Buyers' Guide for Notebook PCs: Wireless technologies

Your guide to choosing the best notebook PC for your small or medium business

Wireless technologies are integral to notebook computing because true mobility implies anytime, anywhere communications. Radio technologies form the basis for notebook communications.

See part one of the Buyers' Guide for Notebook PCs

Looking ahead Long Term Evolution (LTE) and Wi-Max are replacing Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) based technologies. Early LTE deployments will be heavily targeted at notebooks due to the higher power requirements that would place a battery life burden on smaller devices.

Wi-Max continues to struggle to gain a foothold despite continued market pressure by Intel which develops WiMax chipsets for a variety of products. More ubiquitous Wi-Fi access and improved 4th Generation technologies have proved highly competitive.

Network interface cards are available as internal and external options. Gartner recommends that, where cost-justified, embedded wireless WAN technology should be preferred over external cards.

Gartner does not see any significant technical obstacles to the use of wireless WANS. If the economics and the performance meet the needs of the user, then it makes sense to use a wireless WAN. The most optimal embedded solutions are based on a design that is considered field-upgradable by the end user (similar to a card, but using the internal antenna). Because integrated options are generally subsidized by the carriers, beware of lock-in or escalating costs after purchase.

Wireless LANs

Wireless LANs (WLANs) typically span a single building, campus or metro area via hot spots. A WLAN generally operates in two frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5Ghz. Notebooks can be purchased with 802.11 b/g, 802.11a/b/g or

802.11n capability

Gartner says 802.11n is the proper investment, except in only the most cost-constrained applications. When Bluetooth and 802.11 technologies are used in close proximity in the 2.4 GHz band, interference problems can arise. Bluetooth 3.0 can use Wi-Fi as a bearer technology and may mitigate some of these issues.

Most business notebooks feature integrated WLAN at no additional cost. Gartner recommends all notebook purchases include integrated WLAN, even for those organisations that have not adopted it, because the organisation may invest in WLANs within the expected three year life cycle of the notebook. Choosing the correct type of WLAN 802.11 technology is an important decision in relation to asset investment protection.

Wireless personal-area networks (WPANs) are primarily used to connect peripherals without cables. The most important WPAN technologies are Bluetooth, Wi-Fi Direct and Intel Wi-Fi Technology.

Unified Communications

Increasingly, notebook computers will be paired with IP PBX technology (softphones), not only as a client, but as a partner, with either a desk phone or a dual-mode (Wi-Fi/cellular) handset. This will occur as part of any unified communications and collaboration strategy.

Some scenarios will attempt to use the notebook as a communications device, but Gartner believes this will largely be the exceptions. Users have historically preferred the more customized ergonomics of separate devices. Information on voice mail and other pat voice transactions can be listed on the PC, while the phone narrows its functionality to simple voice communications and call control.

Gartner said synchronization of information between the phone and PC through a common server will be important. This also moves users closer to standard multiscreen environments where experiences can be moved among displays. Furthermore, as data and voiced communications begin to be used in tandem wherever the user resides, demands on the network to enable faster switching among WAN, LAN and WPAN will increase.

Gartner said in the long term IT should seek to move toward a converged all-Internet Protocol (IP) network strategy.

Security and virtualization

Notebook PCs can face several security threats. They are more exposed than desktops to data leakage and physical theft of corporate data. This risk is exacerbated as notebook storage capabilities continue to increase. Corporate notebooks come with integrated wireless functionality from various uncontrolled locations, making corporate networks more vulnerable to illicit intrusions.

NX Hardware Protection

Some of the most harmful worm attacks on Windows work by running code from memory used for data storage. All Intel and AMD mobile processors include an NX feature, enabling Windows to block these attacks. The NX flag is located in the table entry of the memory page and is available when the processor is operating in Physical Address Extension 36-bit address extension mode.

Smart Cards

Some notebook vendors offer models that use smart cards to secure user passwords and authenticate users. To use smart cards, a reader is required (integrated in the notebook or as a peripheral) which adds to the overall cost. Gartner said USB tokens can be used as an alternative and require no additional hardware, but are less versatile and less secure than smart cards.

Biometric solutions

Biometric solutions, such as fingerprint readers, are becoming more popular on notebooks. Fingerprint readers have become a mandatory feature in tablet PCs, where keyboards are not always available to type in a password.

Gartner said biometric technology is less mature than smart cards (some fingerprint scanners can be fooled with copied prints), but the swipe readers are reasonably good. Fingerprint readers alone do not provide a high level of security; strong security usually includes at least two levels of authentication. Some vendors link fingerprint readers to the TPM.

Virtualization

PC hypervisors for Intel’s 2010 Core notebook platforms were announced in 2009, and Citrix began offering its XenClient hypervisor as a free download in mid 2010. Enterprise notebooks pre-loaded with the XenClient hypervisor began shipping earlier this year. However, Microsoft makes hypervisors a default installation option for its Windows OS at initial load, OS support and licensing may present issues for virtual machines.

In particular, hypervisors will not work with the XP Mode compatibility function offered with Microsoft’s Windows 7 Business Edition. Use of Intel’s VT or AMD-V to run other hypervisors should be limited to specific tactical requirements that will offer a return on investment in less than 12 to 18 months.

Gartner recommends deploying VT and AMD V-enabled systems, where available, to maximize the potential benefit of virtualization support across the installed base. However, virtualization support should be turned off in the basic I/0 system on any PC that is not running a hypervisor or other VT or AMD-V aware software.

Environment

Organisations with an environmental focus on energy efficiency should procure PCs and monitors with the latest Energy Star specifications. Energy Star is an international standard for energy-efficient products. Devices carrying the Energy Star logo generally use 20 to 30 per cent less energy than other products. A new Energy Star 5.0 specification for PCs became effective in July 2009. Energy Star 5.0 compliant notebooks are widely available.

Ecolabels

Enterprises whose environmental requirements extend beyond energy efficiency should consider specifying one of the ecolables in their RFPs. Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), TCO Development and Blue Angel all represent good ecolabels.

EPEAT is a broad-based set of 51 required and optional environmental criteria for desktops, notebooks and displays. There are three tiers of performance – Gold, Silver and Bronze. All products must meet the 23 required criteria.

TCO Development is a broad-based environmental and quality set of criteria that covers ecology, emissions, ergonomics, and energy for desktops, notebooks, displays, printers and other office equipment. Certification and subsequent compliance with the criteria are done through independent test facilities.

Blue Angel Program, created in 1977, was the first program to set various environmental criteria for products and services.

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