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More power on the move

As any laptop user will tell you, battery life is a big issue.

However, as George Cole discovers, Intel's new Centrino chipset could be about to change all that

Most car drivers know very little about the workings of the internal combustion engine, and as long as their car gets them from A to B it doesn't matter. And so it should be with a PC. Data buses, Ram, Rom and all that other computer-speak might fascinate some folks, but most of us have got lives to live. Every so often, however, it is worth getting excited about what sits inside your computer. Intel, the chip manufacturing giant behind the Pentium processor, has just launched a new brand of chipsets called Centrino, which could radically change notebook computers as we know them.

Notebooks have changed the way schools use ICT. With PCs no longer tied to a desktop and a mains power supply, teachers and pupils can use ICT almost anywhere. But portable computers can be frustrating to use, not least because they can soak up a lot of battery power. A component that drains a lot of the power is the processor. But the new breed of processors, designed for portable computing, are about to offer much better performance.

Centrino is the name given to three components, a Pentium-M processor, Intel 855 chipsets (which carry out various housekeeping operations on the computer) and a wireless module. But that's all we need to know about the technology - what's far more exciting is how Centrino could make life much easier for portable computer users.

First, Pentium-M (the 'M' stands for mobile) has been specially developed with mobile computing in mind and, although the new processor is very powerful, it's also more efficient and less power-hungry than other chips currently used in portable PCs. The result? Your portable computer should run for much longer on battery power.

Centrino also uses smart power-saving features. For instance, imagine you're watching a multimedia presentation on your notebook and you then switch to some word processing. As soon as you move from the power-hungry application (multimedia) to the less power-hungry operation (word processing), the processor automatically powers down. Intel claims that the Pentium-M technology should give you an extra hour or so of computing time, although real-world tests suggest that these figures may be a tad over-optimistic.

The other exciting component of the Centrino is the built-in wireless networking module. There's a lot of talk about wireless networking, and rightly so as it adds a new dimension to ICT in schools. More and more schools are opting for wireless networks. The ability to move around a school and access the network, or the internet, from a notebook PC is a truly liberating experience and once you've done it, you won't want to go back to plugging your computer into a network access point every time you want to use the server or go online.

Until the arrival of Centrino, wireless networking was often an optional extra that involved taking the top off your computer and installing a wireless network card. Some computers come with wireless networking built-in, but these can command a hefty price premium. But as Centrino chipsets are built into more and more computers, wireless networking will become as standard as the internal modem is today. As a result, wireless networking will become cheaper and ubiquitous. It's no exaggeration to say that future pupils and teachers will be amazed to learn that computers once came without any wireless networking technology built-in.

Some industry observers have criticised Intel for supporting the wireless standard 802.11b, also known as Wi-Fi. This offers a top data speed of 11 megabits per second (Mbps), which may not be fast enough for some applications such as video-conferencing. Faster standards are coming out, but it will be some time before they become as widespread as 802.11b and besides, there is a growing number of Wi-Fi wireless networks or hotspots in public places such as coffee bars and airports. No doubt future versions of Centrino will support the new wireless standards when they become more commonplace.

What's more, some companies, such as RM, are offering faster wireless systems as an optional extra (see Bytes). Intel says it might even develop a version of Centrino that supports Linux.

Intel's Centrino technology is being supported by many PC manufacturers including Acer, Dell, IBM, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba and the first products are just coming on to the market. In April, RM introduced Tablet PCs and notebooks that use Centrino technology. I guess we'll just have to keep an eye out for the "Centrino Inside" campaign and logo.

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