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Centrino Duo: a Rosa by any other name

Intel has finally released the details of its much anticipated Santa Rosa chipset, but is it the messiah we had hoped for?

Ty Pendlebury

commentary Less than six months ago, Intel made it clear that it wasn't going to lose out in the performance race against AMD again, after years of suffering at the hands of the Athlon 64.

To coincide with the launch of its quad-core part late last year, Intel stated that it was committed to updating its core platforms every 12 months in order to stay competitive. And last week was the first of these updates, in the form of Santa Rosa -- or Centrino Duo as its consumer version is known.

But is this a brave new step for the company or simply, as Paul Keating might have put it, "the chipset we had to have"? Was this the chipset Intel envisioned or simply the version they arrived at 12 months after Core Duo? I would argue it's the latter. For example, WiMAX and 3G were due to be a key part of Santa Rosa and spearhead the uptake of "broadband anywhere". However, several weeks before Rosa's release, Intel announced it was pulling 3G out altogether, and instead would include WiMAX in its next "Montevino" release scheduled for the second half of 2008.

But this is only one of the disappointing things about the finalised version of Centrino Duo. Though it exhibited a lot of potential, Turbo Memory has ultimately failed to deliver. It is essentially flash-based technology that promises to accelerate boot times and lower battery life. This is because it's a separate flash memory chip -- originally planned to be soldered to the mother board -- which uses much less power than a hard drive, as well as being a lot faster. Intel's technology is based on Windows Vista's ReadyBoost but obviates the need for, and power requirements of, an external USB key. Intel has decided to make Turbo Memory an optional part -- seemingly to hit a price point -- and as a result many notebook manufacturers are opting not to include it at all.

Some, such as Dell, will offer it as an optional extra, but this also means consumers will lose a mini-PCI slot in the process, which could be used for TV tuner cards and the like. According to Paul McKeon, Dell's corporate communications manager, a 1GB NAND flash chip will cost consumers AU$60 extra.

One of the major benefits of Santa Rosa is Intel's claim that it will give users an extra hour of battery life. However, this appears to depend heavily on Turbo Memory being installed on the machine, as our own in-house testing seemed to indicate. I think there'll be a lot of disappointed customers who'll buy a Santa Rosa notebook without Turbo Memory, and then don't get the battery life they hoped for. I think many people will wait till hybrid hard drives become cheaper before they dive into the world of Turbo Memory, but for only AU$60 I'd be at least willing to give it a try myself.

Another piece of the Centrino puzzle is the onboard Draft-N wireless -- it's not the fully compliant 802.11n wireless chipset we were waiting for. But this is out of the control of Intel, as the standard has still yet to be ratified after several years -- and it looks to drag on for at least another. However, Philip Cronin, general manager for Intel Australia and New Zealand said that consumers "shouldn't have any problems" with interoperability with the final standard, but stopped short of giving a guarantee.

Lastly, to make matters worse for consumers, the Centrino Duo name existed before Santa Rosa did -- as did most of the technology -- and this may lead to confusion. Add to this AMD's attempt to hijack the Santa Rosa announcement with a chipset of its own, and I think you'll find that in six months people will be saying "Santa who"?

One positive thing to come out of this though is that in a month when Centrino Duo becomes available, the price of existing notebooks will come right down. Get your credit cards ready!

Follow this link for more information on the local launch of Santa Rosa.