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Wireless laptop evolution

If you're cycling out older laptops or deploying a whole new fleet you need to read this. In this feature column, Lisa Phifer explores the technologies and wireless interfaces you should consider when you purchase your next laptop.

The first wireless interface to be embedded in laptops to any significant degree was probably Infrared (IrDA), added to Windows 95 for cable-free printing. In 2003, Intel Centrino fostered an 802.11b explosion; as a result, Wi-Fi now ships as standard equipment with virtually every laptop. 2005 was the year that Bluetooth finally emerged as a factory-installed option on many laptops. As new technologies appear, what wireless interfaces can you expect when you order your next laptop, and which should you buy?

Reaching faster and farther

Announcements made at this month's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) provide insight into recent wireless developments and their impact on corporate laptops. For example:

  • Intel announced its next generation Centrino Duo mobile technology. A new Core Duo processor improves performance-per-watt efficiency for wireless laptops and the embedded Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG Network Connection enables use of 802.11a, b, or g wireless LANs.
    What does Duo mean for enterprise networks? 802.11a adoption has been hamstrung by incompatibility with the large installed base of 802.11b devices. Like its predecessor, Duo will rapidly boost the number of 802.11a/b/g laptops in the field, justifying broader 802.11a deployment to relieve channel congestion and increase AP density (bandwidth-per-user.) There's no good reason to buy anything less than embedded a/b/g in new laptops this year.
  • The Lenovo Group announced Thinkpad T60 and X60 series laptops, which use Centrino Duo technology to run up to 11 hours on two batteries. These new laptops also provide embedded support for Verizon Wireless' CDMA2000 EV-DO wireless service, using Lenovo software to manage multiple wireless connections. Similarly, HP announced the new Compaq nc6140, which uses Qualcomm's CDMA2000 EV-DO chipset to pair with Verizon's service.
    With laptops like these (and previously-announced Cingular HSDPA laptops from Dell), mobile professionals will now be able to switch between embedded WWAN and WLAN connections, without the fuss of external wireless cards or manual connection management. But companies should be careful about basing laptop purchases on specific wireless carrier services, since WWAN technologies and services are likely to change within the three year lifespan of a typical laptop. Buy embedded EV-DO or HSDPA only for those workers who really need it, after first verifying coverage in required areas using an after-market PC card adapter.
  • Atheros demonstrated its next generation XSPAN Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) wireless solutions at CES. New MIMO products based on this Atheros approach will combine three transmitters and three receivers to deliver up to 300 Mbps with improved reliability and range.
    Pre-standard MIMO products like these are slated for residential use. Most enterprise WLAN products will wait for the final 802.11n standard to lengthen shelf life and ensure interoperability. But this creates an interesting quandry for laptops: can the same MIMO adapters be used both at home and at work? Proprietary MIMO products may also work with older 802.11b/g products, but their forward compatibility with final standard 802.11n is doubtful. Businesses should wait to buy MIMO until standard 802.11n starts shipping with laptops. In the meantime, consider testing and developing policy regarding employee use of pre-standard MIMO PC cards and USB adapters in corporate laptops.
  • Samsung and Korean telecommunications provider KT demonstrated WiBro, a Korean wireless broadband service that is based on 802.16e (mobile WiMAX). During this demo, Samsung laptops and smartphones used WiBro to receive streaming video, videoconference feeds, messages, and pictures at speeds up to 800 Kbps. WiBro is eventually expected to offer 20 to 30 Mbps aggregate throughput, at distances up to 5 kilometers.
    Products like these illustrate that Mobile WiMAX is coming, but it is not yet a real contender for laptop wireless in the US. Intel expects to add WiMAX to laptops in 2006 and handsets in 2007. But usability depends on carrier adoption, which is difficult to predict. Fixed WiMAX has been around longer and is still in the trial stage -- for example, Speakeasy in Seattle. As we have seen with high-speed WWANs, it doesn't make sense to buy embedded wireless until services are broadly available, at a cost that employers can actually justify paying.

Up close and personal

Bluetooth is popular as a cable replacement for connecting headsets and vehicle audio systems to PDAs and smartphones. Bluetooth can connect many devices to corporate laptops -- for example, synchronizing PDAs, sharing business cards, and sending files to portable printers. Bluetooth operates over a distance of 10 to 100 meters, depending on device class. Version 2.0 Enhanced Data Rate (EDR) can reach up to 3 Mbps. In mid-2005, the Bluetooth SIG announced that it will develop its next high rate Bluetooth specification based on Ultra Wide-Band (UWB) radio. UWB can send data over short distances at very high rates with low power consumption. Currently, there are two competing standards that deliver 500 Mbps at 2 meters, or 110 Mbps at 10 meters.

Today's Bluetooth adapters clearly have a short shelf life. Unless you have a compelling business need, skip the option to add embedded Bluetooth to your next laptop. You can always buy a cheap USB adapter if you change your mind.

Convenience, cost, and ubiquity

End users prefer embedded wireless primarily for convenience. PC cards and USB wireless adapters may be small, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive, but they're easily forgotten, lost, and broken.

Corporate purchasers must also consider consistency of equipment in the field for maintenance and tech support. Even small differences in per-unit cost matter when you're buying in bulk. While this is true for every laptop feature, embedded network technology requires further consideration.

After-market wireless adapters create variability in the installed base, but they do provide more flexibility as technologies mature. Laptops ship with embedded Ethernet by default because 10/100 Ethernet is stable, and has been for years. When you order embedded wireless in your next laptop fleet, you'll be driving a stake into the ground. So choose carefully -- your networks and services must support those laptops for years to come.

Lisa Phifer

About the author:
Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. Phifer has been involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation of data communications, internetworking, security, and network management products for nearly 20 years. She teaches about wireless LANs and virtual private networking at industry conferences and has written extensively about network infrastructure and security technologies for numerous publications. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.
 

This was last published in January 2006

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