Centrino to Support Draft-N

The Centrino brand name Intel slapped on its embedded Wi-Fi support in laptops arguably made wireless networks the household word they are today. This week, at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, the chip giant revealed its plans for the future of what was once code-named “Santa Rosa.” It will couple draft 802.11n specification Wi-Fi with Intel’s own Core 2 Duo mobile processor — and there are future add-ons to anticipate as well, including HSDPA.

To stave off potential problems in working with other Draft-N products, Intel says it has created an 802.11n interoperability program to make sure the new Centrino laptops work with access points from vendors like Buffalo Technology, D-Link, Linksys and Netgear (the top four sellers of Wi-Fi products in the U.S. consumer market). Intel’s belief is that the consumer market will snap up these products first, and that testing for enterprise use will follow once the standard is actually finished.

Interoperability testing is usually the purview of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and in fact, the Alliance said last month it will begin testing Draft-N products in 2007, long before 802.11n becomes a ratified standard (that’s expected in 2008). That timeframe could be too late for Intel, which wants to have the new Centrinos on the market early next year.

“This testing is meant to supplement what the Alliance does,” says Intel spokesperson Amy Martin.

Even if Intel’s Santa Rosa plans were delayed and the Alliance were to begin testing first, Martin thinks Intel would still do its own interoperability check, likely to take place in an actual retro-fitted home with multiple floors to get a real-world feel, rather than the clinical lab tests run by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

“We’ll still be part of their testing,” Martin says.

The Intel Core 2 Duo processor part of the new Centrino package will have new power saving capabilities, a must on Wi-Fi equipment that tends to eat up batteries fast.

Centrino will also include features of Intel vPro, another marketing initiative from Intel that targets business customers. The features include an active management feature to let enterprises better track assets and check system security, and a Flash memory accelerator that will allow for faster resume from hibernation state. They’re even revamping the integrated graphics core.

Intel also said a new low-power chipset would be available for the Ultra Mobile PC platform.

Intel announced separately with Nokia that the two companies will be bringing HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) connectivity to Centrino users. Nokia has made a module that supports the 3G tech, and Intel will provide it to interested notebook OEMs. (The Wall Street Journal said shares for Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless, companies that make modems and modules to support tech like HSDPA and EV-DO in laptops, dropped when this news was announced, indicating the power of the partnership.)

Martin says they chose to work with Nokia due to the company’s strong 3G/HSDPA knowledge and product line.

Of course, Intel’s real goal is integrating WiMax. While nothing official was  announced today, Martin confirms that Intel will offer a mobile WiMax mini-PCI card eventually. Even that is a stopgap to the ultimate goal of a combination of WiMax and Wi-Fi on the same embedded card used on Centrino-branded laptops.

Intel has also jumped on the ultrawideband (UWB) bandwagon today by saying it will release Intel Wireless UWB Link 1480 MAC (media access controller) silicon and reference designs for vendors looking to create products supporting the specification created by the WiMedia Alliance. The first customer will be Belkin, which plans to build the 1480 (using a PHY from Alereon) into a Certified Wireless USB adapter to come out in the first quarter of next year.

Belkin had previously planned wireless USB products with chips from Freescale, but that company’s exit from UWB forced Belkin to delay products. Earlier this week, the company said it would be making a 4-port wireless USB hub with chips from WiQuest Communications.

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