn off a portion of a core that's not in use, say, or to turn off a core altogether while boosting the speed of the other core as needed, according to Shane Rau, IDC's research program manager for PC semiconductors. Such abilities should prove helpful in the demanding Windows Vista environment.

The overall Santa Rosa platform brings several noteworthy updates to mobile computing, too. You get a faster 800-MHz frontside bus (up from 667 MHz), support for DDR2-800 memory, an upgrade of built-in wireless capability from 802.11a/b/g to the faster draft-n, gigabit ethernet, and a new chip-set family called Mobile 965 Express that will deliver significantly improved graphics via the Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 engine, according to Intel. Business laptops, which will use the Centrino Pro platform (consumer notebooks get the Centrino Duo platform), also get automated security features and IT management features built in.

Arguably the most innovative part of the platform is the optional Turbo Memory capability, formerly code-named Robson. Robson improves a system's responsiveness and multitasking ability by including a nonvolatile flash memory cache to reduce hard-drive hits. That should help you load apps faster, get better resume times, and cut down on battery consumption, for starters. Robson supports new Vista technologies such as ReadyBoost and ReadyDrive.

Only a few vendors--such as Lenovo (with the ThinkPad T61) and Acer (on select models)--will have the new technology at launch, however. Though Fujitsu has said it is working on the technology, its first batch of Santa Rosa laptops will not include any models that incorporate Turbo Memory.

Good Performance

The PC World Test Center put two new notebooks through their paces on our WorldBench 6 Beta 2 performance benchmark suite and our battery tests.

The Gateway E-475M, with a 2.2-GHz T7500 CPU, 2GB of RAM, a 100GB hard drive, and a 15.4-inch LCD, takes the top performance spot with a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 83. That's one point better than the previous WorldBench 6 record holder, the Micro Express NP5760, equipped with a 2.33-GHz T7600 chip. The E-475 also beats the Micro Express handily on battery life, lasting 5 hours, 17 minutes, versus less than 2 hours for the NP5760.

The HP Pavilion model carries a 2-GHz Core 2 Duo T7300, 2GB of RAM, and a 15.4-inch LCD screen. It earned a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 75, about 10 percent below the marks posted by fastest notebooks we've tested. It's still plenty fast for most anything you'd want to do, and it will let you work for nearly 4 hours, based on our battery tests.

All in all, since you won't have to pay any significant premium for the new platform, it's a win for users.

Mobile Outlook

Though the new platform doesn't contain any truly revolutionary technology--for that, look to next year's Penryn processors, which will use a 45-nanometer manufacturing process--it does sustain Intel's momentum in the area of mobile processors.

Intel's dominant position in the mobile marketplace means that the company is unlikely to gain or lose market share as long as it continues to deliver upgrades like the new Santa Rosa platform, says IDC's Rau.

Consumers benefit because Intel's platform approach allows it to drive technology forward. For example, the original Centrino platform introduced wireless technology broadly and helped drive costs down, says Rau, and the new Santa Rosa continues along that path with the faster draft-n capability. Intel is also likely to add WiMax to the equation soon, integrating even faster wireless communication features into new laptops.

Robson is another significant technology, though it has not been widely adopted as yet. Rau speculates that the battery and performance benefits it promises are not sufficiently established at this point to justify wider pickup by OEMs. However, this or similar caching technology will be essential for forthcoming notebooks as Vista and other new apps make increasingly large demands on new systems. In the short term, look for vendors to begin releasing systems with Robson or hybrid drives (which include a flash memory cache along with standard platters), while waiting for solid-state drives to become more mainstream, Rau says.

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