Smaller, Cheaper Wi-Fi Chips Coming

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Two companies have announced new Wi-Fi chipsets that are smaller than current ones and use less power, and at least one of them is less expensive These have the potential to bring high-speed wireless networking to more handhelds and other devices, too.

Wi-Fi: Will It Fly or Will It Die? Wi-Fi, or 802.11b as it is more properly known, allows devices to connect to each other and the Internet at a relatively high rate of speed over a fairly wide range. However, the hardware required isn’t cheap. Plus, Wi-Fi uses a lot of power, meaning devices using it tend to need large batteries, adding further to the cost. Until now, this has relegated Wi-Fi only to high-end models.

Broadcom’s just-announced AirForce One wireless LAN chips are the size of a postage stamp and consume up to 97% less power than other Wi-Fi solutions on the market. They integrate a 2.4 GHz radio, power amplifier, IEEE 802.11b baseband processor, and all other components onto a single silicon die. This level of chip integration eliminates more than 100 discrete components and makes the one-chip module 87% smaller than traditional mini-PCI Wi-Fi solutions. Broadcom also has a reference design that adds Bluetooth.

According to the company, its AirForce One line is less expensive than current options. This could lead to mid-range and even someday low-end handhelds with 802.11b. It could also extend the reach of this wireless networking standard to new devices, like MP3 players, mobile phones, and digital cameras.

Also today, Royal Philips Electronics announced a new Wi-Fi chipset that consumes only 3 milliwatts while in standby. In addition, it places no load on the host processor, which allows wireless networking to be integrated into mobile devices without compromising application performance and battery life. Philips’ solution isn’t a single chip but it takes up only 300 sq. mm of board space.

While 802.11b has enjoyed a great deal of buzz over the last year or so, it’s in the process of being replaced by 802.11g, which offers an even faster data transfer speed. However, in the real world, handhelds can’t even use the full potential speed of 802.11b, so the change to the faster version is moot. Fortunately, 802.11g devices are backwards compatible so 802.11b may continue to be in use for some time on some mobile devices.

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