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InformationWeek reviews six Draft N routers: Performance is mixed, and only a few standouts, notably the Buffalo Wireless-N Nfiniti (WZRS2-G300N). The reviewer’s methodology is only sketchily disclosed. His review of the AirPort Extreme with 802.11n from Apple doesn’t conform with my testing, but it’s hard to tell what, precisely, he tested in terms of which adapters, which bands, and so forth; he lists distance and speeds. I also suspect he may have hit the LAN-to-WAN speed limitations which affects throughput in NAT-enabled mode. I was able to get 140 Mbps from Draft N to wired LAN on an AirPort Extreme; he didn’t see that speed at all. He also doesn’t mention whether wide (40 MHz) or regular (20 MHz) channels were enabled in 2.4 GHz. Apple restricts its router to 20 MHz only; other manufacturers offer more choice.
The Wi-Fi Alliance stuck a stick in the sand, noting 95 products have achieved certified Draft N compliance: The alliance wanted to make sure that, as with the security work in IEEE, long delays didn’t lead to problems in achieving interoperability in the marketplace. Draft N standards mean that devices are supposed to work well together; we’ll see when a big mass of testing happens among early certified devices.
Linksys is trying to drop the bottom out of the 802.11n market with its new RangePlus products: The WRT100 router and WPC100 PC Card will hit $99 on the street. The router isn’t formally being called 802.11n, nor do they initially have Draft N certification for it, because it’s only got 100 Mbps Ethernet out the back. They’re positioning this as an inexpensive route to upgrade an 802.11g network on 2.4 GHz to 802.11n. The router and PC Card are shipping now; a PCI and USB adapter are to come later in the year.
The router includes Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), an exciting move for those of us who want people to be able to enable security with the least fuss. WPS is an extended set of simple ways to secure a network that build on previous efforts in the industry that were company or chip vendor specific. The RangePlus router also comes with Linksys Easy Link Advisor, which I had a demo of recently, and was favorably impressed. The LELA avoids jargon, and tries to help a user make all the right choices in securing their router’s administration, naming their network, and setting security options. Troubleshooting tools graphically show where there’s a bad link in the router to Internet chain; icons on the router itself echo those.
More 802.11n gear has started to hit the market at affordable prices, meaning backwards compatibility for Mac owners and those with Windows boxes, too: New 802.11n from major brands tends to focus on newer machines, with expensive PC Cards and routers. But what if you want to retrofit an older box, especially a Macintosh? I wrote recently about QuickerTek’s line of 802.11n (2.4 GHz mostly) cards and USB dongles that work with Mac OS X. Other World Computing has now entered the market, too, with Windows compatibility as well.
The OWC line-up includes a PCI/PCI-X (not PCI Express) adapter, a CardBus card, and a USB dongle, $68 each. The adapters are 2.4 GHz only, and support wide (40 MHz) channels. They work with Mac OS X 10.3 and later with the appropriate interfaces (Power Macs for the PCI/PCI-X, PowerBooks for the CardBus card, and any Intel or Mac system that can run 10.3 or later for the USB dongle). The adapters, using technology from Ralink, also work with Windows 2000/XP and later, which includes Vista.
Most Wi-Fi routers look roughly the same as all others: There’s some different plastic molding, an occasional set of panel icons or LCD micro-displays with information, some styling. Belkin has introduced some different, and for a purpose: The N1 Vision. A router stands up with antennas popping out the top, and it has a large LCD display with information that you’d otherwise have to connect to the router to retrieve—if the router offered that information at all. The display has a four-direction toggle switch and an OK button to page through information that includes downstream and upstream data rates, connected users, and the date and time. At $200, it’s an expensive 2.4 GHz Draft N router, except that it includes a four-port gigabit Ethernet switch. It’s due out later this month.
Tim Higgins uncovers an ugly fact about Wi-Fi certification of Draft N devices: The Wi-Fi Alliance is only testing devices for compliance with Draft 2.0 of 802.11n in 20 MHz channel mode in the 2.4 GHz band. There are three mechanisms designed for 2.4 GHz to made Draft N devices play nice with neighbors when in that wider mode. The Alliance told Higgins that there’s still too much debate over how this will be handled, and thus they aren’t testing for it. Devices should come configured to use only a single 20 MHz channel in 2.4 GHz, as the D-Link device that Higgins tested does; Apple’s 802.11n base station is locked to 20 MHz only in 2.4 GHz.
