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Intel's New Penryn Processors, and Why You Should Care About Them

What the Heck is Penryn? And Why You Should Care.

What is Penryn?
Those new Intel processors we mentioned during CES are finally starting to show up in laptops in reasonable numbers. Toshiba, Sony, HP, and Dell are all tossing Intel's new mobile processors, built on the chipmaker's way-smaller-than-a-human hair 45-nanometer (nm) technology, into portables aimed at the hardcore, and often media-hungry, computer-user. As we mentioned in our '5 Things to Consider When Buying a Laptop' primer, these chips will keep the "Core 2" moniker that Intel has been branding its processors with since 2006, but will have slightly different model numbers to differentiate them from the older Core 2 models.

How is Penryn different from standard Pentium Core 2 processors?
Penryn is not a revolution, but rather an evolution of Intel's Core 2 family of processors. Three new technologies have been crammed into this new square of silicon to make faster and more powerful laptops with longer battery life.

First is the 45nm size reduction of the processor's die (the tech term for a processor's casing or mold). This die shrink means the processor can have features and innards as small as 45 nanometers wide, which means that Intel can squeeze more processors out of a single slab of silicon. The newfound space not only drives down prices, but also enables the new processors to use less energy and run at cooler temperatures. Cooler-running processors mean that Intel can ramp up computing speeds without melting the insides of the computer (or burning your lap, for that matter).

When a processor's die is shrunk, however, it becomes easier for electrons to leak out wasting electricity, and counteracts some of the benefits of the size reduction. To combat this leakage, Intel has introduced a new transistor technology called High-K that reigns in much of the leakage and leads to more energy efficient processors. Tests have shown that Penryn processors can get almost a full hour of battery life over older Core 2's during normal usage and about 20 minutes more while playing back a DVD.

Lastly, is a new set of instructions called SSE4, which is aimed at speeding up media functions such as video encoding (converting video so you can edit it on your computer) and playback. The catch is that software developers must write applications to specifically take advantage of the new instructions. The popularity of the Intel processors and the dramatic performance increase guarantees that companies will get on board. Applications that are already SSE4-enabled (like the DivX video encoding suite) have seen boosts in performance of almost 40%. That's quite a difference when you're talking about cutting down what typically takes an hour to encode HD video to just over 30 minutes.

How do I know if a computer has Penryn?
Well, besides looking for the 'Penryn' logo on a laptop's spec list, make sure the model numbers start with '8' or '9' (i.e. T9500 or T8300). Penryn is the code name the new chips were developed under at the Intel labs, and often Intel chips continue to be referred to by their code name once they're released.

Do I need one now?
If you're a hardcore gamer, a videomaker or a high-def movie enthusiast with money to burn, go for it. The current models of Penryn or Core 2 9000 and 8000 series are more expensive (Penyrn-enabled laptops start at $1,000) and aimed at the upper end of the consumer market. Anyone who does a lot of video editing on the go should also seriously consider getting a Penryn-equipped laptop. Over the coming months, however, more mainstream (read: cheaper) models will be stuffed into laptops for your computing pleasure. If basic Web browsing and e-mail are your main computing concerns, then save yourself the cash and stick with the old school Core 2s.

Who makes Penryn-enable laptops now?
HP and Sony offer the most laptops with Penryn processors, each offering four different models that pack in the latest from Intel, while Toshiba has three Penryn powered models available. Dell currently only offers its XPS M1330 with the new processors, but we expect that selection to expand soon. By mid March almost every laptop manufacturer should be offering at least one model with a Penryn option and by the end of the year it should be standard on most laptops.

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Tags: core 2, Core2, intel, laptop, Laptop Features, LaptopFeatures, penryn, processor

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