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Amping Up Your Laptop


TECH & YOU PODCAST

Desktop computers have always outperformed laptops, and lately the gap has been widening. A new family of Intel (INTC) processors, branded the Core Duo, is designed to bring desktop-like performance to the latest laptops. But they're hitting the market at a time when changes, in particular the upcoming Windows Vista, present buyers with tricky choices.

Laptops need a boost. Not only are they doing more with multimedia content, but the software needed to keep a computer happy and healthy, including Windows itself and an assortment of security tools, makes huge demands on processors. The Core Duo (branded Centrino Duo when bundled with other Intel chips) follows the lead of the Pentium D desktop chips released last year, squeezing two processors onto a single piece of silicon. All laptop makers will be bringing out Core Duo models in coming weeks. The chip will also find its way into space-saving desktops designed for very quiet operation, including the new Apple (AAPL) iMac, which I will review in detail next week.

The Core Duo lives up to its performance claims. I tried it in a preproduction version of a Gateway M465 (from $1,399). While the laptop's 15.4-in. wide-screen display and 5.7-lb. weight make it bigger and heavier than a notebook I would want to travel with, the performance was impressive. It breezed through processor-intensive tasks, such as rendering 3-D video transitions in Adobe (ADBE) Premiere Elements and applying special effects to high-resolution photos using Ulead PhotoImpact. Even while connected to a wireless network and running anti-everything protection, there were no hangups.

BATTERY LIFE IS A MIXED BAG. Manufacturers have been testing designs using the new chip, and they report everything from slightly more running time than with the predecessor Pentium M processor to significant declines in battery life. The difference appears to result mainly from the choice of a graphics adapter, the system responsible for putting images on the display. Here is where things get confusing for buyers.

Computer manufacturers can design systems to use the Core Duo in two ways. The first is an all-Intel approach, where the company's own graphics chip is built right into the motherboard and taps the PC's main memory to process video. The other choice is to buy a graphics adapter from either nVIDIA or ATI Technologies (ATYT). A separate adapter gives superior performance, but Intel's integrated graphics provides significantly better battery life.

The complicating factor is the likelihood that, at some point during the lifetime of your new laptop, you'll want to upgrade to Vista. This software includes the first major overhaul of Windows' appearance in a decade. But some of the most dramatic changes, including semi-transparent windows and animations that not only look cool but are designed to make the software easier to use, will work only on high-end graphics systems. Lesser PCs will, as Microsoft's documentation puts it, "degrade gracefully," meaning users will see an interface that resembles the one on high-end systems, but some features will not work.

The problem is, no one is sure whether or not the graphics firepower of nVIDIA or ATI will be necessary. Microsoft claims it expects all features of Vista to be available on the newest Intel integrated graphics, but Sean Maloney, director of Intel's Mobility Group, says: "We don't know yet." Current test versions of Vista run only on high-end systems. The situation should be clarified when Microsoft offers broader hardware support on the next major test version, which will probably be released in late spring.

The best advice I can offer at this point is that if you are buying a notebook soon and want to be sure you can get all the features of Vista, choose one with a graphics adapter from nVIDIA or ATI. This will mean putting up with less battery life, and it also rules out the smallest laptops, which simply don't have room for a separate graphics card. There's no question Microsoft and Intel will clear up the confusion, but for now, it hits buyers with a vexing choice.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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