Technology

So What is a Centrino, Anyway?

The verdict on Intel's new wireless technology? Promising and confusing.
John GoffMay 8, 2003

You’ve probably already noticed television spots for Intel’s new mobile technology. Called Centrino, this processing platform for notebooks, PDAs and other portables, was launched amid tremendous fanfare in March. At the time, Mike Splinter, executive vice president at Intel, reportedly called Centrino the “most exciting invention and development in mobile computing since the laptop. Gushed Splinter: “We fundamentally believe that we’re at a tipping point in computing.”

Whether we’re at a tipping point — or just slightly listing — remains to be seen. Like most first-generation technology, Intel’s Centrino sounds great in the press release. And like most first-generation technology, it’s also a long way from perfect.

Ironically, the biggest problem with Intel’s new offering is that potential buyers seem awfully confused by what Centrino actually is. And Intel has only itself to blame for that.

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For starters, Centrino technology is based on the Pentium M processor, which is the first chip Intel has ever developed from the ground up for use in mobile machines. In other words, it’s not a desktop chip that’s been jimmied to work in a laptop. Of course, driving home that very important selling point might have been a simpler branding task if Intel’s previous chip for notebooks wasn’t called the Pentium 4-M.

Compounding the confusion: the clock speed of the older Pentium 4-M chips (found in most mid-range to high-end notebooks) is actually higher than the new Pentium M chips. Indeed, most Pentium 4-M notebooks currently on the market boast clock speeds of 1.8GHz to 2.4GHz. By contrast, the top clock speed of the first iteration of the new Centrino chips run at 1.6GHz (1.5GHz and 1.4GHz versions are also available).

So the new chip is slower? Again, confusion. Clock speed, which essentially tells you how often a processor goes back to retrieve information, can be confusing. Higher clock speeds don’t always translate into faster computers. While that may seem counter-intuitive, consider this: The British say “What’s for pudding?” when they mean “What’s for dessert?”

Anyway, the new Pentium M may have a slower processing speed than the Pentium 4-M, but thanks to some fancy engineering (including doubling the size of the memory cache on the chip), the processor is actually faster than the older chip. Indeed, PC Magazine reports that a 1.4-GHz Pentium M unit easily beat out a 2.4-GHz P4-M system on its Business Winstone and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone tests.

While Intel should be able to educate buyers that the Pentium M is faster than the Pentium 4-M (one possible ad campaign: “The new chip is faster.”), it still has a long way to go in getting consumers to glom on to the “wireless” part of its new wireless technology. You see, the Centrino package includes not only the new Pentium M processor, but a chip-set designed to jazz up graphics (a less jazzy chip-set is also available), and more importantly, a PRO/Wireless 2100 mini-PCI wireless network card.

At first blush, it’s the wireless network card that would seem to hold the most intrigue for corporate buyers. After all, corporate executives and sales managers have grown sick of trying to smoke out Internet connections at airports, hotels, and train stations. With Centrino technology, you simply look for a hotspot — that is, a public area that’s wired for Centrino — and presto, a user can get right up on the net.

A great idea, right? The problem is, there aren’t that many hotspots out there right now. Intel is investing a lot of money in boosting the number of Wi-Fi hot spots around the world. But currently, there are only 3,000 to 4,000 such locales verified to work with Centrino-enabled devices. By the end of the year, Intel expects that number to have grown into the tens of thousands.

We’ll see. We’ll also see how long it takes for Intel to roll out a Centrino platform that supports both the 802.11a and 802.11b wireless protocols. Initially, Intel announced that its wireless card would support both the 802.11a and 802.11b wireless protocols. But the company failed to get the 802.11a ready in time.

And that’s a problem. The lion’s share of corporate IT departments have already embraced the 802.11a protocol for wireless networks in corporate offices.

The lack of a dual-protocol card has also added to the overall fog surrounding Centrino. Once notebook makers realized that the Pro/Wireless card in the Centrino system would only support the 802.11b protocol, they turned to third party vendors to supply dual-protocol cards. Faced with this defection, Intel essentially stuck it to notebook makers, saying their products could only carry the Centrino moniker if they included all three components of the technology — that is, the processor (“Remember, it’s faster”), chip set, and PRO/Wireless 2100 mini-PCI card.

Hence, notebooks that contain the Pentium M chip, but not the PRO/Wireless 2100 card, cannot carry the Centrino logo. More murkiness.

It remains to be seen if CFOs, CTOs, and other purchasers of portable computers will be put off by all the confusion surrounding the Centrino.

