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Some months ago, I wrote a provocative essay entitled Don’t Buy Draft N: I’m ready to provide two updates. First, it’s almost time to buy. Second, if you bought Draft N devices, you’re probably not up a creek.
On the first score, the adoption of a draft by the IEEE 802.11 Task Group N that will almost certainly move with relatively minor changes to ratification means that we will shortly hit a point of real interoperability, consistent performance, and stable firmware. The Wi-Fi Alliance has committed to certifying devices by second quarter as Draft N compliant, and I would argue it’s worth waiting until March to see what new magazine lab reviews bring, how costs drop in that period, and what the timeframe for interoperability testing works out to be.
I would certainly wait until the next generation of products hits the market, which will happen probably next month. In some cases, these won’t be substantially different. In others, they could be entirely new. Airgo, now part of Qualcomm, will offer its first Draft N chips in February, based on statements made last month. That competition will certainly produce price pressure.
I also think that gigabit Ethernet is worth waiting for if you believe you’ll need it. Only a few early devices include GigE and they have a price premium. It should be a basic part of Draft N gateways, and I expect that will slowly become de rigeur. For home networks, this is absolutely less critical unless you routinely perform network backups or move large files around. Even then, you could couple a cheap ($50) GigE switch with a Draft N router if the price premium remains above $50.
On the second point, because Task Group N adopted a draft that reportedly doesn’t break the silicon that’s already out there—the big reported change in drafts is better behavior around legacy networks—I would expect the vast majority of Draft N devices sold to date will be upgradable via driver and firmware improvements.
I told the many companies and chipmakers over the last several months who complained about my Don’t Buy Draft N stance that, given sufficient evidence, I would drop my objections when it was clear that the time had come. It seems that time has come, although I’d like to see firmware releases for old devices and new hardware based on the new draft to have the best compatibility when someone purchases a device.
But the worst-case scenario appears to have been averted.
Task Group N in the IEEE 802.11 Working Group voted unanimously to move forward: As I noted over at Wi-Fi Networking News last week, the vote was 100-0 with 5 abstentions to move forward with what’s currently numbered Draft 1.10, and which will eventually be approved as 802.11n. The next step is for tidying up in the draft for it to be sent off as Draft 2.0 to a group of 400 IEEE voters. The vote’s results will be announced in March at the next full meeting, at which point, the expectation is that that draft will have passed and additional, minor work will continue into Draft 3.0, and then final ratification.
The big news? October 2008 is now the slated date for full ratification. But it’s likely there will be no significant changes between now and then. Changes would clearly have to be in the firmware-upgradable arena.
Airgain announced last week its smart MIMO antennas: The company is the first I’m aware of to exploit what will be a large niche market as MIMO hits the mainstream with 802.11n, WiMax with MIMO, and other wireless technologies that will employ multiple antennas for better sending and receiving. Airgain’s system eliminates external antennas, which can allow simpler designs that are cheaper to produce. Airgain is offering two models designed for 802.11n. The MaxBeam65N works in 2.4 GHz, and can accommodate two and four radio designs in a 2x2 or 4x4 configuration. The 80N can handle 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz, providing a 3x3 array for three radios.
Read my coverage of the new Apple AirPort Extreme at TidBITS: I wrote a longish, technical piece at TidBITS, a weekly Macintosh journal at which I am a contributing editor. The AirPort Extreme’s 2007 edition is priced slightly higher than competing 802.11n gateways, but it includes network-attached storage via USB and multiple printer sharing via USB, features found only on certain devices. It’s worth a look for Apple and non-Apple Wi-Fi users alike.
Belkin is shipping $99 Draft N ExpressCards: The new card format has uptake among laptop makers, but cards for the slot are appearing rather slowly. Draft N is a perfectly reasonable purpose to turn the card slot for laptops. Unfortunately, this is Draft 1.0 pre-N, which means that I can’t recommend its purchase. Draft 2.0-based devices should be on the market in a matter of weeks—even before Draft 2.0 is approved. Wait for it.