Atheros dual-band WLAN chipsets in top-tier notebooks

If there is a buzz around the PC industry this year, it’s about wireless LANs (WLANs) and the notebooks that access them. Four of the world’s top five PC vendors, as compiled by Dataquest Inc., are using a dual-band chipset from Atheros Communications Inc. to enable those wireless connections in their notebooks, Atheros announced Wednesday.

The Atheros chipset allows notebook users to access the Internet through WLANs via either the 802.11b or 802.11a standard, depending on what type of network is available. Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Toshiba Corp., and NEC Corp. are either currently using or will use built-in Atheros chipsets for WLAN connectivity in their notebooks, said Rich Redelfs, president and chief executive officer at Atheros, based in Sunnyvale, California.

The most commonly deployed standard approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) for WLAN connections is 802.11b, often referred to as WiFi. It runs on the 2.4GHz frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum, and enables the user to download data at 11M bps (bits per second). However, many other wireless devices such as cordless phones and garage door openers also operate on this frequency, occasionally causing interference.

Products are starting to become widely available using another IEEE standard, 802.11a. It runs on the 5GHz frequency, and can download data at up to 54M bps, but is not as effective at longer ranges. Chipset vendors are also starting to sample products for 802.11g, which runs on the 2.4GHz frequency but can download data faster than 802.11b.

The multimode Atheros chipset gives users the ability to take advantage of the faster download speeds and cleaner transmissions provided by 802.11a, but still allows them to access the more commonly used 802.11b networks, Redelfs said. It also features a “turbo mode” for 802.11a networks that allows downloads up to 108M bps, he said.

Atheros’ current chipset supports the draft standard of the 802.11g standard, which is being reviewed by the IEEE. The group is expected to make only minor changes and revisions that will require a software update, not a new chipset, to download, Redelfs said.

Notebook manufacturers will soon have an option from Intel Corp. that allows them to purchase a new processor and a wireless chipset bundled together as one package, called Centrino. Intel’s wireless chipset will only feature 802.11b capability to start, with Intel adding support for 802.11a later this year.

Intel had hoped to combine its forthcoming Pentium-M processor, formerly known as Banias, with a dual-band WLAN chipset from Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV. It delayed that plan in December, saying it wanted to be sure its customers would get the performance they expect.

Redelfs isn’t worried about the emergence of Intel into the wireless chipset market. He pointed to the broad tuning range of the product, which allows it to work on the slightly different standards found throughout the world, and the AES (advanced encryption standard) and data encryption engine security features built into the Atheros chipset.

“Our (WLAN chipset) products are a much superior solution, and laptop vendors are agreeing with that,” he said.

The Atheros chipset is built into recently announced notebooks from IBM and Toshiba, the new Thinkpad and the Satellite Pro 6100.