D-Link released Wi-Fi Alliance certification for the D-Link Xtreme N(TM) Router and Notebook Adapter: It’s not mentioned whether new firmware is needed for existing versions of this equipment to bring it up to the certified standard. Tim Higgins tested the D-Link equipment with its uncertified Draft 2.0 firmware, and found it lacking.
They promised June—they delivered June—but I was expecting, well, certified devices, not certification testing: The Wi-Fi Alliance has been asserting since last year that they would have a certification program in place during second quarter 2007 to test Draft N (early 802.11n equipment) devices against Draft 2.0, an expected milestone in IEEE work on the standard. Today’s press release shows they met the mark, but I had naively assumed that there would certified devices on the market in June, too. Alas, not so. The certification program has begun, and new firmware and equipment will be out this summer. How soon, it’s unclear.
The Draft 2.0 compliant firmware that manufacturers have promised, and that chipmakers apparently completed months ago, will likely not be released for the majority of Wi-Fi devices with Draft N until certification is finished for that device in case things need to be fixed.
Draft 2.0 should improve interoperability among devices, and it adds three separate protection mechanism for the 2.4 GHz band to prevent N from using more spectrum than a comparable G device in the presence of other networks. In 5 GHz, where there’s much more “room,” only two of those mechanisms are needed, because interference is much less likely and easier to solve. (See “How Draft N Makes Nice with Neighbors,” an article I wrote after interviewing chipmakers that appeared 2007-02-16.)
Update: The Wi-Fi Alliance told me that certification could take as little as “hours,” and that 20 products were booked for testing on the first day of certification. That’s fine, but I’m interested in the cycle from certification to firmware release. I had really expected that certification results along with updated firmware would occur within the quarter, but I am just too darned optimistic.
Tim Higgins, meanwhile, is not very happy with his testing of pre-certification Draft 2.0 updates from D-Link. They don’t conform to his reasonable interpretation of the co-existence mechanisms for N and earlier B/G devices in the same frequency ranges.
In this article in Macworld, I explain how to mesh an 802.11n and an older network for best advantage: My advice is that you can take an existing 802.11g gateway, like the older AirPort Extreme Base Station, and connect it to the new 802.11n AirPort Extreme Base Station set to 5 GHz to obtain the best speeds from older and newer devices.
The Wi-Fi Alliance still targets late June for completion of its certification of Draft N devices: Equipment that conforms to Draft 2.0 from the 802.11 Task Group N as tested through a suite developed by the alliance will be able to display a new logo that incorporates the Draft N motif. Atheros, Broadcom, Cisco, Intel, Marvell, and Ralink provided reference designs that were part of the certification process. These products are now Draft N certified, but they’re reference designs—they can’t be purchased. Rather, the changes to these designs to reach interoperability will now filter out from the chipmakers to their OEM partners, the companies that make end user gear, like Apple, Buffalo, Linksys, and others. These OEM devices will then, in turn, receive certification as they update the firmware necessary to achieve that state and submit their equipment for testing.
D-Link updates its Draft N product line to Draft 2.0 of the specification: This is the first announced firmware release of many expected for the existing draft 802.11n or Draft N product lines from companies like Apple, Buffalo, Linksys, and many others. Draft 2.0 is currently being used as the basis of an interim certification for 802.11n by the Wi-Fi Alliance that should see certified products by June.
The $99 WZR2-G300N replaces the previous model: It’s a Draft N router with a four-port 10/100 Mbps Ethernet switch. Buffalo says the unit supports HD video streaming, but doesn’t mention precisely how it supports it—which equipment is needed from them or others. The router ships in May.
