Centrinomics

Do You Really Need Intel Centrino Technology?

 Q: I'm in the market for a new laptop, and all the salesmen are saying I must, must, must get one with Intel Centrino technology. Sounds great, save that I haven't the foggiest what Centrino is—something to do with the wireless Internet, I surmise, but that's all I've got. Do I really need this thing?

Centrino's a nice add-on, to be sure, especially if you'd like your laptop to be Wi-Fi-capable right out of the box. A computer with a Centrino chipset will run wireless tasks a lot quicker than an older model hooked to a PC card, and there are some power-saving benefits to consider too. That said, you might want to wait a few months for the next generation of Centrino laptops to hit stores, lest you wind up paying a premium for what'll soon be a Wi-Fi dinosaur.

Strictly speaking, the word "Centrino" refers to a bundle of Intel products, starting with a Pentium M chip. Prior to the debut of the Pentium M's, laptops ran the same battery-hogging chips as desktops. (Some older laptops sold through discount online shops still sport non-M's; avoid, avoid.) Centrino comes with a Wi-Fi module, basically a built-in version of those Wi-Fi cards that mobile users know and love. So a laptop with Centrino is ready to hop on the wireless Internet the moment you first fire it up.

illustration: Matthew Martin

The other big advantage is that Centrino's outfitted with some power-management smarts. Not only does it run Wi-Fi tasks with a minimum amount of juice, but it automatically adjusts its battery consumption according to what sorts of applications are running. Considering how much power Wi-Fi cards can siphon off, that's some seriously welcome news.

OK, now for the downside. As you note, salesmen have been pushing Centrino-equipped laptops like waiters trying to unload day-old flounder as the "Special of the Day." That's partly in response to Intel's massive marketing push—$300 million so far, including last September's "One Unwired Day" event, when the company basically bought the entire nation 24 hours of free Wi-Fi access. As you might guess, Intel isn't doing this all out of the goodness of its heart. At $250, a Centrino chipset wholesales for 40 percent more than a desktop microprocessor. Small wonder, then, that Centrino sales accounted for a quarter of Intel's revenue last year.

But as your many years on Spaceship Earth have surely taught you by now, the most hyped products aren't necessarily the most advanced. The drawback of Centrino, at least for now, is that its Wi-Fi module is only compatible with the Wi-Fi frequency known as 802.11b. That's all fine and good for the moment, but 802.11b is being edged out by its faster cousin, 802.11g. So if you're planning to hold on to your laptop for a good long while, you're probably going to want something that'll jibe with 802.11g.

Help is supposedly on the way from Intel, though Mr. Roboto will believe it when he sees it. For months now, the microprocessor titan has been promising to release a new version of Centrino, code-named Dothan, that will add 802.11g prowess to the chipset. And it'll supposedly cost half as much to manufacture, which might mean you'll start seeing Centrino in some more affordable laptops.

Great, great—except, uh, where's Dothan at? First Intel had it lined up for the fall, then Christmastime. Latest word is that Dothan will finally bust loose in the spring, but keep in mind that'll it'll take a few months for the Asian factories to start producing the updated laptops en masse.

If you really can't wait to join the wireless revolution, and you can sense that you just won't be happy with 802.11b alone, now's as good a time as any to consider the Apple. The perennial second-prizer is now offering a 1 GHz, 14-inch iBook G4 for $1,500, plus another $100 for an AirPort Extreme Card that's simpatico with 802.11g. Come on, treat yourself—you've endured the winter like a champ, after all.


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Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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