Intel Launches Centrino; Wi-Fi Support Still Lags

Mobile technology can access only older 802.11b nets

Intel Corp. launched its much-heralded Centrino mobile technology last week. But unless users are willing to accept relatively slow Wi-Fi access, they will have to wait until the next quarter to get notebooks certified by Intel as Centrino-compatible.

Centrino consists of a newly designed, low-power-drain Pentium-M chip set and a PRO/Wireless mini-PCI card that handles Wi-Fi connectivity. Intel will offer four standard versions of the Pentium-M running at speeds of 1.6, 1.5, 1.4 and 1.3 GHz.

Intel has touted the Wi-Fi capabilities of its Centrino architecture and has made high-profile partnerships with Wi-Fi public-access networks and operators . But Centrino's built-in Wi-Fi can access only older 802.11b wireless networks, which transmit raw data at a rate of 11M bit/sec. It doesn't support the Wi-Fi 802.11a or 802.11g standards, both of which provide 54M bit/sec. data speeds.

"We had originally planned to introduce Centrino with dual-band, both 'a' and 'b,' " Daniel Francisco, an Intel spokesman, said on Friday. "We announced in December that the dual band would be delayed due to us having to do some additional engineering on 'a.' We will have dual-band [802.11 a and b] out by the end of the second quarter of 2003. As for 'g' we believe an a/b/g tri-band solution makes sense, and we'll look at it when the 'g' specification is completed." The Wi-Fi Alliance expects to start certifying 802.11g products this summer.

Rich Redelfs, president and CEO of Atheros Communications Inc., a wireless LAN chip manufacturer in Sunnyvale, Calif., said notebook vendors have the option of using the Pentium-M processor that's at the heart of the Centrino technology with Atheros 802.11a/b WLAN chip sets now, and with 802.11g or combined 802.11a/b/g chip sets in the near future.

Major hardware manufacturers that have signed on to use the Atheros 802.11 chip sets include Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Toshiba Corp. and NEC Corp. But Intel—which is backing the Centrino launch with a $300 million advertising campaign—won't allow manufacturers to slap a "Centrino-compatible" logo on their products unless they incorporate both the Pentium-M processor and its Wi-Fi module. IBM and HP, in addition to offering the Atheros option, are among the top-tier notebook vendors that offer fully compatible Centrino products.

Many large enterprise users view Wi-Fi as a business essential. Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp., said he plans to support thousands of traveling workers with Wi-Fi. Scott called the increase in battery life promised by Centrino a "great step forward" and noted that GM intends to upgrade wireless LANs in its plants from 802.11b to 802.11g.

Analysts expect Intel to eventually incorporate all three Wi-Fi standards into the Centrino architecture, and they view that as the beginning of the end of outboard Wi-Fi packaged in a PC Card. Keith Waryas, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the use of PC Cards for wireless LAN connectivity "will eventually go away" as Centrino-equipped notebooks replace older models.


Intel's Centrino Timeline

Oct 2000

Announces development of the "Banias" low-power mobile processor.

Dec 2002

Forms Cometa Networks with AT&T Corp. and IBM to develop a nationwide Wi-Fi network.

Announces that Banias will use a mini-PCI card that can support only 802.11b Wi-Fi because of engineering problems with a chip meant to support the 802.11a standard.

Jan 2003

Changes name of mobile processor architecture from Banias to Centrino.

Mar 2003

Launches Centrino with an 802.11b mini-PCI card.

Q2 2003

Expects to offer an 802.11a/b mini-PCI card on Centrino.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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