802.11n Gear Makes Strides

Tech Analysis: Vendors Beef Up Interoperability.

Since kweek labs initial evaluation of draft 802.11n-enabled wireless LAN products, wireless chip set and hardware manufacturers have been improving interoperability among their products. New product lines featuring systems based on different chip-set manufacturers are becoming the norm, and vendors have been updating their software and participating in bake-offs to improve interoperability prior to the forthcoming Wi-Fi certification program for draft-802.11n products.

Wireless LAN vendors and chip set manufacturers have addressed many of the shortcomings eWeek Labs reported in its July 2006 interoperability test roundup, "802.11n is a gamble" (www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1992140,00.asp). Vendors have released new router firmware and client drivers designed to improve interoperability among chip-set implementations, backward compatibility and overall performance, in addition to fixing the usual host of bugs.

Moreover, many vendors are quietly implementing chip sets from multiple vendors. For example, Linksys released a new Marvell-based access point targeted at small businesses last fall, and Belkin International now ships N1 Routers (Version 2.x) using Marvell chips, rather than the Atheros Communications-based products we tested. This increasing adoption of multiple manufacturers chip sets—along with the seven plugfests most products have gone through at this point—herald the coming of a time when it will not matter whats inside. What will matter is that the label says "802.11n-compliant."

Our discussions with several wireless vendors indicate that while sales of draft 802.11n routers have steadily increased since last spring (particularly during the 2006 holiday season), the attach rate for 802.11n clients has stayed consistently low (between 15 and 40 percent, depending on the vendor with whom we spoke).

Belkin officials said that many buyers may not realize that a draft 802.11n-enabled client is needed to get the most from a draft-802.11n router. Every vendor representative with whom we spoke agreed that most customers will use whatever wireless card is embedded in their client devices, rather than adding an extra adapter. And embedded draft 802.11n client adoption is only now picking up steam.

Atheros and Broadcom have been shipping laptop-integrated chips for several months now, but laptop vendors such as Gateway and Hewlett-Packard have confined the chips to consumer-oriented models. However, with Intels recent announcement that it is stepping up Centrino draft 802.11n adoption—offering it optionally with existing Core 2 Duo-based consumer systems (rather than waiting for the "Santa Rosa" chip set to go online, as was previously anticipated)—we expect embedded draft 802.11n clients to proliferate quickly in the coming months in the consumer sector.

Meanwhile, Lenovo has been much more aggressive with its draft 802.11n implementation. We recently tested a pair of draft-802.11n-enabled laptops—the widescreen Thinkpad T60p and the Thinkpad X60 Tablet—that are the first enterprise-targeted notebooks weve seen with the new wireless capability. Each ThinkPad uses Atheros Xspan draft 802.11n chip sets, but Lenovo is also using Broadcom chips for its consumer-oriented Lenovo 3000 line. While the Broadcom-based products offer only a 2-by-2 (or 2 transmit, 2 receive) antenna configuration, Lenovo has added a third antenna around the LCD panel of its 802.11n-enabled ThinkPads to support a 2-by-3 configuration with the Atheros chips.

eWeek Labs asked Howard Dulany, Lenovos worldwide marketing manager for wireless products, why Lenovo was so aggressive in bringing 802.11n to enterprise systems. Dulany, in Raleigh, N.C., said, "Lenovo strives with ThinkPad to maintain leadership from a technology standpoint. We make these technology decisions probably a year before we do them, and we thought [late 2006] would probably be the right time to put 802.11n in. 802.11g got popular quite a bit before the final specification was approved, so we didnt want to become caught in a situation where we waited too long."

While draft 11n remains an optional component in the ThinkPad products—and while the full 802.11n standard ratification is still a year away—customers are adopting the draft 802.11n adapters. According to Dulany, Lenovo is seeing a 15 to 20 percent attach rate for draft 802.11n wireless adapters in the express models available on Lenovos Web site. ´

Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at andrew_garcia@ziffdavis.com.