David Pogue reviews four 802.11n routers, and finds only Apple’s meets most of the promise, Belkin second: Pogue was unable to achieve the highest speeds promised by these routers, except with the Apple AirPort Extreme. That may be because all these early routers are single band (2.4 GHz) except Apple’s. They may also all be much more susceptible to interface or back-off from adjacent networks, although Pogue isolated a lot of variables. As other reviewers have found, range is much better than bandwidth, but Pogue wasn’t able to get more than 49 Mbps from any device but Apple’s. I have only thoroughly tested Apple’s router, and achieved 70 to 80 Mbps in unoccupied 2.4 GHz channels.
Pogue had kind words for Belkin’s Draft N gateway, due to its superb installation instructions and labeling and its clear troubleshooting icons that are built into the front of the gateway. If there’s a problem, an icon representing the part of the network that’s faulty flashes an amber outline; network components that are okay are outlined in blue.
His conclusion? “If you’re in the market for new wireless gear and can’t wait a few more months for the “n” committee to finish the spec, buy the polished, upgradeable gear from Apple or Belkin.” I’m not waiting for the spec to be finished, but rather anticipating a wave of firmware upgrades that should improve performance in the 2.4 GHz band based on the latest draft from the 802.11n committee. (Pogue says that Linksys didn’t promise to him that the device he tested can be upgraded; the other three manufacturers did.)
While the draft was approved in March, it may be weeks yet before firmware appears for shipping devices that accounts for changes, especially in how 802.11n and previous 802.11 specs work together on the same network and in adjacent networks. The Wi-Fi Alliance will also announced certified devices sometime this quarter for Draft N, which would mean new firmware as a result of “plugfests” and other lab testing to achieve that seal of interoperability.
Tim Higgins takes apart the Buffalo Wireless-N Nfiniti Dual Band with gigabit Ethernet over at SmallNetBuilder: As Higgins notes in his review, even though dual-band Draft N routers are on the market, Buffalo’s is the first with two distinct radio mechanisms that allow simultaneous use of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. This version isn’t yet compliant with Draft 1.10 approved in January, nor Draft 2.0, approved yesterday. The mechanisms for co-existence with older 802.11b/g networks in 2.4 GHz just isn’t there yet, and a lot of other small problems, like a lack of automatic downshifting from 40 MHz to 20 MHz, cause problems with range.
The gigabit Ethernet even seems to be a problem, with a bottleneck in LAN to WAN routing: Higgins saw just 200 Mbps of throughput in testing over Ethernet to Ethernet. When I tested the AirPort Extreme Base Station, I was able to achieve just 60 Mbps on their 100 Mbps Ethernet LAN-to-WAN or WAN-to-LAN bridge. Intra-LAN was 94 Mbps with Ethernet.
The unit costs $250 and it’s the only thing on the market to have its distinct set of features. But Higgins’s takeaway is that it’s not time to buy it or any Draft N gear because he wants Draft 1.10/2.0 to be implemented in firmware before making that determination. Based on this review, that’s a reasonable stance because the weak areas in the device seem to have already be worked out in the draft, and a more mature version of the firmware could solve other problems.
There is joy in IEEE-land tonight: The 75-percent supermajority required for the larger 802.11 group to approve the Task Group N Draft 2.0 was reached in a single round of letter (mailed) ballots. 325 voters in the 802.11 Working Group were eligible to vote; 306 did; 231 approved the ballot (83.4 percent). It’s now all clean-up of that draft, rather than any chance of additional substantive changes. Because Draft N is in silicon, there’s little likelihood of unforeseen technical problems now, too.
The earlier vote that approved Draft 1.10 to move forward into Draft 2 was 100 to 0 with a few abstentions, but that was a vote of Task Group N by itself.
Matthew Gast, a voting member, reports that there are 3,163 comments to resolve, including duplicates, with a bit more than half being technical remarks. Matthew notes the draft hasn’t per se passed, but as the voting goes into more and more formal realms, the odds of anything changing become lower and lower.
Asus rolls out Intel’s Draft N technology into several models: The laptop maker will include the Draft N adapter in the S6Fm, V1Jp, VX2, W2P, and W6Fp models.
