Intel Adds 11g to Centrino

When Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaking giant Intel began shipping the Centrino chipset add-on with the Pentium-M processor last March, the wireless connection was 2.4GHz 802.11b only, running at 11Mbps. Yet by that time, 802.11g, the faster (54Mbps) and backwards-compatible 2.4GHz standard was already becoming the hot way to connect throughout the WLAN industry.

Today the company said it’s now shipping the Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG, the mini-PCI card solution that will make 802.11g a standard feature of future Centrino notebooks.

“It sometimes takes Intel a while to get it right, but it gets there in the long run,” says Bob Wheeler, a senior analyst with The Linley Group, which tracks the goings-on in the chip industry.

He says one of the important things about this announcement is not only the 11g aspect, but also that the 2200BG (which went by the codename of Calexico 2) is the first Wi-Fi solution from Intel that is completely Intel silicon. The previous 802.11b Centrino used technology from Texas Instruments and Philips.

The 2200BG supports Wi-Fi Protected Access for security and will be upgradable to 802.11i security when that standard is done. Intel had the module Wi-Fi Certified for interoperability by the Wi-Fi Alliance before it shipped. The 2200BG will also support Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) and will be upgradable to verion 2.0 of CCX when available later this year.

Intel has made improvements to the MAC/Baseband chipset to reduce power requirements, enough so that Wheeler feels the 2200 will completely supplant anyone looking to sell the 802.11b-only Centrino in the future.

Intel has also announced a dual-band 802.11a/b solution (without 11g). Plans were originally for a dual-band 11a/g/b solution to ship by now, but the company decided to concentrate instead on getting the popular 11g solution out the door. The 802.11a/b/g is now slated for the summer of 2004.

Intel took a long time to come out with 802.11g because it first set its sights on 11b “to match the infrastructure market that was out there,” says Julie Coppernoll, director of marketing for the Wireless Networking Group at Intel.

Intel went then to the 5GHz 802.11a standard figuring it would replace 11b, Wheeler says. But it didn’t. So the time came to work on 11g, but “rather than get a third-party for 11g, it wanted an internal solution.” He says an acquisition of chips — such as Intersil’s sale of its 802.11 chips to GlobespanVirata last year — wasn’t feasible if Intel wanted to maintain software compatibility between the original Centrino modules and the latest modules.

The price the company paid was in time to market, but Intel didn’t feel the pinch. It is shipping Centrino with 50 percent of all Pentium-M-based laptops sold, and Pentium-M covers about 50 percent of all laptops period — so Intel has a full 25 percent of the market. It’s possible that Centrino Wi-Fi will even be added to the lower-cost Celeron-M processor-based laptops in the future. For now Intel is only talking about the bundle of the 2200 module with Pentium-M processors.

“Bottom line is, by the end of 2004, the vast majority of notebooks will be Centrino capable,” says Wheeler. “It’s going to be a standard feature and Intel will be the primary supplier.” This doesn’t come as a surprise as analysts have predicted this for some time.

Intel is also likely to take the Centrino brand into the handheld market soon. Its purchase of Mobilian last year will allow the company to bring combination 802.11b/Bluetooth wireless to handhelds this year, another area where Intel is a CPU leader.

Pricing on the PRO/Wireless 2200BG for laptop vendors will be $25 in 10,000-unit quantities, which Wheeler says puts it in line with the pricing of the original 11b Centrino 2100 module, so prices on the notebooks should not be radically higher.

Intel will be showing off the new 11g Centrino with a multimedia demonstration at the Sundance Film Festival, broadcasting a film starring Friends star Courteney Cox Arquette to select Sony VAIO laptops for viewing. Coppernoll says “we wanted to show the usage model for movies on wireless is becoming real.” Intel recently announced major investments into the home entertainment area.

Expect laptops from major vendors to ship with the 11g Centrino as soon as the end of March.

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