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Single-stream .11n chips enter Wi-Fi markets

Posted: 16 Dec 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:802.11n? Wi-FI? antenna? wireless standard?

The AR9285 is a PCIe version in an 8mm x 8mm package aimed at low-end desktops and notebooks.

Atheros Communications Inc. will try to drive 802.11n into mainstream Wi-Fi markets with a new line of chips using a streamlined version of the spec. The Atheros Align family uses only a single antenna to target 802.11g price points.

Analysts said they expect other Wi-Fi chipmakers to follow suit with their own single-stream .11n products. However, they also cautioned that the .11n market may face confusion from the emerging diversity of configurations.

Most .11n products use 2x2 multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) antennas to deliver as much as 10 times the throughput of older .11g devices. However, at nearly twice the cost, the 11n devices command only about one-third the market share of .11g, despite the fact the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying draft-.11n products in June 2007.

In Q2 08, revenue for draft-.11n products accounted for 21 percent of the market compared with 64 percent for .11g and 15 percent for multimode a/b/g, according to Victoria Fodale, a senior analyst with In-Stat.

"We had OEMs coming to us with plans to build 2009-2010 devices with Wi-Fi, but they wanted to use 11g," said Todd Antes, VP of marketing at Atheros. "It was clear to us the next large opportunity for 11n was to move legacy 11g designs up to a more efficient standard," he added.

By stripping out support for multiple radios, Atheros is betting it can create a new class of higher volume 11n devices that hit the estimated $3-5 pricing of 11g parts, but deliver better performance.

"The price/value proposition is clear, but there is the potential for consumer confusion regarding product compatibility since the 11n specification allows for one, two, three, or even four spatial streams," said Fodale.

Bridging the price gap
Indeed, Quantenna Communications Inc. recently became the latest of several startups to debut 11n chips with aggressive MIMO configurations, aiming at support for whole-home Wi-Fi and high-definition video. Antes suggested the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on a solution to let users mix and match different variants of 11n.

"The 11n standard is much richer than anything we've had to work with before, covering from one- to four-stream products," Antes said. "We believe there is opportunity for future three- and four-stream products, but you need to have both the client and router products to deliver the performance and we think that ecosystem is probably a year or more away," he added.

Antes would not disclose Atheros' chip pricing, but he said OEMs could use the Align parts to build systems that hit the price points of current 11g routers and gateways.

"There was a huge difference in price between 11n and 11g that will narrow significantly now," said Craig Mathias, principal of consulting firm Farpoint Group. "This is the end of the road for 11g, because there's no cost advantage anymore," he said.

Power and efficiency
Atheros estimates its Align parts can deliver two to four times the throughput of 11g, at similar or better distances, while maintaining lower power consumption.

Specifically, the Align chips can deliver 50Mbit/s TCP throughput at close range using 20MHz channels (107Mbit/s using 40MHz channels) compared with 24Mbit/s for 11g. At distances of 150m, Align delivers 10Mbit/s compared with 5Mbit/s for 11g, according to Atheros. Compared with 11g, the new chips consume about 250mW less in active transmit mode and about 45mW less in idle.

Atheros is initially rolling out three Align products to serve PC and consumer client systems, as well as routers and gateways.

The AR9285 is a PCIe version in an 8mm x 8mm package able to ride on a two-layer mini-card and aimed at low-end desktops and notebooks. The AR9271 is an embedded USB version for low-cost consumer devices, ranging from gateways and STBs to printers and TVs.

Both client chips integrate baseband and radio components, including a power amplifier and low-noise amplifier. The USB version also includes an on-board processor capable of handling the Wi-Fi software stack.

The AR9002AP-IS is a two-chip set geared for access points and routers. It uses the same integrated baseband and radio as the client chips and links the part via Express to a network processor that includes a five-port Fast Ethernet switch and power management.

Antes said Atheros plans other members of the Align family, presumably including devices for handsets.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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