Let me alert you all that I have, in fact, bought some Draft N gear: While I advise those that don’t quite need the speed and range of Draft N to hold off a wee bit longer for firmware upgrades and price drops, I have to test this stuff on a regular basis. I’ve purchased an AirPort Extreme Base Station (2007), and just bought a Dell laptop with Vista preinstalled and the Intel Draft N adapter. I’ll let you know what I think of the former; I reviewed the AirPort Extreme for Macworld a couple weeks ago.
Over at Wi-Fi Networking News, I’ve posted a long look at what we know about Draft N: In particular, I detail how the avoidance mechanisms in the current draft will allow better co-existence between 802.11b/g networks and new 802.11n networks in the 2.4 GHz band.
PC World covers where 802.11n stands: In particular, there’s a fair amount of discussion about specific features that Draft N will employ to prevent overwhelming older a/b/g networks.
Tim Higgins answers the latest burning Draft N question: When will vendors ship firmware upgrades for their shipping gear? He asks Belkin, Buffalo, D-Link, Linksys, and NetGear, and received a lot of equivocal answers. Belkin and D-Link said all current products are upgradable; Linksys and NetGear cagey; Buffalo didn’t answer. Likewise, when will firmware upgrades be available? No clear answer as to when.
I spoke to executives at Atheros and Broadcom recently for an article I’ll have up in the next few days answering more questions about Draft N and 5 GHz, and they both were direct in their response about whether their silicon could be upgraded to Draft 1.10 (the current working draft) and 2.0 (what will be shortly sent out for voting, but will be very very similar to the approved 1.10 version):
Bill Bunch, director of product management for wireless LAN at Broadcom: “All of our products that we’ve ever shipped since Day One will be upgradable to the final draft 2.0. Nothing has changed in our strategy of having a programmable solution.”
Bill McFarland, Atheros’s chief technology officer: “The changes that were made are all changes that can be accommodated with software driver changes.” He added, “I see no reason why, at least physically speaking, it couldn’t be done within two months,” referring to firmware upgrades being available. But, he noted, his customers—the hardware vendors—would decide when and how to distribute firmware upgrades.
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.
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.
The Associated Press notes that Draft N isn’t fully baked: I’m quoted in this brief AP technology item in which an unnamed reader—representative of many, to be sure—asks whether it’s time to upgrade to the faster Wi-Fi gear they see in stores. I and others say it’s not quite time, given that new chips are due in early 2007, and a certified standard should be baked into hardware by mid-2007. In the article, I’m quoted noting that new products will be in the store by March 2007, and that’s accurate.
While Draft 2.0 won’t appear until January and be confirmed until March by the IEEE Task Group N, and the Wi-Fi Alliance won’t have certification in place until perhaps the end of second quarter 2007, it’s very likely that manufacturers and chipmakers will have devices on the market no later than March that will, in fact, be firmware upgradable to the final Draft 2.0. In fact, I believe that my entire objection to Draft N devices based on 1.0 will disappear when these newer chips ship, as between the major draft revision’s ostensible acceptance and the certification program by the Wi-Fi Alliance, buyers will have near certainty that no hardware changes will be needed on those devices.
If anyone is on the fence, now is the time to wait!
The company says it’s the first to provide a chipset that handles 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Draft N: That sounds right. While I’m opposed to pre-release Draft 1.0 N devices, it’s still nice to see sophisticated chips hit the market. The closer to the Draft 2.0 release, the more likely a Draft N chipset will be upgradable to the certified version, too. Metalink says their chips include entire alphabets of standards, including 802.11e (quality of service for voice, streaming media) and 802.11h (international use of 5 GHz band). They say their chips can handle three simultaneous 20 Mbps HDTV streams at 60 feet (60 Mbps in aggregate), covering a home.
Selling an 802.11n router without gigabit Ethernet is like delivering a five-inch pizza in a 20-inch box: Most early Draft N equipment uses 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, which can deliver something like 80 Mbps of net throughput over its 100 Mbps flavor. 802.11n will easily peak over 100 Mbps in its cheapest, default mode—although it may run much slower on average based on other networks operating in the vicinity. The most expensive 802.11n devices may deliver well over 300 Mbps of throughput in peak mode, and possibly as high as 450 Mbps if all the stars are aligned.
