Compaq to marry Bluetooth with Evo notebooks

Compaq on Monday unveiled its Evo line (short for "evolution") of business products, which includes a variety of hardware from notebooks to workstations, and said that starting in August an integrated Bluetooth module will be available for its Evo notebooks.

The Evo Notebook N400c will be the first in the new product family to support Compaq's integrated MultiPort, allowing users to connect wirelessly via swappable 802.11b and Bluetooth modules that snap onto the laptop's display screen, according to Compaq spokesman Mike Hockey. [See "Compaq unveils Evo product line," May 22.]The snap-on modules will allow users to transfer data wirelessly between the notebook and other Bluetooth-enabled products, such as PDAs (personal digital assistants). A Bluetooth connection could also be used to link a notebook with certain types of cellular phones that could act as computer modems.

The N400c uses a single-chip Bluetooth product, the BlueCore01, produced by U.K.-based Bluetooth vendor Cambridge Silicon Radio Ltd. (CSR), according to Eric Janson, vice president of sales, marketing and applications engineering for CSR.

BlueCore01 integrates 2.4GHz radio, baseband and microcontroller components on a single CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) chip -- functions that are more typically divided between two separate chips, Janson said. "This will be the first product in the U.S. to integrate Bluetooth into the body of the computer so seamlessly," Janson said.

One of the biggest advantages of the CSR single-chip product, besides being less bulky, is that it can bring Bluetooth to a product for about $8.50 per system in volumes of 1 million units per year, Janson said.

Available in the U.S. through Compaq's Web site for US$2,999, the N400c has a low-voltage 700-MHz Mobile Pentium III processor, 128M bytes of memory, a 20G-byte hard drive, and a mobile expansion unit that supports CD, DVD, or CD-RW, Compaq's Hockey said. Though the laptop is less than an inch thick, it comes with a standard-sized keyboard and a 12.1-inch display, Hockey said.

The Bluetooth module will be available in August for an additional $199, and the module option for the wireless LAN (local area network) IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11b will be available for order in early June, Hockey said.

Users can buy both the 802.11b module and the Bluetooth module, but as Janson pointed out, just about every PC manufacturer would like a card that combines both 802.11b and Bluetooth. "We are working with a partner on developing a combo card, though we can't announce who that partner is just yet," Janson said.

Because 802.11b and Bluetooth occupy the same frequency band, there have been concerns about the two technologies interfering with each other, but such problems could be overcome in about six to eight months, Janson said. "Bluetooth would be able to sense 802.11b and turn itself off and then back on, but that solution at this point is rather ungainly," he said.

"The IEEE is looking at ways to make 802.11b and Bluetooth coexist in a more graceful fashion, so I would guess that an elegant solution (on a combo card) is probably 18 months away," Janson said.

The Bluetooth technology, first announced by L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. in 1998 as a way to cut the cords between its mobile telephone handsets and headsets, has already begun to role out in products in Asia. For example, CSR Bluetooth chips are already in products by Sony Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. and headphones using the Bluetooth module will be announced "soon," Janson said.

"The Far East has picked (Bluetooth) up first and the U.S. is hot and close behind. Bluetooth will become really obvious in the U.S. in six months, and then in Europe a few months after that," Janson said.

It is generally agreed within the industry that the "magic price point" for making Bluetooth technology ubiquitous is about $5 per chip module, something not expected to be achieved until 2004 or 2005.

Janson said Tuesday that the low price point may be reached as soon as 2002 since Bluetooth sales are rising in the Asian and now the U.S. market. Once consumers get a taste of what Bluetooth can do, especially in the area of personal networks and home entertainment, the development and implantation of Bluetooth will increase exponentially, Janson said.

The next step for CSR is to "integrate flash on the chip with everything else. By the end of the year, those devices will start to sample. From there, the industry will be working on getting the code stable enough to get Bluetooth chips into ROM," Janson said.

"Once that happens, $5 will be easy," Janson predicted.

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