Centrino 2: Coming soon to a Mac near you?

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When Intel unveils new processors, it usually rattles off the names of PC makers who’ve signed on to use the latest chips. There is one exception, however—Apple’s name usually comes up only in passing at these events, if it’s even mentioned at all.

But make no mistake: Apple may have been a no-show at Monday night’s launch event for Intel’s new Centrino 2 processor technology while demo laptops from HP, Lenovo, Sony and Toshiba showed off the new chips. But Intel’s announcements should be of interest to Mac users, as many of the Centrino 2’s improvements will likely make their way into Mac systems in the near future.

Since the Centrino is a mobile chipset, Mooly Eden, Intel’s vice preseident and general manager of the mobile platforms group, spent much of his presentation discussing power saving features new to the Centrino 2, which is code-named Montevina. Among the power saving improvements made to the Centrino 2 was something Eden refered to as HUGI—as in, hurry up and get idle. A processor draws less power when idle, so the faster the processor can wake up, finish the task and return to its resting state, the less battery power it consumes. And with Intel’s Deep Power Down Technology, idling processor components should draw even less power, the company says.

The Centrino 2 features improved integrated graphics in the form of the new Mobile Intel GM45 Express chipset, which offers faster frame rates as well as support for full hardware decoding of AVC and VC1/MPG2 content, and would allow folks to watch a Blu-ray movie in its entirety on one battery charge.

The Centrino 2 can also accommodate even faster, discrete graphics from companies like ATI and Nvidia. Intel’s integrated graphics cost less and use less power, providing longer battery life. The downside, however, is that integrated graphics lack the processing power provided by discrete graphics for running cutting-edge video games and other graphics intensive programs. MacBooks and Mac minis use Intel’s integrated graphics, while the MacBook Pro uses a discrete graphics processor.

What Intel is offering now is the ability to have the best of both worlds through switchable graphics technology. With switchable graphics, laptop makers can let the user choose between better battery life and higher graphics processing horsepower by supplying both integrated and discrete graphics in one system. When plugged in, a laptop could use discrete graphics, if available, since battery life is not an issue. When unplugged from the wall, the system could switch to the battery-saving integrated graphics, extending battery life by up to 90 minutes, Intel figures. Also, Intel says performance is much improved with the new Mobile Intel GM45 Express integrated graphics chipset, making the choice to save battery life that much easier.

Other improvements introduced in the Centrino 2 line include the ability to run DDR3 memory, a faster 1,066MHz system bus, and 802.11n wireless connectivity from top to bottom. The processor will also accommodate a combination WiFi/WiMAX card that should be released sometime later this year.

As part of the Centrino 2 unveiling, Intel also showed off five new processors, including the Core 2 Extreme which is billed as the company’s fastest mobile processor yet. All of the Montevina processors feature a 1,066MHz front side bus and up to 6MB of L2 Cache. Three of them offer up to 30 percent less power consumption. Intel plans more to roll out more processors in the next 90 days, including the first mobile quad-core processor.

The question remaining after Monday’s launch: Which of these new technologies find their way into the next iteration of Mac laptops? Chances are that many will, within a few months of their release. As always, we’ll be anxious to put any Centrino 2-powered Macs to the test to see what kind of performance improvements the new technologies introduce.

[James Galbraith is Macworld Lab director.]

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