That’s why it’s great to see companies finally shipping Draft N gear with GigE built in. Most desktop computers beyond the very basic consumer models have gigabit networking, and all professional laptops do, too. Switches cost a few dollars a port for consumer and SOHO models.
Now I’m opposed to current Draft 1.0-based devices because manufacturers are not guaranteeing a no-cost hardware upgrade if their gear can’t be upgraded. However, it’s still a good trend to see the GigE coming out.
NetGear had the first gigabit Ethernet Draft N device out in April, which listed for about $250, but now runs for $140 at Amazon.com. Broadcom announced today they’ve added GigE to their Intensi-fi Draft N platform. Buffalo and Linksys are using the technology: Buffalo in its upcoming WZR-G300N; Linksys in its Wireless-N Gigabit Router ($180 from Amazon, but not yet released).
Airgo’s acquisition by Qualcomm was coupled with news they had Draft 2.0 compliance: As I wrote over on the main Wi-Fi Networking News site, this is enormous marketing department spin because there’s no such thing as Draft 2.0 from the Task Group N that’s working on 802.11n. What Airgo has told me via email and has told a variety of trade reporters since then is that—as Tim Higgins puts it after talking to Airgo’s founder—they “put everything that could possibly be in Draft 2.0 into the AGN400 chipset.”
I still find that a far cry from saying “full support for Draft 2.0,” when that draft doesn’t exist. The could have said, “We believe we have flexible silicon that can support everything that will be in Draft 2.0, given that the process underway doesn’t allow for any substantive changes beyond what’s known now; and, we built a backwards compatible mode that will support everything that other manufacturers put into their chips for Draft 1.0 compatibility.”
Now that’s a cool statement. It’s verifiable. It’s true. I could stand behind that. But not “full support for Draft 2.0.” Those are empty marketing words that have raised the ire of the entire trade press. Mainstream media hasn’t even mentioned the claim.
The InfoWorld story is a bit obscure because pre-standard 802.11n is in a confusing state: Veteran wireless reporter Ephraim Schwartz says that Intel director Alan Crouch told an audience at IEEE Globecom 2006 Expo today that Intel would put 802.11n into Centrino reference designs by next year. But at which point next year will be the critical question. Draft 2.0 of the 802.11n spec is expected in March, and that draft or something like it will be the basis for a Wi-Fi Alliance certification testing program for interim 802.11n devices. If Intel waits til April or May to add N, it’s much more likely they’ll be on the right page than in January or February.
(Apple is apparently putting Draft N chips in some of its laptops now, with the N features turned off, apparently hedging bets that if the chips turn out to be firmware upgradable, they need only turn on the N features.)
If you tell yourself often enough that’s something true and have a peer group, you think it is true: Peter Judge at Techworld writes about the top four laptop makers adopting Draft N 1.0-derived chipsets, and how non-certified interoperability testing is convincing more manufacturers. The spin is that early N is great for the small office/home office market that’s sophisticated enough to update their firmware regularly to take advantage of frequent protocol fixes.
Judge notes that a Broadcom VP expects the tipping point to come in early 2007, with Intel expected to ship Draft N products and Wi-Fi Alliance certification appears. Judge says (or perhaps paraphrases) that the Wi-Fi Alliance hasn’t “branded” (really, lab tested and certified) a draft before, but that’s not correct. WPA was based on a draft of 802.11i when that standard was far too delayed, too, stalling the marketplace due to security concerns. Likewise, the Draft 2.0 of 802.11n will be fairly mature, with a year of compromises and work between 1.0 and 2.0, making it much more stable than a typical 2.0 draft in these sorts of IEEE committees. (802.11g was at Draft 5 when Broadcom put it into silicon, for instance, but drafts were being updated every bimonthly meeting or so.)
The company says its Intensi-fi chips will have native support for Skype: This support means less coding and less work on the part of integrators who want to have Skype in their handheld devices. Lenovo also said they will include the Draft 1.0-like 802.11n that Broadcom offers in their N100 and some 3000 series laptops.
