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Wireless options boggle notebook designers

Posted: 16 Oct 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wireless personal-area network? UWB? PAN? Wi-Fi? Rick Merritt?

Notebook makers have a vision of the 2007 portable PC.

It turns on and off instantly, with better performance and battery life, thanks to the use of flash memory and some new software. It opens the door to an always-on wireless personal-area network (PAN) that automatically stays connected to your cellphone, camera, PDA, mouse and headset. It offers Wi-Fi at 100Mbps to enable wireless streaming of music and video.

And, of course, it has a bigger LCD and hard drive, faster processor and more memory.

It sounds cool, but to deliver on this vision, notebook engineers need to sort out a flash memory battle between their two top vendors: Intel and Microsoft. They must place a big bet on the still-unproven and fractured ultrawideband (UWB) technology, which is not yet even approved for use on much of the planet. They have to size up a contentious and politicized standards brawl over 802.11n that is already creating products that stomp on each other. And they must do their usual job of aligning the schedules of the latest CPUs, LCDs and other devices.

"It's not easy gluing together multiple lines of beta products, but that's what we do all the time," said Neeraj Srivastava, director of notebook and wireless marketing at Dell Computer, still reeling from the biggest recall in consumer electronics history after the failure of a Sony battery.

Much of the coordination effort for the next notebook swirls around two of the biggest pieces of the puzzle. Microsoft Corp.'s next OS, Windows Vista, is expected to ship early next year. And Intel Corp.'s Santa Rosa notebook platformwhich includes an upgraded CPU, chipset and Wi-Fi chipsis due sometime before June.

"Santa Rosa is the time frame everyone is shooting for to add .11n WLAN technology and UWB to the notebook," said Howard Locker, chief architect for desktop and mobile systems at Lenovo, formerly IBM Corp.'s PC division. "Flash might come in later, but .11n and UWB are integral to the platform."

Given all the bumps in the road, some observers said, the vision for next year's notebook will probably not be realized until the "refresh cycle" of systems that ship later in 2007.

Picking a PAN
By the end of the year, Lenovo will choose one of a handful of wireless USB chips coming on the market as a vehicle for getting UWB into its 2007 notebooks. Others may pick a $60 card or dongle to experiment with the technology as an aftermarket option.

Dell is keen on UWB, but will wait until late this year to determine whether to put wireless USB in its 2007 notebooks. "You can't say 'we have wireless USB, so we are done with UWB technology,'" said Pratik Mehta, a wireless technologist in the Office of the CTO at Dell.

Longer term, UWB is also the future of Bluetooth, an interface that ships to the tune of 6 million ports a week, Mehta said. UWB will also be a future transport for Ethernet and Internet Protocol traffic, as well as high-end applications like video for links to monitors. But even the nearest-term UWB variantwireless USBhas work yet to be done, said Mehta. UWB is not yet approved by regulators for use in many countries outside the United States. The silicon-and-software stack is immature, and there is no standard for simple and secure setup as there is with Wi-Fi. "There are a lot of issues still to be worked out," Mehta said.

Jeff Ravencraft, who heads the wireless USB initiative for Intel, said that Japan approved UWB last month; Canada, Europe and South Korea are expected to approve it late this year; and China will follow suit early in 2007. In addition, the spec defines a secure setup approach manufacturers have to implement to get certified. Formal certification has not yet begun, but a program will be launched before the end of the year, Ravencraft said.

Given the timing, Microsoft has decided not to support wireless USB natively in the initial release of Windows Vista. That means engineers have to write their own software drivers, and get them approved and integrated into Vista, a process that adds time, cost and uncertainty.

Lenovo's Locker envisions a broad range of wireless USB devices, including mice, headsets and video projectors, as well as a whole PAN of cameras, MP3 players, PDAs and cellphones. However, those products have yet to hit the market.

Ultimately, wireless USB and Wi-Fi may compete to be the transport of choice in the PAN, said Craig Mathias, an analyst and principal at Farpoint Group. Given the short range, limited duty cycle and data transmission requirements, Wi-Fi is as power-efficient as UWB for PANs, he added. "If you already have a radio and can make multiple use of it, it's a good thing," Mathias said.

Intel's Santa Rosa chipset will not support wireless USB, leaving that to other vendors, such as Alereon, Realtek Semiconductor, Staccato Communications, TZero Technologies, WiQuest Communications and Wisair. However, Santa Rosa will support a range of other wireless options.

Microsoft vs. Intel
In another potential boost for the 2007 notebook, PC engineers have figured out that if they can cache frequently accessed hard-disk data in flash memory, they can improve system performance and lower battery drain from spinning the disks. The effort opens the door to nearly "instant on" machines, a consumer-friendly experience that has long been a goal of PC makers.

Microsoft's hybrid hard disk concept packs 128Mbytes to 1Gbyte of flash.

Microsoft has developed a solution based on upcoming Windows Vista memory-management features and a specification for putting flash in a "hybrid" hard disk, with Samsung and Seagate showing prototype drives so far. Intel has separately devised its own approach, using some of its own systems software and a flash card on a PCI Express bus. Both schemes will also support the use of USB flash drives to deliver some of their features.

So far, neither Intel nor Microsoft has stable release software for OEMs to evaluate. "Both approaches require Vista, and every build of Vista has different performance characteristics. So no one knows what the exact benefits will be yet," said Srivastava of Dell.

"I want to do benchmarking," said Locker of Lenovo. "It's $50 to the end-user either way. If I don't see a significant amount of improvementlike 50 percentit will be difficult to make sure the benefits of either approach will be apparent to the user."

While Microsoft's approach is tied to Vista, some engineers hope the Intel approach, called Robson, ultimately could be revised to work on Windows XP, Linux and the Mac OS. "We'd like to see the Robson capability generalized, but right now all the work is focused on getting it to work on Vista," said Tom Pratt, a storage technologist at Dell.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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