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Centrino Duo: Buy or Wait?

Reader Rick Cunnington is wondering how much more a laptop with the new Centrino Duo processor will cost than current units and whether the processor can handle the graphics demands of the upcoming Microsoft (MSFT) Vista operating system. He writes:

"What is your assessment of buying an early version of a laptop with that chip, vs. waiting a few months? What is the likelihood there will be bugs to work out? Will Vista be functional with inadequate graphics resources? I personally don't care about semitransparent windows and cool animations. If I lack the graphics resources, I'd like Vista to just function with old-style Windows capability."

The Centrino Duo is a package consisting of the new Intel (INTC) Core Duo processor, the Intel 945 MG chipset with integrated graphics, and an Intel Wi-Fi radio (see BW Online, 2/6/06, "Amping Up Your Laptop").

Intel is pricing the new Centrino quite aggressively. Comparisons of new and old chips is difficult because of different features and speeds, but according to Intel's published price list, a Centrino Duo package is priced at most $50 higher than a roughly comparable older Centrino, and for many configurations there appears to be no price difference at all. This means that notebooks featuring the new processor should, other things being equal, cost just about the same as the models they replace.

BENIGN BUGS. All new chips have bugs, especially complicated processors, and the Core Duo is no exception. About 30 bugs have been identified in the Core Duo logic, and this is about normal for a new design. Except in extremely rare cases, such as the infamous 1994 Pentium division error that caused arithmetic mistakes and forced a recall of the chips, processor bugs do not get fixed until there is a scheduled revision -- they are either lived with or worked around. Typically, they are only activated by a rare sequence of operations and do not cause errors or data corruption.

The question about graphics performance and Vista remains a difficult one (Listen to Stephen Wildstrom's Podcast, "Vista in View"). Under Windows XP, Intel's integrated graphics have been more than adequate for most purposes, and the new chipset used in the Centrino Duo is a big improvement.

RAM DAM. The question is whether it's good enough for the increased demands of Vista. That's all but impossible to answer at the moment. First, current test versions of Vista do not run at all on any version of Intel integrated graphics. Second, Microsoft (MSFT) is just beginning to tune Vista for performance, so what we are seeing now is likely to improve. Intel says it is confident that Vista will run well on systems using the 945 MG chipset, provided they are equipped with adequate memory.

One thing to remember about integrated graphics is that Intel's Unified Memory Access technology means that the graphics adapter shares the computer's main random-access memory. This makes a full gigabyte of RAM the absolute minimum for a system running Vista on unified graphics, and 2 GB is better.

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