SMC Networks will ship Draft N devices later this year: The company will release what I continue to suggest are misguided attempts to go ahead of a reasonable finished standard for 802.11n. These Draft N devices aren’t futureproofed with guaranteed hardware swapout if needed. With a timetable of spring for Draft 2.0 certified devices, or something equivalent, I’m a little unimpressed about seeing further pre-certified-draft equipment hit hte market.
I am stunned by this statement from SMC’s product manager for this line: “SMC’s customers want speed, but they need the reliability that comes from standards-based products. IT managers can’t support technology ‘pockets’ of non-standard equipment. Our draft N products are based on the 802.11n v1.0 draft standard, so retain interoperability that will enable our users to retain more flexibility and get better functionality from their LAN and broadband connections, all the while knowing that underlying security is in place.”
This is complete and utter bull crappy. There is no method in place to assure interoperability of devices based on Draft 1.0. Chipmakers have some plans, but this claim goes beyond wishful thinking into trying to pretend a standard exists where one does. The use of the word standard is, in fact, specifically disclaimed by the IEEE, which is the group developing the standard. Draft 1.0 is incomplete and subject to significant revision.
Don’t buy the claims unless they’re backed with promises: If SMC wants to claim interoperability, they need to promise hardware swapouts if interoperability can’t be achieved. I don’t see that promise.
One computer maker steps over the line dividing hype from commitment with Draft N products: ASUS said in a press release this morning that purchasers of their Broadcon Intensi-Fi Draft N-based WL-500W gateway and WL-100W adapter are guaranteed firmware or hardware upgrades to the ratified version of 802.11n. The units must be purchased before Dec. 31, 2006, to qualify. ASUS is guaranteeing that for three months following the ratification, they will provide whatever is necessary to assure full N compatibility. If hardware is required, purchasers will have that period of time to return their equipment at their expense; ASUS will pay shipping back to the consumer.
This is so not a sucker bet, but a great move on ASUS’s part. As I’ve written many times in the past, there is no guarantee that current generations of Draft N chips will be firmware upgradable, but there’s also no assumption that they will not be upgradable. Because ASUS is offering this guarantee only for this calendar year, and putting the upgrade period at probably March 2008, the expected ratification, its likely that very few purchasers will, in fact, request hardware upgrades even if hardware upgrades are required. In the meantime, Broadcom and ASUS will certainly be posting a stream of firmware upgrades as those are needed.
The next logical step, of course, is that other computer makers and equipment makers offer the same deal, like Dell and Linksys. There’s a multi-million-dollar risk behind this, of course, but a guarantee would almost certainly accelerate current purchases of equipment. The marketing and sales folks at many firms should be huddled over spreadsheets today, wondering how to launch a “Draft N—Guaranteed!” campaign that will push more current revenue without booking huge liabilities.
Their conclusion is that some are wanting: They liked the non-Draft N Rangemax 240 from NetGear best for overall reliability and interoperability. It can’t achieve the highest speeds, using the Airgo third-generation chips, but here (and elsewhere) it’s been found to offer range and reliability. The later firmware obviously helps, as tests early this year found more problems in other reviews.
Fundamentally, interoperability at reasonable speeds is the problem with buying gear now. Sticking to one vendor’s equipment produces the best and most reliable performance.
Airgo and Broadcom, rivals for Wi-Fi chip sales, said separately they support the new Wi-Fi Alliance plan for certifying Draft N gear: Airgo says they expect that putative Draft 2.0, which has a high probability of being finished for Jan. 2007 and approved for moving forward in Mar. 2007, will be such a thorough reworking that it will be an appropriate basis for products. The Wi-Fi Alliance formally announced today their timeline for certifying products based on 802.11n: for Draft 2.0 products, the first wave by June 2007; for final 802.11n ratified products, at least a year later based on a spring 2008 projection for ratification.
Airgo has consistently rejected the idea that Draft 1.0 was fully baked, and had held back while other chipmakers released early chips, none of which have seemingly been integrated in products the firmware and hardware of which can exceed 802.11g + MIMO designs from Airgo and others. (Press release not yet posted.)
