By Ed Sutherland
January 28, 2008
Two major Wi-Fi-related themes emerged from CES this year. High-definition televisions became the newly-crowned focus for home networking; and Wi-Fi, which began as a computer-centric tool, was reborn as the technology-of-choice for transporting a growing mountain of multimedia between a wide variety of devices.
From set-top boxes to high-definition LCD televisions, many new devices headed to stores this year are expanding Wi-Fi’s role beyond its initial use in routers, hubs, and traditional networking products. Key to all of them is 802.11n, a proposed standard well-suited for consumer electronics, experts said. While 802.11g made wireless VoIP (aka VoWi-Fi) possible, dual-band 802.11n (combining 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands) with its over 100Mbps speed is perfect for video.
Both Atheros and Broadcom, two major 802.11n chip vendors, were on hand at the tradeshow to demonstrate how Wi-Fi could be used in consumer devices. The emergence of gadgets based on 801.11n draft 2, along with dual-mode products, such as routers and media hubs, were CES hits, Gartner Research’s Ken Dulaney told Wi-Fi Planet.
Broadcom introduced its dual-band single-chip 11n Intensi-fi used to power Netgear’s RangeMax and Linksys’s Ultra RangePlus, both developed for bandwidth-hungry high-definition video, VoIP, and gaming.
Among the most popular Wi-Fi consumer products was the Eye-Fi Card ($99) released last fall. The 2GB SD memory card doubles as a Wi-Fi link, sending photos to your PC or Mac without needing a USB cable. The technology, from Eye-Fi, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company formed in 2005, employs Atheros’ Radio-On-Chip (RoC) technology. The 802.11g-based RoC technology transmits photos stored on the card directly to your PC, Mac, or an online photo service such as flickr, Picasa, or Snapfish. [Editor’s note: Although interesting in theory, Eye-Fi has refused repeated requests for a review unit, so we cannot recommend the product yet.]
Earlier this month, memory card maker Lexar Media signed a partnership with Eye-Fi to produce a branded product. Currently, the card is available from many online retailers, including Wal-Mart and Amazon. However, buyers should be aware the technology works only with cameras supporting the SD standard, meaning owners of Sony or Olympus digital cameras are out of luck, for now; another drawback–the card doesn’t work with public hotspots.
Although there are several technologies vying to dominate, Wi-Fi is the easiest answer for the networked TV, Todd Antes vice president of marketing at Atheros told Wi-Fi Planet. In-Stat Research Wi-Fi analyst Jonathan Gruber agrees.
“802.11n will be necessary for the streaming of HD,” he said.
In one example, LG displayed its PG70 plasma screen and its LG71 LCD television that both use 802.11n to stream compressed high-definition video. The televisions are slated to be available in August.
A rival to Wi-Fi-based Wireless HD products comes from the Isreali-based Amimon. Dulaney is among those interested in Amimon’s technology, which reportedly can stream uncompressed high-definition video. Belkin will use Amimon’s technique in a high-def video receiver, according to NPD Group consumer electronics analyst Ross Rubin.
Weeks before Apple CEO Steve Jobs slipped the ultra-thin MacBook Air (right) out of an office envelope, analysts were fawning over the EeePC ($299) from Asus. Weighing just over two pounds, the computer sports built-in 802.11b/g, a flash-based 4GB hard drive, and a seven-inch screen. Although announced earlier, the PC garnered much CES audience attention and sparked renewed interest in sub-compact PCs.
“It’s somewhere between your smartphone and a full computer,” Antes said.
Sony’s second-generation Mylo Personal Communicator, ($299), was another example of Wi-Fi that caught the eye of CES-goers. First introduced in 2006, the newest version puts even greater emphasis on Wi-Fi Internet connectivity. Wayport agreed to give Mylo2 (below) users free access to 9,000 Wi-Fi-enabled McDonald’s restaurants and other network hotspots until Dec. 31, 2010. Sony also added support for Skype’s VoIP service, as well as Facebook and YouTube.
Sprint used CES to introduce the soft launch of its WiMAX network, but critics questioned its viability after noting a lack of WiMAX devices, In-Stat’s Daryl Schoolar said.
Next year’s CES will likely showcase a consumer mesh network that will link all of the Wi-Fi gadgets introduced, Antes predicts. Leading the charge could be an army of devices like the Spykee ($299) line of robots from Meccano. The robots use Wi-Fi to communicate with PCs for complex tasks such as navigation, voice recognition, and speech synthesis. They could become the Wi-Fi LCD TVs of CES 2009.
“By making use of the PC you have in your home already, companies can have the power of a full PC without the additional cost, weight, size, and power consumption,” predicted ABI Research analyst Phil Solis.
Ed Sutherland is a veteran technology journalist and frequent Wi-Fi Planet contributor.