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Intel delivers shot in the arm to Wi-Fi

Mar 31, 20033 mins
Cellular NetworksNetwork SecurityWi-Fi

* Centrino plus partnerships could spur Wi-Fi adoption

Last year, when Intel was calling its forthcoming Wi-Fi chip architecture “Banias,” the platform was described as a dual-mode 802.11a/b architecture. With initial release of the platform, renamed Intel Centrino Mobile Technology, earlier this month though, nothing was said about 802.11a. At first, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about for yet another 802.11b solution, being a big fan of products that let you roam among different kinds of networks – preferably, as many as possible.

So I had to look under the covers. Likely, it will be domino effect caused by Centrino and related Intel activities – rather than the Centrino architecture alone – that is the big deal at the end of the day. We talk lots about Wi-Fi, but for all the discussion and development dollars spent, not all that much is deployed yet. The Centrino architecture, in combination with strategic partnerships that Intel has formed lately with Wi-Fi hot spot service providers and notebook makers, could collectively signify an industry turning point. The reason is that Intel seems to be gluing together all the disparate pieces that need to work as a system for Wi-Fi-for-the-masses to take off.

But first, Centrino itself. The architecture goes beyond the network interface card (NIC) to embrace general mobility issues – most notably, reducing power consumption of Wi-Fi and other laptop processes – to further improve the mobile user experience with longer battery life. It should be noted that other chipmakers have also made “mobility” improvements such as more efficient processors. Most have not built an entire, mobile-optimized architecture, though.

The complete Centrino package includes an Intel Pentium-M processor, low-power chipsets and an Intel Wi-Fi NIC. Notebook makers can use these system “guts” to build Wi-Fi-optimized mobile computers. (And they are doing so, with systems starting at about $1400 – about the same price as existing notebooks, which will help spur adoption by default. Laptop makers with Centrino models include ChemUSA, FujitsuPC, Gateway, Sony and Toshiba.)

The Pentium-M extends the power capacities of Intel’s Pentium4-M mobile processor by improving its ability to slow itself down when there’s less work to do. This is important to the user experience, because Wi-Fi is said to consume considerably more power than a cell phone. In addition, the setup addresses the other battery-draining tasks in a laptop such as the backlighting of screens. Centrino reportedly reduces battery consumption by about 15% to 20%, while affording OEMs the ability to further streamline system processes on their own.