SAN MATEO, Calif. Wireless connectivity, both in its 802.11b and its Bluetooth incarnations, got a shot in the arm this week with Compaq Computer's Monday (May 21) roll-out of a new family of computers called Evo, integrated with a cleverly designed MultiPort slot on the back of the notebook display panel. Users can now easily slide in a newly developed wireless connectivity module, based on either 802.11b or Bluetooth, with antenna and radio in a single assembly, without concerns for RF interference, according to Compaq.
The move lets the computer giant offer wireless connectivity as an easily accessible, standard feature across its new line of notebook computers. Further, this will mark the first time that any leading U.S. computer company has blended 802.11b with Bluetooth in the corporate computer market in the United States.
Ken Willett, vice president of mobile and desktop business at Compaq, called MultiPort "a flexible and innovative design" that answered "key technical issues we needed to solve in integrating wireless radio and antenna into portable computers." The MultiPort features an electrical interface based on USB.
By designing MultiPort to integrate wireless functionality into the notebook display panel cover, no radio devices need to be incorporated inside the base unit of the notebook, where RF interference can cause problems. Further, MultiPort offers an optimal placement for the antenna: at the top edge of the display. Antennas located anywhere in the base of the notebook face the noise interference issues of the notebook itself. Top-mounted antennas, running coaxial cable down to the radio receiver inside the base of the notebook, can also cause performance loss, noted Willett. This is due to the propagation pattern of signal loss, not only with RF coaxial cable connectors but also with the coaxial cable itself.
Without proper RF interference management designed into notebook computers, users could potentially face such interference problems as audible buzzing in the audio subsystems, cursor deflections across the LCD panel, dimming or flickering of LCD backlights, increased modem data error rates or dropped connections, warned Compaq. In some cases, it could also lead to CDs skipping tracks, shutting down DC-to-DC power supply converters and hard disk drive read/write failures.
Eric Janson, vice president of Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) North America, agreed that "the RF issue is a touchy one for many computer companies who are not used to" dealing with RF interference problems. Although Compaq is the first major U.S. computer manufacturer to embrace and promote Bluetooth as an available choice for wireless connectivity, a number of Japanese companies including Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu already launched notebooks featuring Bluetooth capabilities, according to Janson. While Sony has integrated a Bluetooth module onto its Vaio notebook motherboard, Fujitsu is offering a PC Card-based Bluetooth module. Both Sony and Fujitsu are using Bluetooth modules based on CSR's chip, he added.
Besides technical advantages, MultiPort is also designed to make it easy for users to install or upgrade new modules, as wireless technology advances and new standards emerge, according to Compaq. Moreover, the MultiPort design keeps PC Card slots and mini-PCI modem/NIC slots available for use, making more flexible technology choices possible.
In addition to the Evo Notebook N400 priced at $2,299, Compaq will offer a 802.11b-based MultiPort module at $189, while its Bluetooth module is priced at $199. Users can select either wireless connectivity or none at all. If no wireless module is chosen at purchase, a blank cover is installed over the MultiPort slot.
Compaq's 802.11b MultiPort module is based on Intersil silicon, while its Bluetooth MutliPort solution uses an ALPS pre-qualified module integrated with CSR's BlueCore single-chip Bluetooth solution.
While Compaq's Willett sees the 802.11b MultiPort module "the number-one priority" to meet corporate wireless LAN needs, the company also expects demand for Bluetooth modules to pick up as new Bluetooth application software rolls out this summer. Citing connectivity between notebooks and PDAs, or notebooks and printers as primary applications for Bluetooth modules, Willett said, "We see Bluetooth taking hold as home, consumer applications."
While CSR's Janson agreed with Compaq by describing 802.11b as a "workhorse network technology," he also predicted growing popularity for Bluetooth among U.S. computer manufacturers. He projected that by the end of this year, 50 percent of new PC models in the United States will feature Bluetooth either embedded into the system or available as an option.
Versatile MultiPort applications
By taking advantage of the MultiPort slot integrated in its notebook computers, Compaq is also planning to offer a GPRS-based MultiPort module using 2.5-generation wireless telephony technology. By sliding in the GPRS module, users can immediately dial into a network they need to get connected. "We will show our GPRS MultiPort module at the fall Comdex, with a plan to start shipping in early 2002," Willett said.
However, "MultiPort is not just for wireless communications," according to Willett. "The beauty of it is that it can be used for any other USB-based devices such as a smart card or a digital camera." Compaq expects to see a host of third party-developed peripherals emerging for its MultiPort.