Atheros ships new Wi-Fi chipsets

Atheros Communications Inc. released new Wi-Fi chipsets for wireless access points and wireless chips for notebooks Tuesday that increase the speeds at which certain types of data can be exchanged. The chipsets also boost the range of frequencies on which Wi-Fi devices, such as laptops, can operate.

The wireless chipsets are a collection of processors mounted on a board inside a notebook, PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) card, or access point that establish and maintain wireless connections and transmit data. They support a variety of 802.11 standards, including two chipsets that support all three commonly used networks. The new chipsets represent the third generation of Atheros products.

Notebooks with the new chipsets can access data via corporate wireless LANs or public hot-spots faster than with older Atheros technology, and users will able to deploy a home network of wireless media devices based on the chipsets.

All the chipsets based on 802.11a or 802.11g networks come with "Super A/G" and "Super G" technology that can enable speeds close to those possible on wired networks for certain users, said Sheung Li, product line manager for Atheros. That technology can theoretically enable data exchange rates of up to 108M bps (bits per second) using four technologies, but actual speeds will be slower, Li said.

Networks with Atheros chipset technology on both clients and access points can now use two channels simultaneously on 802.11a or 802.11g networks, which can exchange data at peak rates of up to 54M bps each. According to the final standard for 802.11g ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE), pure 802.11g networks are only expected to deliver around 20M bps of throughput in real-world use without optimization.

The Super A and Super A/G technologies break up data packets and transmit them in burst mode, which increases performance but locks other traffic off that channel, Li said. The chipsets also use a technique called Dynamic Transmit Optimization to increase the strength of a Wi-Fi signal so it can travel more reliably through different types of building materials, Li said.

The new chipsets come with a hardware-based compression technology that reduces the size of files on a packet basis so they can be quickly sent around the network, Li said. But some files are unable to be compressed, such as JPEG or MPEG files, which will have to be sent at their regular size.

Despite that limitation, this compression technology will provide the most performance benefits of any of the other techniques, and is unique among current wireless LAN chipset technologies, said Craig Mathias, a principal analyst with Farpoint Group in Ashland, Massachusetts.

If a user has new Atheros client and access point technology, they can take advantage of all four of the features to produce 90M bps of throughput, Li said. Users of second-generation Atheros chipsets can now download drivers to upgrade their devices, he said.

For data that can't use the compression technology, the maximum rate drops down to about 65M bps, he said. And when an Atheros chipset is used in conjunction with silicon from another company, users will see around 40M bps of throughput, due to the differences in the way other manufacturers build their chipsets, he said.

Atheros put more functions on each chip within its new chipsets to reduce their overall size, but still managed to keep a number of separate components to manage power consumption, Mathias said Current wireless technology uses up a lot of power, and managing that is particularly important to the future of Wi-Fi, he said. This is especially true for mobile devices operating on a fixed battery life.

The four chipsets for access points come in two trimode designs, with support for commonly used 802.11b networks as well as the 802.11a and 802.11g networks that are expected to become the future standards for Wi-Fi, Li said. They are also available in a dual 802.11b/802.11g configuration, which is cheaper than a trimode chipset, and a single 802.11a version designed for home media networks, he said.

On the client side, Atheros will offer a trimode chipset designed mainly for new notebook computers. That chipset works on a wider range of frequencies, from 2.3GHz to 2.5GHz, and 4.9GHz to 5.85GHz, than standard trimode chipsets, Li said. Different countries have allocated different portions of those spectrum ranges to wireless networks, so notebooks with this chipset can work on Wi-Fi networks around the world, he said.

Another new client chipset supports 802.11b/802.11g networks in a PCI (peripheral component interconnect) card, and the third is designed for home media devices based on the 802.11a standard.

The client chipsets will cost under US$20 each when sold in large quantities, and the AP5002AP-2X access point chipset will cost under $30 in volume quantities, the company said. Pricing information for the other access point chipsets was not available, but they will be cheaper than the high-end AP5002AP-2X, the company said. All seven chipsets are immediately available to manufacturers worldwide.

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