While Sprint and Intel are busy setting up the first large-scale WiMax network in the United States, Lenovo and Acer are each rushing a number of notebooks into the market that are equipped with the new wireless broadband technology.
The first large-scale deployment of WiMax technology is taking place in Baltimore Oct. 8, as Sprint officially launches its Xohm mobile 4G network. In addition, Intel, a major backer of WiMax technology, is showing off a technology code-named Echo Peak, which is part of the new Centrino 2 mobile platform and allows notebooks to connect to both Wi-Fi and WiMax networks. The technology is now officially called the Intel WiMax/Wi-Fi Link 5050 Series.
When the WiMax network debuts in Baltimore, Lenovo and Acer will be among the first PC vendors to offer WiMax in a number of notebooks. The Lenovo offerings are especially interesting since the company plans to offer WiMax in five of its enterprise-class ThinkPad notebooks.
The Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks that offer Intel’s Centrino 2 platform with the optional WiMax technology include the new ThinkPad X301 as well as the ThinkPad W500, W700, SL400 and X200. A consumer laptop, the Lenovo IdeaPad Y530, is expected to follow later in 2008.
While Intel has made sure that the WiMax technology works on the chip level, David Critchley, a segment manager for Lenovo, said his company has also made some improvements to ensure that the notebooks can take full advantage of the network.
“The way we have designed our antenna to make sure that it covers the range and the way we have designed the ThinkPad to make sure it’s optimized for both Wi-Fi and WiMax should make a difference when we get out into the marketplace,” Critchley said. “If you use the Intel part with your notebook, then all of us have the same radio, but I think how you get that transmission out of your system and receive it is just as critical as the radio that you start with, and we have been pushing out antenna technology to do this.”
Acer is also preparing to roll out two notebooks-the Aspire 4930-6862 and the Aspire 6930-6771-that offer the updated Intel Centrino 2 platform and the WiMax feature. Although the Acer Aspire series is geared more toward consumers, these notebooks have found a place within the small business market.
While Acer and Lenovo, along with Toshiba and some other PC vendors, are looking to jump ahead of the competition by boasting of a WiMax option with their notebooks, the question is: Will anybody buy it? For now, at least in the United States, WiMax is limited to Baltimore, although there is more testing by Intel, Sprint and other companies under way. This limited availability also makes it hard to compare how WiMax, which is supposed to offer better throughput, performs against the current crop of 3G broadband options.
Others Cautious on WiMax
“There’s not a lot of advantage right now to having a notebook that is enabled with WiMax even as option,” said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC. “A few manufacturers-Toshiba, Lenovo, Acer-saying that they have notebooks that are WiMax-enabled in some ways is a hollow announcement. Clients in Baltimore will be happy, but I don’t think people that travel to Baltimore are going to buy their WiMax-enabled notebooks just so when they go there they can access WiMax. There are just other options out there like cellular broadband and Wi-Fi available.”
While these announcements by Lenovo and other OEMs might not amount to much right now, Shim said he does believe that more competition, coupled with demand, will eventually help drive the price of WiMax technology down, which in turn should make it more available and easier to compare to other types of wireless technology.
An article in the Associated Press reported that Sprint will charge users $45 per month for its network, which promises download speeds of 2M to 4M bps.
In addition to WiMax, Intel has also made the 802.11 draft-n wireless technology standard with the Centrino 2 platform. This should increase the availability of this network if consumers and business users begin demanding notebooks that offer draft-n technology.
While Lenovo and others were busy jumping onto the WiMax bandwagon, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, the world’s two largest PC vendors, did not announce new WiMax options for their notebooks. In a statement, HP said it was still testing the technology.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include more information from Lenovo, HP and Dell. It also includes comments from an analyst and additional details about Sprint’s WiMax network.