Laptops with Embedded Wireless Technology

We walk you through the key features needed for the ultimate embedded wireless notebook experience.

March 12, 2004

7 Min Read
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Choose your WLAN technology wisely, because upgrading later will be costly. Laptops with 2.4-GHz-only antennas, for example, will never be able to support 5-GHz radios, and most manufacturers don't offer a mini-PCI upgrade. If, during the notebook's lifetime, your organization plans to migrate from 802.11b to the faster (54-Mbps) 802.11a and 802.11g standards, shelling out a few extra bucks now will pay off in the long run.

In fact, going with an all-in-one 802.11a/b/g solution makes the most sense. This will cover the 2.4- and 5-GHz frequency ranges, and support 54-Mbps wireless. Half of all embedded-wireless notebooks purchased by the beginning of 2005 will support 802.11a/b/g, according to consultancy Gartner, underscoring the importance of putting up extra cash now to be ready for the future.

Fifty percent of all Intel Pentium M processors are now being shipped with Intel's 802.11b Centrino technology. That number is expected to grow by the end of 2004 with the release of an 802.11b/g Centrino product this quarter and an 802.11a/b/g product this summer. Notebooks displaying the Centrino logo incorporate the Pentium-M 855 chipset, along with Intel's Mini-PCI wireless NIC. This scenario offers you the benefits of an entire Intel package but not a best-of-breed solution, as Centrino technology currently is restricted to 11b support.

Try looking past the marginal savings of investing in Intel's shiny Centrino campaign and consider a more versatile solution embracing all three wireless technologies. Dell Computer, for example, lets its customers upgrade their laptops from Intel's 802.11b Centrino to a Broadcom 802.11b/g mini-PCI for $29 or $49; it also offers 802.11a/b/g for $59 or $69, depending on the laptop model. And Toshiba offers a wide variety of wireless solutions from Atheros Communications, Cisco Systems and Intel.

Antenna PlacementAntenna-signal loss, a direct byproduct of antenna location, plays a critical role in the performance of embedded wireless notebooks. In laptops, the antennas are in the monitor frame or under the keyboard. Both placements provide suitable Wi-Fi support.

Compared with antennas under the keyboard, those in the monitor frame have more gain horizontally, which helps users connect to access points on the same floor. The drawback is increased signal loss--50 percent for 802.11b/g and slightly more for 802.11a. Most embedded wireless laptops use the native wireless utility provided by Microsoft XP. But if you want something more versatile, robust and easy to use, consider a proprietary client utility for your embedded WLAN NIC.

Proprietary utilities offer more information on the WLAN NIC and its environment. Many include applications that supply granular information on signal-strength percentage, noise level and signal-to-noise ratio, as well as tools to assist in site surveying and troubleshooting, which are not available from Microsoft Windows XP.

Size Matters

There are many options you can add to your notebooks--but you'll have to sacrifice some capabilities to keep your box lighter than eight pounds. Prioritize your computing requirements. With notebooks ranging from desktop replacements to ultraportables, you'll probably find all the sexy options overwhelming.Notebook size doesn't affect embedded wireless technology and availability. But desktop-replacement notebooks, bulkier and heaver than their ultraportable notebook cousins, offer more-powerful CPUs, roomier hard drives, larger monitors and integrated storage devices.

The biggest downfall of smaller notebooks is monitor size. Some ultraportables come with diminutive 12.1- to 14.1-inch screens. New desktop-replacement notebooks, on the other hand, give you a much wider viewing area. Gateway, among others, is offering monitors measuring an astonishing 17.1 inches diagonally.

One way to lighten the load is to go with a notebook that takes a smaller battery. The more-portable notebooks give users between two and 3.5 hours of usage, compared with four to six hours for desktop replacements. You can extend usage time with an extra battery.

Running Out of Juice

No matter which flavor you choose, count on wireless to reduce your battery life by nearly half. If you expect 802.11b to consume less power than 802.11a/g, think again: It will drain more, thanks to its lower data-transfer rate.Whether or not you're using your wireless connection, the WLAN NIC is transmitting data and sucking juice. To alleviate the battery consumption associated with constant WLAN usage, some vendors include a physical on/off switch for embedded wireless mini-PCI cards, letting users turn radios on and off without having to click around in Windows to disable them.

