More Silicon for Wi-Fi Power

By Eric Griffith

September 15, 2003

Innovation in wireless chips continues as Atheros announces new products promising better range and lower power use with 802.11g, while both Conexant and Philips adds 11g to their portfolios.

There's never any lack of new chips coming out to support wireless LANs. Atheros Communications of Sunnyvale, Calif., one of the few pure-play WLAN chip companies -- all they do is Wi-Fi chips at the moment -- announced today its fourth generation of products, focusing on low power and extended range.

Attempts to get low power are not strange in the Wi-Fi market. Texas Instruments has been working on such products, and last week both Broadcom and Philips announced low-power 802.11b chips meant to power wireless in handhelds or PDAs -- Broadcom's being the first single-chip solution.

Sheung Li, product line manager at Atheros, says his company's latest came out of a complete overhaul to how Atheros chips are architected. And while Atheros doesn't intend to give up their current success in the PC OEM side of things (its chips are available in notebooks from 8 out of the 9 top system makers) to move to handhelds, the new chipsets -- the dual-band AR5004X and the 802.11g/b AR5004G -- will come with power management tools he says reduces power consumption by 60%. This comes in part from the power use dropping by about 95% when in idle/sleep mode. All this power savings is a first for 802.11a or 11g.

The company is actually more heavily promoting the new chips' eXtended Range design, a term they're using to describe the two-radio architecture used to increase the distance products can achieve. This, says Li, deviates from the accepted way most implement 802.11, but he calls akin to how 802.11g "switches between OFDM and CCK radios; here we just switch on a packet by packet basis." Atheros says receive sensitivity goes up over 20dB what's in the 802.11 specifications.

"Most people are blown away [by the distance]," says Li. In internal tests, the company reached a line-of-sight distance of 790 meters (2600 feet) with the new chips. "You can currently get cell reception in many places where you can't get WLAN, and that's really been our target: keep the reception going no matter what."

The company's chips will continue to support SuperG and SuperA/G, their performance boosting announced with Atheros's third generation products that combine packet bursting (based on what's coming in 802.11e), fast frames (which changes the algorithms used when composing frames), compression, and dual-channel use.

They've also added Wake-on-Wireless and Wake-on-Theft, features meant to extend administrator control over laptops and to prevent losses in equipment.

Royal Philips Electronics , which, as mentioned above, last week was one of the companies announcing small form-factor, low-power 802.11b chips, this week got into the 802.11g and dual-band (802.11a/g) end.

While Philips' low-power chips are for handhelds, this 2-chip set specifically targets the PC and CE (consumer electronics) end -- access points, PC Cards, and the like. It consists of a baseband/MAC (the SA5250) and an RF transceiver radio (SA5251) that does both 2.4GHz for 802.11g/b and 5GHz for 802.11a. The chips will use a "detect and connect" feature to automatically move to the right connection, whether 802.11a, b, or g. The chip will also support WPA encryption, Cisco Compatible Extension (CCX), the Wireless Multimedia Extensions (WME) from Microsoft (a precursor to 802.11e), and security such as Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

Another new chip for the week that doesn't do much innovative with distance or power consumption, but brings another player into the world of inexpensive 802.11g, is from Conexant Systems of Newport Beach, Calif. They'll be offering a new baseband/MAC (model CX85510), specifically targeting high volume customers. It will also support WME and, according to Peter Kempf, vice president of Wireless Data and Networking Components for Conexant, is ready for 802.11e.

Philips is pricing its new chips at $16 in sample quantities; Conexant will be $12; both are sampling with customers now. Atheros is done sampling and is in production, but the company didn't reveal cost. Li said "prices always go down."

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