Draft-N Centrino Has Partners

First announced in September 2006, 802.11n is now officially a part of Intel’s Centrino mobile platform, a chipset that couples the processor with the graphics and the wireless. That wireless part is now what Intel calls Next-Gen Wireless-N, and comes on a PCIe mini Card (model 4965AGN) inserted in the laptop. Formerly codenamed “Santa Rosa,” the new Centrino Duo with Wireless-N should start appearing in computers as soon as next week from vendors like Acer, Asus, Gateway and Toshiba, with more to come.

In addition to the new support for 11n — actually, Draft 1.10 of the 11n specification, which was voted on last week in London by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) — Intel has a new certification program, “Connect with Centrino,” for vendors who make Wi-Fi routers and access points. Asus, Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-Link and Netgear are the initial equipment makers taking part. Netgear, for example, says its RangeMax Wireless-N Routers (models WNR834B and WNR854T) have passed; Buffalo has the AirStation Wireless-N Nfiniti Dual Band Router & AP (model WZR-AG300NH) certified.

All vendors are expected to reach performance and range minimums in a number of tests when connecting to Centrino-based notebooks, or they won’t get a seal for their packaging.

The obvious missing vendor is Linksys, consistently the number one seller in consumer Wi-Fi. Intel’s Dave Hofer, director of wireless marketing for the company’s Mobile Platform Group, says Linksys is testing its products with Centrino Duo now and is considering joining the program. Linksys hasn’t said yet what its plans are for this program.

Centrino Duo will, like the Buffalo AP, be fully dual-band, supporting 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11n and thus also being backward-compatible not only with 802.11b/g (on 2.4GHz) but also 802.11a (on 5GHz). It will also fully support the new Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) scheme for easy PIN number or push-button based setup of wireless network security. WPS is a new standard set forth for the industry by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the first from the group, which usually only tests for product interoperability. It’s not a requirement for the “Connect with Centrino” tests, but is a “strong recommendation.”

Speaking of which, the Alliance plans to test 11n products later this year when the 11n standard gets to the 2.0 draft stage, at which point most vendors think it won’t change much, if at all. So why is Intel also performing certification tests with vendors?

Hofer says, “The Wi-Fi Alliance tests interoperability of the core protocol. We test in a real world environment to get the rate and reach in a home with real world applications. There’s a number of tests we do that aren’t covered by the Alliance. We look at performance in a legacy environment and get assurance you won’t trash a neighbor’s access point. We do a lot of testing on ‘good neighbor’ performance.” Testing is done in a large 4,000 square foot home to effectively test distance. Hofer says they’ve seen substantial improvement of 11n products while testing.

Other features of the Intel Next-Gen Wireless-N include a sleep state to reduce battery use and full 40MHz channel use in the 5.0GHz spectrum, which should give top speed (300 Megabits per second) to the network without interfering with existing 802.11b/g products. The chip has Microsoft WHQL certification to work with Windows Vista in both 32- and 64-bit versions of the operating system; indeed, the laptop vendors carrying the Centrino Duo will all ship with Vista. Intel also claims it will get twice the range of legacy products.

Will the Intel Next-Gen Wireless-N be upgradeable to the final 802.11n specification (now due for ratification in October 2008, though with the spec probably finalized by this time next year)? Hofer wouldn’t go that far, saying, “It’s hard to make predictions; anything could happen,” but he does seem confident that upgrades will be possible due to the flexibility Intel has built into the chips. “We’re not particularly concerned,” he says.

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