Intel unveils new Centrino, still lags in WiFi race

Intel has introduced the third version of its Centrino WiFi chip set, but it still runs at least a generation behind competitors whose products offer more features, including longer range and faster throughput.

Intel has introduced the third version of its Centrino WiFi chip set, but it still runs at least a generation behind competitors whose products offer more features, including longer range and faster throughput. Intel's new PRO/Wireless 2200BG Wi-FI chip, packed in an embedded mini-PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) adapter, incorporates both the 802.11b and 802.11g WiFi standards, which support raw data rates of 11Mbit/sec and 54Mbit/sec, respectively, in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band.

Last March, Intel introduced its first Centrino product for notebook and tablet computers, a processor that operated on the 802.11b standard only (see story). In October, Intel introduced a dual-band WiFi Centrino chip set that supported the 802.11b and the 802.11a standards. The 802.11a standard has a raw data rate of 54Mbit/sec, but unlike 802.11g, it operates in the 5-GHz band.

Both Atheros Communications in Sunnyvale, California, and Broadcom in Irvine, California, offered dual-band 802.11 b/g chip sets before Intel introduced Centrino last year. And both continue to outpace Intel in the breadth and depth of their offerings, which include tri-mode 802.11 a/b/g chip sets.

Daniel Francisco, an Intel spokesman, said the company plans to begin production of its own tri-band WiFi chips by midyear, with shipments to customers slated for the second half of 2004.

Colin Macnab, vice president of business development at Atheros, said that if Intel introduces a tri-mode version of Centrino in the latter half of 2004, "it will put them just under two years behind us." He said Atheros, which introduced a tri-mode chip set in March 2002, expects to announce its fifth generation of products shortly and noted that the entire WiFi industry owes Intel thanks for its $300 million Centrino advertising campaign.

That campaign, launched last spring, has increased the visibility of all WiFi products, he said.

Asked about Intel's ability to keep pace with the WiFi market, Francisco said the company is doing just that. At any given time, he said, one manufacturer or another may have a more advanced chip set. He emphasised that Intel is concentrating on the WiFi user "experience," which the company believes is best met by an embedded, rather than add-on, client.

He added that Intel believes it's keeping pace with the current state of the WiFi market and its access-point infrastructure. Today on enterprise and public-access networks, the infrastructure is primarily 802.11b, with 802.11g just gaining acceptance, he said.

Earlier this month, Broadcom said it had shipped 11 million 802.11g chip sets, which are used in notebooks from manufacturers such as Apple Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Gateway. WiFi access-point manufacturers that use Broadcom chips include the Linksys Group subsidiary of Cisco Systems, Motorola and Microsoft.

Major notebook manufacturers such as Dell, IBM and Gateway offer customers a choice of either a built-in Centrino chip set or a mini-PCI card incorporating either Atheros or Broadcom technology.

Besides offering tri-mode chip sets, Atheros introduced in September what it calls Extended Range technology, which the company said doubles the range of WiFi gear. The range now runs from roughly 100 feet indoors to about 300 feet outdoors.

At the same time, Atheros introduced technology that it said would double the raw data rates for both 802.11a and 802.11g chips from 54Mbit/sec to 108Mbit/sec, with end-user data rates of roughly 90Mbit/sec.

Atheros customers include IBM and HP, which use the company's products in client cards. Proxim, which manufactures enterprise-class access points, uses Atheros chip sets. HP also uses Atheros products in its access points.

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