Broadcom said, in a slightly parallel universe, that the Wi-Fi Alliance’s move validates the maturity of 802.11n-like products, and that while they fully support it, they’ll continue interoperability testing of current generation equipment with other chipmakers. This is only to the good, because the Wi-Fi Alliance’s managing director, Frank Hanzlik, told me yesterday that the alliance expects that manufacturers and their test labs will be conducting ongoing work that will lead to a fast path from Draft 2.0 to certified “phase one” products. (Press release not yet posted.)
The Wi-Fi Alliance said today it would offer a two-phase plan to keep 802.11n’s innovation moving along: With the next potential draft approval of the faster wireless data standard from engineering standards group IEEE’s Task Group N looking like it won’t appear until March 2007, the Wi-Fi Alliance has chosen to step in to stabilize the market. The first phase of certification will confirm compliance to what they expect will be Draft 2.0 in March, the next letter ballot in which Task Group N voters agree to an extensive set of changes to Draft 1.0. The compliance will be coupled with interoperability testing, so that devices labeled with their phase 1 branding—yet to be determined—will work together at the right speeds.
The second phase will be tied to a ratified standard, which may come by spring 2008. Ratification usually takes up to six months after final technical details are decided on and approved within a task group, so the standard will likely be gelled by fall 2007. Wi-Fi Alliance managing director Frank Hanzlik said in an interview today that should the March 2007 meeting not produce another draft, the alliance would assemble the closest possible set of agreed-on ideas to produce their certification standard. (The news was scheduled to be released tomorrow morning; News.com broke the embargo this evening.)
Products that comply with phase 1 certification for draft 802.11n could be on the market—through firmware upgrades or new hardware releases—by June 2007, but it’s likely that devices that start to hit the market by early 2007 will more and more closely conform with what will be certified. “We actually are doing a lot of formal interoperability testing within the alliance with pre-standard products,” said Hanzlik, and this ongoing work should reduce the time between the draft’s approval and certification approval. (The alliance has opened more worldwide testing labs in recent months, too, which should distribute its certification work for faster completion.)
Phase 1 products aren’t guaranteed to be forward-compatible with phase 2 products. “The forward-compatibility part is certainly too hard to call at this point; it’s not anything that the alliance is committing to,” Hanzlik said. However, they are stressing that compatibility among the phase 1 and 2 products would be highly stressed.
Phase 1 products will almost certainly have none of the optional elements for 802.11n, such as larger antenna arrays that produce higher throughputs. Some of these optional elements remain points of discussion, and will be less settled until further drafts are developed. Another major issue outstanding is the manner by which 802.11n devices will interact with legacy adapters and legacy networks, whether on the same Wi-Fi network, same Wi-Fi channel, or on adjacent Wi-Fi channels. That is expected to be resolved for the next letter-ballotted draft, which should be Draft 2.0.
This intermediate approach to 802.11n certification echoes the earlier interim security measure, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), that the alliance put into place when the work on 802.11i lingered far longer than the market and manufacturers would tolerate, with the failure of Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) as a reliable link encryption method. WPA was available a year before 802.11i’s final ratification, and stabilized the security concerns of the market. The later WPA2, which included the strong AES encryption method, entered the industry with relative seamlessness.
Of course, WPA had more to do with retrofitting a security model to work on older devices without leaving newer devices with less protection, and was a good-enough security system; WPA2 almost serves a different market, in which government-grade encryption algorithms are required and fast handoff for authentication, mobile devices—like VoWLAN handsets—is critical.
With 802.11n, the standard has to work on the lowliest to most sophisticated device, and there’s a lot of hardwiring in silicon that can’t be fixed later, so the standard has to be right when devices are released. That’s been one of my primary objections to Draft N gear.
I have consistently said that you should not buy Draft N gear because there are significant advantages for most users. Buying MIMO gateways makes a lot of sense if you want better 802.11g speeds over greater areas. That technology is now relatively mature, relatively compatible, and relatively cheap. Draft N devices are quite expensive (Atheros aims to fix that by year’s end), don’t seem to deliver range and speed in testing (see this latest PC World showdown), and have no guarantee of full upgradability when the final 802.11n standard is delivered. (Intel said today they’d include Draft N support in their Santa Rosa platform in the first half of 2007, but Intel is on the board of the Wi-Fi Alliance, and thus knew this certification was coming when they made this statement.)
