Intel improves wireless card for Centrino platform

Intel launched its Wireless-N network card earlier than expected, hoping to generate sales to home notebook users hungry for more bandwidth

Intel unveiled an improved wireless card on Tuesday that will allow notebook PC users to share five times the data at twice the range of their current 802.11a/g cards, improving PCs' ability to download music and stream high-definition video.

Intel's Next-Gen Wireless-N network connection is an embedded network adapter card that uses the IEEE 802.11 Draft-N standard, and also operates with previous a, b, and g standards.

By announcing the product Tuesday, Intel is jumping ahead of IEEE's final adoption of the 802.11n standard, expected later this quarter. Intel is also scooping its own launch of "Santa Rosa," a product that will improve the popular Centrino and Centrino Duo platforms by updating the processor, chipset, graphics and wireless card.

Intel decided to launch the card early to support notebook users who need enough bandwidth to download music files and high-definition video, as well as simple e-mail and Web pages, said Dave Hofer, director of wireless marketing for Intel's mobile platforms group. Hofer presented the new product in a webcast to journalists.

Another reason Intel pushed the card to market was that Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini has cited Santa Rosa as one of the technologies he is banking on to make his company more profitable in 2007. Intel has reported a string of disappointing quarterly earnings reports, including the most recent on Jan. 16, when the company listed profits down 39 percent from its mark last year.

To meet the needs of high-bandwidth applications like VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and digital media adapters, Intel had to improve the four vectors of mobility it had first defined in 2003 with the original Centrino platform, Hofer said. The Wireless-N card helps to improve a notebook's battery life, performance, small form factor and wireless connectivity.

Intel expects the Wireless-N card to be popular today with consumers, as many enterprise users wait for the full Santa Rosa upgrade, he said. But that market alone can support the product, since it includes an estimated 740 million residential access points worldwide, and is forecast to grow at 30 percent a year from 2005 to 2010.

To keep home users happy, Intel ensured that the new card would not interfere with the busy wireless environment in a modern house, including cordless phones, microwave ovens and baby monitors, he said.

The new card boosts wireless bandwidth by using two input and output streams instead of one. That approach would usually burn through battery life faster, but the card also optimizes data payloads so they uses the available bandwidth with less overhead, he said. Together, that design enables the card to support MPG-2 video signals by sustaining a 19M bps (bits per second) data stream at a range of 68 meters, Hofer said.

The new card will hit markets quickly. Notebook vendors including Acer, AsusTek Computer, Gateway and Toshiba will begin selling the card by the end of January, built into computers using Microsoft's new Windows Vista OS. Other vendors including Dell and Hewlett-Packard are expected to follow suit during the first half of 2007 when they launch notebooks with the entire "Santa Rosa" platform.

The Next-Gen Wireless-N card, code-named "Kedron," needs an improved wireless access point to work. To help shoppers find one, Intel also announced a "Connect with Centrino" brand sticker that will be visible on retail store shelves to mark products from wireless vendors including Asus, Belkin International, Buffalo Wireless, D-Link Systems and Netgear.

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