Intel’s 2010 line-up of notebook chips are the biggest advance for mobile computing since the debut of the Centrino platform in 2003, reports David Flynn.
Intel’s 2010 processor line-up introduces the first mobile versions of the mid-range Core i5 and the entry-level Core i3 alongside a half-dozen Core i7 chips. These all share a common blueprint known as Westmere, which pairs a dual-core 32nm processor with a single-core 45nm graphics engine baked on the same chip.
Here’s what this radical redesign means for your next notebook.
Runs faster, runs longer...
The mobile Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors (but not the budget-minded Core i3) include Intel’s ‘Turbo Boost’ technology. This temporarily raises the CPU’s clock frequency from its nominal rating to several steps higher for short but intensive bursts of work while keeping safely within the overall thermal parameters of the chip.
For example, the mid-range Intel Core i5-520M has a base speed of 2.4GHz but can reach as high as 2.93GHz by shutting down one of its two engines and pushing the other core to the limit.
Turbo mode kicks into gear not only when you’re rendering a video or doing complex Photoshop work, but during common tasks such as launching a PowerPoint presentation or even opening an email with a large file attachment.
At first blush this seems quite insane. Why do we need a 3GHz processor to read email? Indeed, isn’t such grunt out of step with the desire for notebooks to draw less power and thus last longer between recharges?
The trick to turbo, however, is that it uses the chip’s extra muscle to plough through any given workload – such as creating thumbnail previews of all the slides in a PowerPoint deck – and then quickly return to a low-drain idle state. And it’s in this mode that the real power savings kick in. The more time a notebook spends at rest, the longer the battery lasts for.
In Intel’s parlance this design goal is called “Hurry Up and Get Idle”, and it’s what makes turbo mode so useful for a notebook. It’s like having the performance of a 3GHz processor but the parsimonious battery appetite of a 1GHz chip.
The graphics engine of the new Core processors delivers a long-overdue boost to Intel’s lacklustre integrated graphic.
Officially dubbed Intel HD Graphics, it makes clear gains in moving from the chipset onto the same slab of silicon as the processor.
This speeds the data flow between the processing and graphics cores and also allows the graphics to be turbo-boosted in the same manner as the processor. The clock frequency of the graphics core scales up to 900MHz by ‘borrowing’ excess thermal headroom from the processor core.
The graphics core can also draw on as much as 1.7GB of system memory, so if you want your notebook to drive dual displays make sure it’s got up to 4GB of RAM on hand.
True to its name, the HD Graphics engine supports 1080p video and even has hardware upscaling of DVDs through Windows Media Player.
It’s also more than capable of handling mainstream games such as World of Warcraft. Extreme first-person shooters will still call for discrete graphics, but users will be able to hot-switch between discrete and integrated graphics on the fly.
Thin is in
The Core 2010 series is also expected to spur the growth of ‘thin and light’ consumer notebooks. We saw the first Windows versions of these in late 2009, built around an admittedly odd assortment of processors spanning the Celeron M, Pentium M and Core 2 chips.
Industry analyst firm IDC forecasts continued demand for thin and light notebooks, and expects that by 2012 they will overtake sales of the traditional 15 inch notebook – a category which is also being squeezed by the adoption of 16 inch notebooks with up-sized HD screens.
Intel’s 2010 line includes chips for a new range of ‘performance ultrathin’ laptops. These are the ultra-low voltage or ‘UM’ variants: the Core i5-520UM, the Core i7-620UM and the i7-640UM. While starting at 1.06GHz they can almost double their clock speed in Turbo Boost mode.
The Core i3 will be geared towards the more affordable and more modest ‘everyday ultrathin’ segment once Intel releases a UM version of its entry-level processor, which is tipped to arrive by April.
The new Core processors also form the heart of the sixth-gen Centrino platform, previously code-named Calpella, although Intel has dropped the Centrino brand from mainstream use. Notebooks will be sold simply as being Core i3, Core i5 or Core i7 systems.
However, laptops containing Intel’s wireless chips – which somewhat confusingly will now carry the Centrino N name instead of WiFi Link – will enjoy several additional features.
First up is enhanced speed and range for 802.11n wireless due to the increased number of aerials supported by the oven-fresh radio modules. The Centrino Advanced-N 6200 has two aerials each for transmit and receive (the tech shorthand for this is 2x2), with the Advanced-N 6300 sporting a superior 3x3 spec.
The new Centrino chips also introduce a low-power ‘connected but idle’ wireless mode. Even when you’re online there are relatively long periods of time without any activity – reading email or a Web page, for example, rather than actually downloading messages or clicking the links which load a Web page.
During these periods the chip will reduce the number of times it pings the router and also reduce its transmit power, which reduces power drain and thus extends battery life. It’s similar to the way today’s processors drop into any number of low-power states between keystrokes or CPU activity.
The new Centrino wireless chips also introduce the second edition of Intel’s MyWiFi technology. This creates a ‘personal hotspot’ through which notebooks can directly connect to wireless devices such as printers, cameras and smartphones without the need for a router.
New to the 2010 release is a ‘simple file transfer’ mode for sending large files between notebooks and improved support for wirelessly sharing one Internet connection between several notebooks.
More in the realm of creature comforts is Wireless Display, which we promise not to call by the ungainly abbreviation of Wi-Di.
An optional feature for Westmere-class laptops, this uses My WiFi to beam videos and photos from the notebook straight onto your TV screen through a compatible third-party box such as Netgear’s tiny Push2TV system, which sells for around US$100.
Pine Trail pumps up netbooks
Intel’s netbook platform has also been given an overhaul, with the third-gen Pine Trail platform shifting the graphics core and memory controller into the Atom processor package using the same model as the Westmere desktop and notebook platform.
We’re already seeing Pinetrail-class netbooks with battery life stretching past ten hours, thanks to the more efficient and integrated design.
New netbook designs are expected to be slimmer and in some instances fanless due to the substantially smaller package size and 50% lower power consumption of Pinetrail’s two-chip design.
Pinetrail’s integrated graphics supports 720p HD and the full Windows 7 Aero UI, with netbook makers able to fit an optional chip from Broadcom or Nvidia to get smooth playback at 1080p.
There’s no boost in raw performance, however – the Atom N450 remains pegged at the same 1.66GHz as its predecessors – but a rumoured Atom N470 which clocks at 1.8GHz is tipped to land by May.