Seeking Notebook Paradise, Lenovo Follows Intel to Santa Rosa

For the last few weeks, I've been using a new Lenovo ThinkPad that's outfitted with the latest Intel mobile platform, and I think I can honestly say it's the ultimate Vista-based notebook I've seen so far. Code-named Santa Rosa, the underlying Intel hardware combines the latest Core 2 Duo processors with a new graphics architecture, faster front-side bus, the latest wireless technology, and some intriguing performance and security-oriented hardware. If you've been waiting for the first "real" Windows Vista hardware--that is, a PC platform that was designed specifically with Vista's feature set in mind--then wait no more. This is it.

Santa Rosa is being marketed under two monikers, Centrino Duo, aimed at mainstream notebooks, and Centrino Pro, aimed at the enterprise market. (Confusingly, Intel had used Centrino Duo for its earlier-generation Centrino platform as well.) Both systems feature faster Core 2 Duo chips, with up to 2.4 GHz clock speeds and up to a massive 4MB of L2 cache. Both support new NVIDIA integrated graphics or optional dedicated graphics. And both sport 802.11n wireless networking in addition to 802.11a/b/g and Gigabit Ethernet.

On the Pro side, Intel adds two capabilities, which will sound familiar to anyone familiar with the company's vPro technologies for desktop systems. That is, Centrino Pro systems include Trusted Platform Module (TPM)-based security functionality and integrated Active Management Technology asset management and remote diagnostics, both of which operate outside of the notebook's OS.

Obviously, any high-end notebook with new graphics is going to run Vista at a decent clip, assuming the system has enough RAM. (In my experience, 2GB is the new starting point.) But where Centrino Duo and Pro really shine when compared with previous mobile platforms is the new Turbo Memory feature, which was code-named Robson. This optional caching feature adds up to 2GB of Flash RAM to the system's motherboard, which provides better performance and battery life because commonly needed applications and OS components can be loaded from memory with no moving parts.

Both Centrino Duo and Pro also have enhanced power management functionality, which should aid battery life as well. The systems feature a new Enhanced Sleep mode that reduces power usage during idle time, and the front-side bus supports variable speeds so it can drop into a lower-power mode when not needed.

OK, that's the theory. So what's the reality of Santa Rosa? I've been testing this platform with a new ThinkPad T61, a 14-inch widescreen version of Lenovo's premier notebook that has quite quickly become my preferred computing system. (Think "cold dead fingers" when it comes time to give this thing back.) The T61 incorporates all the new Centrino Pro features to good effect. It utilizes 1GB of Robson RAM to boost the performance of its 5400 RPM hard drive, and Lenovo tells me that this combination actually offers better performance than a 7200 RPM drive with no Flash RAM. And although I was unimpressed with the performance of Vista's BitLocker full-disk encryption feature, that's a problem with Vista, not the ThinkPad. It's also a good topic for a future commentary.

Lenovo has also graced this new ThinkPad with a variety of unique features that really raise the bar for what was already the best line of notebooks on the planet. The system now features a magnesium alloy "roll cage" top cover to match the magnesium base that appeared in the previous generation T series, and the result is a thinner yet stiffer top. It has a spill-proof keyboard, and active protection against hard drive write errors resulting from a fall. It's the thinnest ThinkPad ever made, and yet also the quietest. And a new BatteryStretch applet will work behind the scenes to make sure you can, say, finish watching a DVD movie even though the battery meter is reporting there isn't quite enough juice: It will simply shut down non-essential systems until you get the required battery life.

Being a ThinkPad, the T61 features the best keyboard I've seen on any notebook, an integrated fingerprint reader and Lenovo's amazing set of management applets, as expected. But Lenovo has also made some nice changes to bring the series up to speed with the competition. You can get an integrated 4-in-1 media reader for the first time, an integrated video camera, and even a Blu-ray disk drive. There's even a FireWire port, which is unusual in a business-oriented notebook.

With 2GB of RAM, performance in Vista is stunning: This is one impressive notebook. I'll have a longer write-up available soon on the SuperSite for Windows.

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