| With its world-class wines and laid-back atmosphere, the Northern California town of Sonoma has a reputation for serenity. Intel's latest mobile technology, code-named Sonoma (precisely to trigger these types of associations), seeks to deliver a similarly peaceful computing experience with updated versions of Centrino components. Sonoma marks the debut of a revised Pentium M processor, 855 chipset, and 802.11 wireless card, all designed to work in tandem for fast and flexible mobile computing. Still, the question remains: is this just marketing, or can users actually expect to see noticeable returns from the new technology?
Moving more data faster: Alviso
Intel's new 915 chipset, code-named Alviso, is stealing most of the spotlight as it finally brings PCI Express (PCIe, for short) to laptops (desktops have been running PCIe since summer 2004). In a nutshell, the technology boosts performance by ushering data back and forth between the CPU and the other components via two channels, each of which can process data in 4GB increments. In contrast, the current-generation 855 chipset accommodates a single 2GB channel for both incoming and outgoing data. In a boon to gamers, graphics pros, and audiophiles in particular, PCIe promises to move large graphics and music files to and from the CPU more quickly, resulting in less audio and video chop. The 915 chipset also supports 533MHz, dual-channel, double-data-rate (DDR) 2 memory, marking another step up from the 855 chipset that tops out with 400MHz memory.
There are two versions of the 915 chipset. For those who seek optimal performance--gamers, video editors, and other demanding users--the 915PM adds a PCIe-enabled graphics chip, such as ATI's 128MB Mobility Radeon X600, with its own dedicated video RAM. For the rest of us, the second-string 915GM will likely do the trick, handling graphics tasks on its own with a built-in Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 that borrows up to 128MB of main memory to use for video RAM.
The revised Pentium M processor boasts some improvements of its own. The processor's frontside bus (FSB), which controls the speed of data flow between memory and CPU, has jumped from 400MHz to 533MHz. Intel estimates the new FSB dispenses with data 33 percent faster than the old, producing quicker task execution and less power consumption. The Pentium M still carries a hefty 2MB of level-2 cache--a memory type that stores repetitive task instructions that the CPU can call up swiftly.
Intel will also now include its Pro Wireless 2915ABG card as a standard part of the Sonoma trio. While Centrino's original Intel Wi-Fi card connected only to 802.11b networks, the new dual-band card hooks up 802.11a and b/g frequencies, giving you greater freedom to roam.
Makeovers for everybody
Intel is not the only chip maker with upgrade plans for the new year. At CES in early January, AMD introduced its new Turion 64 mobile technology, which seeks to upgrade the company's Athlon 64 platform for superior performance, wireless capability, and battery life. Think of Turion as AMD's answer to Centrino. Transmeta, whose low-power CPUs are often featured in smaller form factor laptops and tablet PCs, also announced plans to put its Efficeon processor into a batch of Media Center PCs in 2005. The low-heat Efficeon allows PC makers to go fanless--good for quieter living-room systems--and use smaller form factors.
The first laptops to feature Sonoma technology are currently under evaluation in CNET Labs. An early comparison of a few new Sonoma systems to the previous generation of Centrino machines doesn't show huge performance gains in all areas. We'll be updating this page with reviews and tests results, so bookmark it and check back often to find out whether Sonoma actually makes a difference.
Read the CNET editor's take