Intel's Sonoma chip set breaks cover in New Zealand first

Refresh of Centrino components offers faster wireless throughput; DDR-2 RAM also debuts

Chip giant Intel is officially releasing the next-generation notebook Centrino chip set, code-named Sonoma, tomorrow US time. The official Intel product name for Sonoma is 915, and integrators can choose from the PM and GM variants, although details of the differences between the two haven't been made public yet.

Sonoma is a hardware refresh for the Centrino components, and includes technologies that have already been launched for desktops, such as the fast PCI Express bus for video and Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive interface.

The next-generation dual data-rate DRAM (DDR-2) also debuts for notebooks with the Sonoma, and the wireless networking has been revved up to support 802.11a and 802.11g at 54Mbit/s, a substantial increase from the 11Mbit/s link-speed 802.11b in the older Centrinos. Called Intel PRO/Wireless, the 2200BG model will support 802.11b and g, while the 2195ABG will support all three standards.

As for processors, a new range of Pentium Ms are being launched with the Sonoma. Processor speeds range from 1.6 to 2.13GHz and Intel says the volume pricing is US$270 to US$705 in 1,000-unit quantities.

The Pentium M model used for the Sonoma is essentially the "Dothan" with 2MB Level 2 cache, but it has the hardware NX feature that can be used by the operating system to mark areas of memory as non-executable as protection against viruses and malware. In Windows XP, the feature is called DEP, or Data Execution Protection. AMD’s Athlon64 and Intel’s Itanium 64-bit processors also have NX.

A low-voltage Pentium M 758 processor is also being launched at the same time as the Sonoma release, running at 1.5GHz, along with an a ultra-low-voltage 1.2GHz 753 model. The chip set for these processors is the 915GMS. Pricing for the low-voltage components wasn’t revealed by Intel.

For the low-end of the notebook market, Intel released two Celeron M processors: the 373 running at 1.5GHz and the 373 ULV low-voltage unit at 1GHz, costing US$134 and US$161 respectively in quantities of 1,000. The chip set for the new Celeron Ms is the 910GML.

Auckland-based systems integrator Ultra Computer provided Computerworld with a pre-production Sonoma notebook, sourced from OEM Clevo in Taiwan for a preview of the new technology.

John Gould, managing director of Ultra, says that as the pricing for the chip set and processors hasn't been confirmed, he hasn’t been able to set the price of the new notebook yet. Gould expects to sell Sonoma-based notebooks starting in February, when availability and pricing firms up.

The Clevo M400a that Computerworld looked at came with a 1.73GHz CPU, a 60GB 2.5-inch SATA 5,400rpm hard drive with Native Command Queuing for improved performance and 512MB of comparatively low-speed DDR-333 instead of the expected DDR-2 memory.

The video card was a PCI Express ATI XT600 with 64MB and the notebook also had a combo DVD-ROM/CD-R/RW drive, plus the usual assortment of connection interfaces – Gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0 and Firewire ports.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to coax the Ultra notebook into completing the application and notebook test suites that Computerworld uses: BAPco SYSmark 2004 and MobileMark 2002, so we couldn’t gauge performance and battery life.

However, the notebook completed the synthetic PCMark04 benchmark with a score of 3,329, which is about the expected performance for the processor speed and memory/storage technology in the pre-production test unit. For the sake of completeness, Computerworld also ran 3DMark05 which returned a score of 786 – the XT600 video doesn’t quite have what it takes for heavy-duty 3D lifting.

The onboard 2195ABG wireless network interface picked up the signal from a Belkin Pre-N access point and ran at a steady 54Mbit/s link speed, with actual throughput in the 25-27Mbit/s range. While the 1500 by 1040 DPI 15-inch UXGA screen was crisp and a pleasure to use, it has to be said that the notebook ran very hot. Luckily, Clevo has put all the hot bits towards the top of the unit, away from the handrest area, but the external VGA connector, for instance, got scalding hot during use, and the two cooling fans underneath the laptop kicked in regularly.

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