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Laptop makers push pre-standard wireless

Lenovo and HP will follow Dell and Acer in building high-speed Wi-Fi into their notebooks, despite concerns over compatibility
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

Next-generation wireless connectivity is now being offered in the latest notebook PCs, despite concerns over whether it will work with the latest enterprise access points.

Lenovo is the latest notebook supplier to build a high-speed Wi-Fi radio into its notebooks. The China-based supplier's announcement follows identical work by its rivals Dell and Acer. High-speed Wi-Fi, or 802.11n, will offer around five times the bandwidth and four times the range of current wireless technology, meaning businesses can deploy fewer access points to cover the same area.

Lenovo, which acquired IBM's laptop business in 2005, will offer an 802.11n radio within its 3000 series notebooks.

But it is early days for 802.11n, as few enterprise access points are available that support the standard. The standard itself is still in a draft stage — meaning it could change markedly over the next year. The draft standard has already seen 12,000 changes following prolonged infighting among chip makers, among them Broadcom, Intel and Atheros. Final standardisation is not expected until 2008.

This means that people who buy draft 802.11n kit today can't be sure that it will work with certified equipment in the future. Nevertheless, laptop suppliers have been keen to offer models with 802.11n built into the chipsets. Lenovo, Dell and Acer have all chosen Broadcom to supply the chips..

Mike Hurlston, vice president at Broadcom, said it is likely that current notebooks would be able to support the 802.11n standard when it is finalised.

"That's the goal," Hurlston told ZDNet UK. "The chances are north of 80 percent that the product will be fully upgradable to the final standard. But the chances that it is upgradable in a meaningful way are close to 100 percent. It is a case of getting the corner cases worked out."

More neutral observers have been less optimistic. Network advisory and testing firm Farpoint Group tested a range of draft 802.11n equipment earlier this year, and found some suppliers' equipment would not communicate with each other. Those findings are backed up by tests conducted by ZDNet UK Reviews, due to be published shortly, which found considerable interoperability concerns and data rates which were at times slower than those using older equipment.

The world's biggest chip maker, Intel, is due to launch its draft 802.11n chipset in the first six months of 2007. At that stage Intel's Centrino update — code-named Santa Rosa — will also contain a 3G EDGE module.

Samsung this week launched its latest ultra-mobile PC, the Q1b, which now contains a high-speed 3G, or HSDPA, radio.

Hurlston said Broadcom was investing in chipsets with WiMax, ultra wideband and DVB-H (mobile video) radios. He predicted that 35 to 40 percent of notebooks would contain draft 802.11n by the second half of 2007. He also said that HP would release a 802.11n notebook shortly. Lenovo's new machines will go on sale in December.

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