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Intel Widens Aim With Centrino Sonoma

UPDATED: Intel launched its next generation of Centrino mobile technology, code-named Sonoma.

Different than the first-generation Centrino-branded processors, the Sonoma version includes improved audio and video capabilities, which Intel hopes will help its OEM partners transform notebooks into all-in-one entertainment devices. At a press event here, executives promoted the improved performance of the chip and its corresponding 915 Express chipset family formerly code-named Alviso.

Mooly Eden, vice president of Intel's Mobility Group, said he has high hopes for Sonoma based on the sales performance of the current Centrino processor, Dothan. The company, which recently posted better than expected earnings, said it has sold 10 million units of Dothan since its launch last year and more than doubled the number of notebooks carrying the second generation Centrino chip.

"By mid-2005, we should see a 50/50 breakdown of notebooks to desktop PCs being offered by our OEMs, granted that we have a strong economy," Eden said at a press and analyst launch event here.

Already, Intel is looking forward to its fourth-generation Centrino mobile processor. Eden said the dual-core chip known as Napa will build on the performance of Sonoma, but he would not say whether it would support a 64-bit or 32-bit architecture.

"We decided not to design Sonoma as a 64-bit core because the infrastructure that exists today does not support it," he said. "From our perspective, 64-bit translates to transistors, which translates to leakage and loss of battery life."

Based on the 90-nanometer manufacturing process, the Sonoma-enhanced Pentium M chips are expected to hit the market later this summer in prices ranging from $270 to $705 in 1,000-unit quantities. Intel plans to offer more than 100 configurations within the 7XX SKU family, running from 1.20GHz to 2.13GHz.

"You also will see Intel stress Centrino performance more than in the past, as it replaces the Mobile Pentium 4 processor in everything mobile except high-end gaming. But none of it will increase battery life," Kevin Krewell, principal analyst for semiconductor research group In-Stat, told internetnews.com. "Overall, we still feel this is the premier mobile solution available today."

In many ways, however, Krewell said Intel's multi-core designs are not very adventurous.

"The first dual-core desktop processor consists of two Prescott cores on a single die, with little redesign," Krewell wrote in a recent newsletter. "The first real ground-up, dual-core design is the 65-nanometer Yonah design for notebook computers. We don't know anything about that design yet, but it is not expected to ship until 2006 in systems."

As previously reported, the chips will sport a 533 MHz front-side bus; a new Wi-Fi component that supports the 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g wireless networking standards; and a new chipset that supports Direct Media Interface with improved bandwidth, TV-out, high definition audio, eight USB ports, four-port PCI Express and up to 2GB of DDR2 memory. Intel said the Alviso chipset would also support its High Definition Audio with low power capabilities.

During his keynote address at CES this month, Intel CEO Craig Barrett said the upcoming generation of Intel Centrino will support accelerated graphics for high-quality DVD video playback and gaming, theater-quality sound for MP3s and TV tuner ExpressCards.

Intel spokeswoman Barbara Grimes said the Centrino family of Pentium M chips should see real growth in the second half of 2005, as the number of OEMs is expected to grow from 80 to 150.

"You will see some sub-$1,000 price points, which is appealing to consumers," Grimes told internetnews.com. "We're also looking at more consumer-oriented systems than before and expanding Centrino across the spectrum of form factors, from really small systems with low-voltage and ultra-low voltage chips to 17-inch laptops with PVR tuner and remote capabilities."

Intel's Centrino machine is certainly having a widespread effect on the overall PC market. IT research group Gartner's latest sales tracker notes that strong mobile sales lifted worldwide PC shipments to 12 percent growth in 2004. Analysts said the mobile segment offset slower sales in the U.S. and European/Middle East/African consumer markets, with approximately 189 million units shipped last year

"Intel will certainly continue to emphasize the whole package rather than just the processor," Gordon Haff, senior analyst with technology research firm Illuminata, told internetnews.com. "Doing so emulates and extends what Intel did with the original Centrino. It also reflects the whole thrust of yesterday's reorganization along computing platform lines."

Intel announced a reorganization of its existing product groups to reflect its goal of providing full sets of technology components. Executives Sean Maloney and Dadi Perlmutter will lead the division that develops platforms for notebook PCs and handheld computing and communications devices.