Turning the Knob on Bandwidth
The current wireless card going into Centrino notebooks is the WiFi Link 4965AGN PCIe — by all standards, a solid representation of the latest networking technology. The benefits of 802.11n are still in draft form; the task group has approved draft 4.0 and is now working on draft 5.0, so who knows when we’ll see a concrete standard.
Nevertheless, Intel is revamping its entire lineup of wireless notebook adapters for Centrino 2 with four new models. The WiFi Link 5100 and WiFi Link 5300 should be available within the next month, while the WiMAX/WiFi Link 5150 and WiMAX/WiFi Link 5350 will go on sale later this year.
The difference between the first two and second pair is, of course, WiMAX support. When we asked Intel about the readiness of WiMAX infrastructure to give the 5x50 cards some value, its response was: “WiMAX provides much wider Internet and phone voice coverage, and unlike Wi-Fi, has the ability to unwire entire cities or communities, [ensuring connectivity] even when on the move. Intel is working with service providers around the world to deploy WiMAX networks, with initial U.S. network availability starting later this year from Sprint XOHM and Clearwire.” In other words, even if Centrino 2 were immediately available with WiMAX hardware, it’d idle until the wireless networks came online in your area.
What, then, is there left to add to the Wi-Fi-only cards that’ll make notebook vendors want to spend as much as $30 on them? Well, according to Intel, the new wireless offerings are going to zero in on three things.
First, there should be a big step up in performance. The entry-level WiFi Link 5100 is expected to receive files at up to 300 Mb/s using a 2x1 MIMO configuration. The higher-end WiFi Link 5300 gets a claimed 450 Mb/s using a 3x3 antenna setup. Incidentally, the 4965AGN should also deliver up to 300 Mb/s, putting the 5100 on par. We’re going to assume that Intel is employing the same technology that Marvell uses to get 450 Mb/s out of three sub-streams with its TopDog 11n-450. It isn’t clear whether or not you’d need a router built on a particular draft of the 802.11n specification to take advantage of the faster data rate, though.
Intel is also shooting for power savings with the new 5000-series WiFi Link cards. It cites consumption numbers at idle, associated with a network, at less than 25 mW. It also claims to offer significant reductions in power consumption and increases in power efficiency, but fails to provide the data to support those percentage increases.
Finally, the new WiFi Link cards include support for Active Management Technology 4.0, helping tie Centrino 2 into Intel’s more enterprise-oriented vision. A notebook boasting Centrino 2 with vPro technology includes the Core 2 Duo chip with Virtualization Technology, a Mobile 45 Express Chipset with the ICH9M-Enhanced controller (a $5 BOM increase), the 82567LM Gigabit chip with AMT 4.0 support, one of the new WiFi Link cards with AMT 4.0 support and a Trusted Platform Module v1.2. With all of those pieces in place, IT administrators can manage wireless clients, even if they’re powered off. We’ve seen this functionality for a while now on wired systems, but it’s brand new in the notebook space. With that said, only the enterprise folks will really care about its implementation.
Intel hasn’t yet started talking about pricing on the 5x50 cards with WiMAX support, but we can’t help but think that they’re the biggest piece of this Centrino 2 story. All of the other components really just represent incremental improvements, but WiMAX is completely new. If you’re going to spend a grand on a notebook that won’t be replaced for another couple of years, it really makes sense to wait and see how the metropolitan networking technology unfolds in the next six months.