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Understanding Intel Mobile Processors: 2010 Edition

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While Intel's line of mobile processors has names that are similar to its desktop line, they're not exactly the same. Performance and feature sets must be balanced with thermal and battery life issues to make a processor truly mobile. In this second of three articles, veteran hardware expert Mark Edward Soper, co-author of CompTIA A+ 220-701 and 220-702 Cert Guide, helps you discover the characteristics of Intel's current mobile processor families, giving you a leg up when it's time to shop for a new computer.

While Intel's line of mobile processors has names that are similar to its desktop line, they're not exactly the same. Performance and feature sets must be balanced with thermal and battery life issues to make a processor truly mobile, so some of the most advanced features in Intel's desktop processor lines have yet to arrive in its mobile products.

Mobile processors also differ in intended platforms. While the Core families of mobile processors are designed for notebooks and laptops, the Atom family is strictly designed for netbooks. Meanwhile, some mobile Celerons find themselves used in both notebook/laptop and netbook roles.

As with desktop processors, Intel's adoption of processor model numbers' makes it harder than ever before to figure out exactly what a particular computer has "under the hood" without looking up the processor specs.

In this article, you'll discover the characteristics of Intel's current mobile processor families, giving you a leg up when it's time to shop for a new computer. As with our other articles in this series, you won't find specific clock speeds listed: Follow the links we've provided to see details on a particular model.

Current Mobile Processor Design Trends

As 2010 begins, mobile processor design trends fall into these categories:

  • Multicore rules—With the exception of mobile Celeron and some Atom models, most Intel mobile processors now feature two or more processor cores. Multiple processor cores enable better multitasking (especially when 3GB or more RAM is available) and superior performance with multithreaded applications.
  • Performance, not raw clock speed, is king—By the standards of the late Pentium 4 era, which saw many high-performance processors running over 3.5GHz, today's fastest processors run at more modest clock speeds, but get more done per clock cycle. As a result, benchmark test results have become a more reliable indicator of processor and system performance than processor clock speed.
  • 64-bit designs have taken over the marketplace, even in netbooks—While netbooks remain the last holdout for 32-bit processor designs, many new Atom processors include 64-bit support. 64-bit support enables the use of RAM beyond 3GB, better multitasking, and faster performance with large files when large amounts of RAM are available.
  • Hardware virtualization support is increasingly popular —The increasing popularity of virtualization as a convenient means of operating system/application testing and support for legacy software has helped drive the development of processors with hardware virtualization support. Before the introduction of Intel's new 2010 Core i7/i5/i3 mobile processors, Intel's support for hardware virtualization was spotty. However, all new Core i-series mobile processors include virtualization, as do some Atom processor models.
  • Integrated graphics are becoming part of the processor—While graphics integration has been part of the chipset in previous generations, Intel's new Core i-series mobile processors, as well as some new Atom processors, include integrated graphics. Integrated graphics in the CPU provides faster performance.

In this article (part 2 of a three-part series), you'll discover how Intel's current mobile processors are putting these trends into action. In part 3, we'll take a closer look at AMD's current processors.

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