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Dell notebooks to feature draft Wi-Fi standard

802.11n promises faster networks, wider range, but draft-based products might not work well with final version.

Dell plans to offer home users a new, faster version of wireless networking in their notebooks that has yet to be completely finalized by a wireless standards body.

The draft specification for the next-generation 802.11n standard has been completed, but final ratification isn't expected until next year. Wireless networking vendors, however, have already started offering routers and access points based on the draft version of the technology, and Dell will now allow some notebook customers to purchase 802.11n cards bundled into their PCs.

The 802.11n standard comes with two important advances: faster link speeds and wider operating range, as the result of the MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) standard at the heart of the technology. Home users who upload a lot of pictures or video through their home networks will love the rate increase, and some will now be able to take their notebooks out on the deck or into the backyard, said Clay Rayborn, product marketing manager for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth at Dell.

There's a catch, however. The idea behind releasing products based on draft wireless standards is that users will eventually be able to upgrade to the final standard simply by downloading a firmware update from the manufacturer. But there's no guarantee that firmware will be able to accommodate all of the changes that could take place in the standard between now and March 2007, when final ratification and certification is expected.

As a result, some products that use chips from one wireless chipmaker might not work seamlessly with products that use chips from a different manufacturer. The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group, has recommended that potential 802.11n buyers wait until the final standard is ratified by the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance has begun certifying products. Both events are expected to take place early next year.

Dell is recommending that consumers who want the 802.11n speeds use routers based on the same Broadcom Intensi-Fi technology used in Dell notebooks, Rayborn said. The card will still work with products from other vendors, but not necessarily at 802.11n speeds or ranges.

The card is an option, starting today, on XPS and some Inspiron notebooks. It costs $59, and can hit peak data rates of 270 megabits per second, as compared to 802.11g's top speed of 54Mbps. Real-world speeds will generally be slower in both cases, due to interference or certain types of building materials.