The Fight to Be First

By Eric Griffith

April 13, 2006

Consumer products using the draft of the 802.11n spec are imminent, but are they actually for sale right now?

Following last week's details from Netgear and D-Link about their planned products using the draft 802.11n specification to bring higher speed wireless to home networks, this week Buffalo Technology has specifics on its own line, the AirStation NFiniti products.

At least two of these vendors, Buffalo and Netgear, are claiming their 802.11n draft products are "immediately available" — but that depends on your definition.

Buffalo's Nfiniti products, based on the Broadcom Intensi-fi chipset, will have the following lineup:

  • AirStation Nfiniti Wireless Router and AP (Model WZR-G300N) for $179
  • AirStation Nfiniti Wireless Notebook Adapter (WLI-CB-G300N) for $129
  • AirStation Nfiniti Wireless PCI Adapter (WLI-PCI-G300N) for $129

WZR-G300NBuffalo's router (sporting three antennas) has the unique feature of having a physical button on the bottom to set it into an AP-only mode, instead of selling an AP as a separate product like Netgear plans to do. Buffalo also continues to build in its proprietary AirStation One-Touch Secure System (AOSS) which sets up network security with a single button pushed on the router.

Buffalo went out of its way to announce an early partnership with PC Connection to sell the Nfiniti products, but the router and PC Card listed there are labeled as "on order," with an estimated shipping date coming in "2+ weeks."

As this story was being written, Buffalo had not yet announced other retailers that would be carrying the products.

Netgear's lower-end RangeMax Next products also use Broadcom's chips. The higher-end Gigabit products announced last week — featuring Gigabit Ethernet ports on the hardware switch part of the router, instead of just 10/100Mbps Ethernet —use chips from Marvell called TopDog. A downside to almost all the announced draft 11n products except the Netgear Gigabit products are that 100Mbps Ethernet is likely to be slower than the wireless from the latest chips.

Netgear says RangeMax Next products are available for sale through Fry's Outpost, and indeed you can find a wireless router and PC Card for sale there if you search on "RangeMax Next." However, all the products are also listed as "Available for Preorder" with an estimated shipping date of April 26, 2006. Netgear PR says the products will become available later today through additional retailers.

Calls to a local Best Buy retail location got a computer sales person who said if the products are "now shipping," then they won't show up online for a couple of weeks, and then in stores a few weeks after that.

D-Link has stated its RangeBooster N 650 line of draft 802.11n products will be out "this month." Belkin isn't expected to announce 802.11n products until May. Cisco's Linksys division, traditionally the number one player in consumer Wi-Fi products, has so far stayed mum on draft 802.11n products and didn't respond to emails when asked this morning. Almost all have some sort of early MIMO-based product. MIMO (multiple in, multiple out) antennas figure heavily into the 802.11n draft specification.

All of the above draft 802.11n products are running in 2.4GHz, which is also the radio frequency used by existing 802.11b/g Wi-Fi networks. Currently, none of the draft 802.11n products that are being rushed to market are certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, but most manufacturers claim they will submit the products to make sure they work with 802.11b/g networks. Rumors have circulated that the current 1.0 draft for 802.11n would cause issues with existing networks, but the Alliance has a policy not to certify a product if that is the case. Of course, submission for testing by vendors is voluntary, not mandatory.

Brian Verenkoff, product manager at Buffalo Technology, says he thinks consumers will see the Nfiniti products as more "future proof," that is, ready for the next generation of networks, though he adds, "we're not claiming upgradeability [to final 802.11n]— we can't guarantee that. I'd be surprised if any manufacturer with 1.0 draft level products made that guarantee."

Netgear is at least promising its RangeMax Next products "will be compatible with Intensi-fi powered draft 802.11n-compliant products from other manufacturers and are backward-compatible with all legacy 802.11b/g wireless products," according to a company statement. Even the chances of the Broadcom-based Netgear products working directly with products using chips from Atheros or Marvell — even the other products in the very same RangeMax Next line using Marvell chips — are unknown.

Verenkoff's expectation is that users will get at least a year out of a router bought today with draft 11n support before the technology is surpassed by the final 11n standard. "People who need this kind of performance are willing to upgrade each year, especially as there's more wireless multimedia coming available," he says. "They use a lot of wireless bandwidth."

Just last week, Buffalo also announced plans to sell a router and PC Card based on Airgo's True MIMO chips, which don't support the 802.11n draft. Prices are about $150 for a router, $100 for a PC Card.

802.11n probably won't be ratified as a final specification by the IEEE until well into 2007.

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