What upgraded Centrino chipsets mean for the Mac

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If you’re the sort of person who keeps one eye continually trained for the slightest hint of a Mac product announcement, it’s probably time to start your Updated Apple Laptops vigil. The company hasn’t made any noise about upgrading its laptop line, but its chip supplier just did—on Wednesday, Intel unveiled an upgraded Centrino notebook platform that promises better processing capabilities, improved power management, and faster wireless connectivity, to name just a few of the claims. And it’s a safer bet than any wager you could have made during last weekend’s Kentucky Derby that these new processors that are part of the updated platform will find their way into an Apple product before long.

Of course, you might not get that impression walking around the Old Federal Reserve Building in San Francisco where Intel hosted Wednesday’s press event. There were plenty of Windows portables on hand—new notebooks from Dell and Lenovo and HP were on display for reporters to fiddle with—and lots of talk about how well the new processors will handle Microsoft’s Vista operating system. So how did we walk away from such a Windows-centric event with Macs on our minds? It was more than just the sight of Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman—TV’s MythBusters and frequent Mac users on the show—and their promotional appearance on behalf of Intel (ending with a somewhat awkward hand-off to Intel’s Mooly Eden, VP and general manager of the Mobile Platforms Group). Rather, our gut feeling is due to the fact that sometimes, the past is prologue.

Last July, we descended upon Intel’s Santa Clara headquarters as the company unveiled its Core 2 Duo processors. Apple was a no-show at that event, too, and yet, just a few months later, both the MacBook Pro and MacBook lines migrated to the Core 2 Duo. It’s likely that a similar upgrade will happen with the new-and-improved processors Intel announced Wednesday.

Besides, Apple has about 891,000 reasons to keep pushing for improvements to its laptop line. That’s how many portables the company sold during its fiscal second quarter this year when Apple turned a $770 million profit. Sales of laptops in general and the MacBook in particular are helping drive that stellar financial performance, as we’ve noted before, so it only makes sense for Apple to keep on innovating.

So what can Mac users expect when—excuse us, if —these so-called Santa Rosa chips wind up in some sort of Apple laptop in the coming months? You won’t see a major jump in raw processing speed. Intel’s new processors—which Eden referred to as “Core 2 Duo on steroids”—range in speed from 1.8GHz to 2.4GHz; by way of comparison, the MacBook Pro currently tops out at 2.33GHz while the fastest MacBook runs at 2GHz. What you will see, however, is a faster frontside bus—the chips have an 800MHz frontside bus, compared to the 667MHz version you’ll find in the Core 2 Duo chips currently powering Mac portables. A faster frontside bus moves data more quickly between the CPU and the chipset (in this case, the Mobile Intel GM965 Express chipset), which contains the memory management and connects to main memory through the memory bus (often running at the same speed as the frontside bus)—that’s where the performance gain is likely to come from. But keep in mind that most of Eden’s benchmarks and demos showed big improvements compared to the original Centrino systems from 2003—much less so when compared to the last Centrino systems. How much of a performance difference Macs users will see from the Core 2 Duo processors in today’s MacBooks and MacBook Pro’s may be less dramatic. And the 802.11n wireless component to the Centrino platform is something Apple already has in place. Better power efficiency, however, should translate to better battery life in many situations.

Another feature in the new platform is an optional capability called Turbo Memory. Intel says the feature improves responsiveness and multitasking capabilities by using (currently) 512MB or 1GB nonvolatile flash memory cache to reduce hard drive hits; that will let applications launch faster and reduce battery consumption, among other benefits. Only a handful of PC makers are including Turbo Memory in their initial releases with the new chip, and it’s unclear to us anyhow if the technology will be incorporated in any potential Mac offerings—although it’s a pretty safe bet that we’ll never see a Mac marketed as “Centrino-powered.”

For a less theoretical look at what these changes might mean for laptop performance, our colleagues at PC World ran some tests on the Santa Rosa laptop platform. As for testing Mac performance, we’ll just have to wait until laptops based on these chips arrive in our Lab—once Apple gets around to announcing such laptops, of course.

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