Features in Every Port

New notebooks offer a plethora of data ports--you'll have to ascertain how many and what you need before buying. If you forget something or leave it out because of the initial cost, you may end up paying restocking costs to replace a notebook that cannot be used.

Most give you the basic 56-Kbps modem, an Ethernet port (even Gigabit Ethernet availability), multiple USB 2.0 ports, a PC card slot and headphone/microphone support, along with several other port options. Higher-end notebooks provide any combination of Cadillac ports, including an S-Video output, an IrDA (Infrared Data Association) interface and FireWire (IEEE 1394) ports. Also available are slots supporting various portable-storage media, such as SD memory, a memory stick and compact flash.

Still don't know what to get? Then visit our customizable online survey, at ID# 1505ibg, for a look at various embedded wireless notebook configurations.Remember, whether you purchase an ultrasleek portable or a desktop replacement, notebooks are fragile. With that in mind, we recommend you purchase an extended three-year warranty to protect your investment.

Derrick Dicoi is a technology associate with the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected].

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Embedded Wireless Checklist
1) Which wireless standards does your company support?2) What frequency range does the wireless antenna support?

3) Where is the wireless antenna located?

4) What is the expected battery life with wireless use?Through its "Intel Inside" branding program, Intel has sought to convince consumers and IT professionals that their computer-purchasing decisions should rest largely on the type of microprocessor used. The chipmaker"s strategy has clearly succeeded, particularly in the notebook market, much to the chagrin of worthy competitors like AMD. The question is, will it work for wireless?

The WLAN chip market has changed dramatically in recent years. Three years ago, Agere Systems and Intersil Corp. were the dominant players. Agere adopted a business strategy pursuant to which it developed not only chipsets, but also a line of WLAN products marketed under the ORiNOCO brand name. The company also OEM"d wireless NICs to a number of vendors. Agere now focuses on chip development, having sold its ORiNOCO division to Proxim in 2002.

Intersil took a different tack, marketing its Prism chipsets and reference designs to a broad range of vendors, including Cisco Systems, Symbol Technologies and a number of low-cost Asian manufacturers. While this approach proved highly successful for the most part, Intersil had trouble transitioning from 802.11b to 802.11a/g. The company sold its WLAN chipset group to GlobespanVirata in 2003.One of the key reasons why Agere and Intersil changed strategies was the emergence of Atheros Communications and Broadcom as key suppliers of WLAN chipsets.Atheros made waves in 2001 when it shipped the first commercial 802.11a chipsets. While these first-generation designs offered limited range, Atheros continued to improve its technology, first by delivering more integrated chipset offerings and later by delivering multimode, multiband chipsets with support for 802.11a/b/g. In addition to chipsets, Atheros developed successful NIC and access-point reference designs. The company went public in February 2004.

While Atheros was making a name for itself as a WLAN chip start-up, Broadcom, a network-semiconductor giant with significant market share in Ethernet and cable modem chipsets, entered the 802.11b WLAN market in 2002. Broadcom later introduced 802.11g and multiband 802.11a/b/g chipsets and has enjoyed significant success in this market, particularly with notebook manufacturers and consumer-oriented WLAN vendors.We"ve seen many WLAN chipset players over the past five years. Texas Instruments, for example, has enjoyed significant success in this market, shipping 14 million WLAN ports in 2003. Other vendors have not fared so well, victims of intense competition and a general reluctance by established manufacturers to stray too far from leading names.

That leads back to Intel, which blitzed the media in 2003 with its Centrino WLAN offering. Although Intel has had a positive impact on the WLAN industry by raising awareness, the Centrino WLAN offering is technologically inferior to competing systems. In fact, very little of the underlying silicon found in the Centrino embedded WLAN NIC was developed by Intel. The company continues to work on developing its own WLAN silicon and expects to release products this year.

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