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Core: A Gigantic Step Forward for Mobile Technology

Last week, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2006 in Las Vegas, Intel released a new platform for notebooks, Tablet PCs, and even certain classes of desktop computers that promises to greatly improve both battery life and performance. Dubbed the Core processor, this new 32-bit chip--and its accompanying Centrino Duo chipset--is replacing the popular Pentium M line of products, offering huge improvements for business travelers.

What's interesting about this news is that the Pentium M/Centrino tandem was already an amazing step-up from previous-generation Pentium 4 Processor - M solutions, which often ran hot and provided mediocre battery life. With Core, Intel is finally stepping away from its Pentium branding--the Core chip is an entirely new design. Future versions, I'm told, will replace the Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading, Pentium D, and Pentium 4 Extreme Edition processors as well.

For the current generation of Core processors, which are largely aimed at the mobile market, Intel is offering two designs, both of which are 32-bit only. (That is, they don't include 64-bit x64 functionality.) The Intel Core Solo is a single-core variant of the chip, which will be offered in ultra low voltage, low voltage, and standard voltage variants. The Intel Core Duo is a dual-core CPU, and will be offered only at a single (standard) voltage. This marks the first time any chipmaker has launched a general-purpose dual-core microprocessor aimed at the mobile PC market.

Performance and battery life are exceptional in all these chips, I'm told, compared with the microprocessors they replace. To gauge how well PCs based on these systems perform in the real world, I'll be examining several Core-based notebook computers in the weeks ahead. But in the meantime, I spent much of my time at CES last week discussing the chips, and PCs based on those chips, with various PC makers.

Lenovo Group, for example, announced two new ThinkPad lines based on the Core chips. The company is replacing its current ThinkPad X-series, which targets the ultraportable market, and the ThinkPad T-series, which targets the high-end/performance end of the market, with new Core-based systems. Specifically, the new ThinkPad X60 is now available with a dual-core Core Duo processor in a system that weighs little more than 3 pounds. This system provides the all-day battery life many business users have been looking for, as well, if you don't mind maxing out the battery complement and increasing the weight a bit. The X60's standard 4-cell battery gets about 4 hours of battery life in normal usage, I'm told, but the 8-cell extended battery will provide up to 8 hours of life. If you add an optional bottom-mounted battery slice to the X60, you can achieve another 3 hours of battery life, for a total of 11 hours when combined with the extended battery. Not too shabby.

The ThinkPad T60 uses the same family of dual-core Core Duo processors as the X60, but provides the performance-friendly features T-series owners expect, including a high-end ATI FireGL graphics card with 256MB of RAM on the T60p model, support for as much as 4GB of RAM and integrated wireless WAN technology (Verizon EV-DO and, eventually, Cingular-based 3G service). Thanks to the Core processor, battery life is fantastic, even on systems with 15" screens: You can expect as many as 5 hours with one 9-cell battery, or as many as 8.5 hours on a T-series system with integrated graphics.

Lenovo isn't the only company touting Core-based systems, of course. Dell, Gateway, HP, and other familiar names are all jumping on board the Core bandwagon, and I think we can expect to see virtually every PC maker make the switch from Pentium M-based systems to Core systems this year. I'm fascinated that most of these systems seem to be based on dual-core versions of the chip out of the gate, and that many PC makers are using the single-core variant only to downsell customers who want to save money at purchase time.

Eventually, the Core design will be used in desktop systems as well. I'm curious why this practice wasn't more prevalent during the Pentium M's lifetime: Pentium M-based systems run cooler than desktop PCs but offer excellent performance, making them perfect for office-bound productivity workstations. With Core's performance improvements, this situation will be even better going forward. Here's to a new generation of high-performance yet nearly silent and cool-running desktop PCs. Now I just need to get my hands on one.

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