Short battery life and poor wireless speeds are the drawbacks most likely to irritate mobile computer users, but a Californian company claims to have developed technology that may go some way to solving both problems.
Chip designer Intersil has developed power amplifier chips, typical components in wireless access points and network interface cards, that extend the range of wireless networks in the 2.4GHz range by 25 per cent.
The ISL3986 amplifier chips determine how strong a signal must be and how widely it can go to reach a mobile device.
PDA manufacturers are interested in these sorts of chips for their range, and for the battery life they can add.
"This is the major killer at the moment. Stick any form of 802.11 card into a mobile device and battery life is measured in minutes," said Clive Longbottom, principal analyst at Quocirca.
Other analysts believe that such developments help IT managers in long-term planning as it increases the shelf life of the standard.
"It will make it easier for smaller companies to stick to one standard for their wireless networks," explained Eveline Wiggers, a research analyst at IDC. "The new chips will help 802.11b to stay in the market longer."
Although the theoretical maximum bandwidth offered by 802.11b is 11Mbps, users can only expect to attain half that figure in a typical office environment. The power amplifier chips can produce a stronger signal and push up the data rate accordingly.
As the laptop or PDA doesn't have to expend more energy making sure that the whole signal gets through, it uses less power.
"The less time spent getting the signal through the air, the less battery consumption there is," said Bruce Kramer, senior manager at Intersil.
The signal is more robust at the edge of its range, where wireless networks are usually are at their weakest, so the new chip can double data rates at the network cusp to about 6Mbps.
This improvement could extend the life of 802.11b as new standards threaten to usurp its dominance in the network.
As reported last year, 802.11g, which also works in the 2.4GHz range, was approved by the Institute of Electrical Engineers. This technology is expected to attain rates of up to 54Mbps by the middle of next year.
802.11g products using the new technology have yet to be launched, and 802.11a, which uses the controversial 5GHz spectrum, is still facing regulatory hurdles in Europe despite the availability of access points and wireless cards.
The European Union has approved rival technology HiperLan 2, as it gets around objections by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute concerning interference with satellite communications in the 5GHz band.
Longbottom explained that the 802.11g and 802.11h standards are based around the use of power-mounted devices.
"If you are standing underneath an access point it will run back down to 1mW; if you are 100 metres away it will run up to 30mW to get the connection, which 802.11b can't do. It just sits there and pumps out 30-300mW of power," he said.
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