This process set up by the Wi-Fi Alliance answers my concerns.
First, with 802.11n’s ratification pushed back nearly a year from the expectation just a few months ago, there’s now a reason to bring today’s capabilities into today’s equipment. When ratification was just a few months away, having an entire generation of equipment that would be potentially incapable of forward compatibility or upgrade seemed ridiculous. Now, it’s a reasonable market choice given a 12-to-18-month lifespan for the right kind of user. (The equipment will obviously continue to work after the ratification, too, and have its own value as it will retain interoperability and other benefits that current Draft N devices can’t guarantee.)
Second, the Wi-Fi Alliance is waiting for Draft 2.0 or its equivalent. This allows a host of compromises to be made in the year between Draft 1.0 and 2.0, and technical problems to be solved. There should be an ocean of difference from Draft 1.0 to 2.0 in terms of basic problems being solved. Today’s Draft N devices promise compliance to a draft that will be superceded, and offer no hardware upgrade promise when and if that happens if firmware upgrades fail to suffice.
Third, the alliance will offer a brand that I confirmed with Hanzlik will be clearly differentiated in phase 1 and 2. This won’t offer consumers or businesses any implicit promise about forward compatibility. This reduces confusion in the marketplace and provides a clear message to equipment buyers that they are buying gear that may be superceded later, but has value now.
Fourth, the interoperability and conformance testing by the Wi-Fi Alliance will smooth out the rough spots in using devices from different manufacturers together. Some early equipment plays very poorly with its friends (similar devices from other makers) and neighbors (nearby networks). The alliance’s process has worked in the past.
So, I can’t say right now, go out and buy Phase One gear, because it has no name and doesn’t exist. But I will predict with some degree of certainty that devices that start shipping in late winter 2007 will likely offer enough carrots for those who need higher performance or greater area networks to start thinking about purchase, and what’s for sale by June 2007 (and certified) will be good investments in the next generation of Wi-Fi.
News.com reports that the final ratified version of 802.11n probably will hit in 2008: The ratification means that the full IEEE has accepted a final version of the standard, and will publish it in that form. The work is typically done as long as six months or longer before ratification, so this doesn’t mean that a “final” version will take until 2008, but rather that the absolute final version will take that long.
With a new draft now slated for January 2007 incorporating or responding to the thousands of technical changes noted for Draft 1.0, News.com reports that it’s extremely likely that the next draft will not allow a firmware upgrade for Draft N devices currently on the market. (Also, what’s the generation numbering here? If you ship Draft N in May 2006, and it’s incompatible with Draft N in January 2007, as it may be, do you call this Draft N2? Drafter N?)
I should reiterate that there’s nothing certain in life, and it’s possible that chipmakers have been exceptionally clever and flexible, and will be able to produce better and better 802.11n equipment while still enabling firmware or other backwards compatible with their earliest-shipped chips.
At this point, we’ll have to wait about six months to find out.
Draft 2.0 will likely not be voted on until January: This puts a crimp in the earlier predictions that Draft 1.0 might be adopted (it wasn’t), and that Draft 2.0 of the next-generation wireless data spec could be ready to go by, say, September. Nope. There were 12,000 comments presented, and even after removing duplicates and what sounds like irritating editorial comments, they’re still slogging through the issues. (Atheros’s CTO says that three people submitted comments on the draft ballot for every blank line in the document; there must be an explanation for that, because those sorts of changes are easy to de-duplicate and cope with.)
There’s still no resolution on how to bind two 20 MHz channels into one 40 MHz channel, something that the chipmakers have been pretending is non-issue from a silicon perspective for some time. That is, that whatever approach is taken, they’ll be able to push out firmware updates that will make their Draft N chips still work.
Meanwhile, we will have another six months, at least, of Draft N gear—and even a second generation of Draft N gear based on the same non-existent standard—before there’s a chance for a real stab at what the final standard will be.
Don’t buy Draft N gear, folks. Buy MIMO.