I hope not. The fact is, despite Intel’s botched launch, the company’s latest offering is a real breakthrough in mobile computing. Intel engineers worked hard to improve the chip’s ability to shift clock speed and voltage intelligently, based on the tasks being performed. As a result, Pentium M-powered notebooks run a long time on a single battery charge. A very long time. In early tests, Pentium-M based notebooks lasted five hours per charge. And according to Cnet, the IBM’s ThinkPad T40 hit the seven-hour mark on that Website’s battery run-down test.

That’s truly remarkable, and could signal the end of the ten-pound carrying case (six-pound notebook, plus two extra batteries). That’s one tradition I’m sure most business laptop users would be glad to ditch.

Hype Rating? 5 (out of 10)
Business Impact? 7
Your Move: Intel may have scuffed it’s shoes in getting the Centrino to market, but the performance and battery life of the Pentium M are eye-popping. Even if the Centrino wireless stuff doesn’t pan out — and we don’t wind up with thousands and thousands of Centrino hotspots — who cares? A notebook that processes this fast, and runs upwards of seven hours on a single charge… well… you might want to consider holding off on purchasing any notebooks for your sales staff right now. In a few months, Intel should be shipping Centrinos with the dual protocol wireless cards — and the sticker prices for Pentium M portables will no doubt be a lot lower than they are now.

Currently, vendors are selling a limited number of notebooks with the Pentium-M chip. Even fewer are selling true-Centrino portables. If you’ve got to have one right now, try the Toshiba Tecra M1, the Acer TravelMate 803LCi, or the Gateway 450.

Sheep’s Clothing?

In April, the new management team at bankrupt retailer WorldCom announced they had a swell plan to help the company emerge from Ch. 11. Part of that plan involved getting lenders to agree to take 37 cents for every dollar they’re owed. The other part of the plan? Changing the name of the company.

Indeed, WorldCom is no more; the company is now officially called MCI. In case you’re keeping score at home, WorldCom’s corporate moniker has gone through a real evolutionary march, from LDDS to MCI to WorldCom and back to MCI. While the name changes may be confusing to investors, it does keep them busy down at the stationary store.

Of course, WorldCom/MCI is not alone in looking to reinvent itself through semiotics. According to an industry source, about 30 or so technology companies have changed their DBAs in the first quarter of the year. While many of those changes stem from acquisitions (Rational Software took acquirer IBM’s name, for example), other tech companies have changed names without changing owners. Example: Panama Tech became Interlace Corp.

What’s behind this rush to rename? In some cases, the answer is obvious. Anne Roy, director of marketing at branding specialist EnterpriseIG, asserts that “some companies are trying to get the public to forget past transgressions.”

In other cases, corporates are probably looking to distance themselves from overly narrow market slices. Incyte Genomics, for instance, changed its name to Incyte Corporation. Still others appear to be detaching themselves from sectors in decline. That’s particularly true for technology companies — especially dot-coms. Recent examples of dot-com appendectomies: WhitePage.com became W3 Data, and Sina.com became just plain old Sina Corp.

Whether these branding makeovers really make a difference is unclear, however. As Roy notes, “the American public has a short attention span to begin with.” That, of course, makes you wonder if it’s worth going through all the trouble to make a name change. And what if in two years time, Internet revenues soar. Are these companies going to surgically re-attach the dot-com?

These name changes also cause an awful lot of bother for sites dedicated to trashing the companies that are doing the name-changing. For example, the day after WorldCom announced it was WorldCom no more, Mitch Marcus, a former WorldCom employee, put out a press release saying he was changing the name of his site from BoycottWorldCom.com to BoycottMCI.com. “It is an unfortunate necessity that I change the name of my Web site to reflect WorldCom’s latest attempt to make a cosmetic change to its image, rather than confront its systemic problems.” Ouch.

Bytes

• User traffic to online retailers jumped in April, reports Website tracker Hitwise. Visits to etailers had fallen dramatically in March. thanks mostly to worries over the Iraq war. “U.S. online consumers appear to be in sync with U.S. consumers on the whole,” says Chris Maher, general manager of Hitwise, North America. “Once the worst of the war was over, their interest in spending improved.”

Sectors with the biggest relative gain in online traffic include computers (up 33 percent), appliances & electronics (up 32 percent), and video & games (up 24 percent). Hitwise also reports that visits to house and garden sites also jumped by 23 percent in April. Just a wild guess, here, but we’re betting those sites experienced a big traffic drop off somtime around mid-January.

In case you’re scoring at home, the most popular wholesale/retail Web sites in April were: FreeDVDs, Quixtar, Avon, Tupperware.com, and Liquidate.com.

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