Your guide to 2008's wireless technology

If there's one thing that's clear from the products being shown off at CES this year, it's that 2008 will be the year that everything goes wireless.

While most people will already be using wireless technologies in their homes in the form of DECT phones and Wi-Fi networking, wire-free connections are set to revolutionise the way we connect our devices together.

Good old Wi-Fi

While wireless networking was a bit of a luxury a few years ago, anyone who signs up for Broadband today is sure to be given a wireless router. While most of these are cheap 802.11g models, wireless-savvy consumers are waking up to the speed and range advantages of 802.11n.

Even though the 802.11n still hasn't been finalised (and won't be until late 2008), most hardware manufactures have decided to just bite the bullet and incorporate a draft N specification into their hardware. New devices shown at CES this month, such as Linksys's DMA2200 media streamer and Netgear's WNDR3300 RangeMax Wireless-N router use dual-band wireless N, at both the 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies to double the bandwidth and ensure trouble-free high definition video streaming.

Wireless USB and Bluetooth

The USB standard is also getting a wireless makeover, giving us, predictably enough, Wireless USB (WUSB). It's based on the Ultra WideBand (UWB) platform, a short-range, high data-rate radio frequency transmission standard. Wireless USB is designed to give the same performance of USB2 devices (480Mbps) at distances under 3 metres, scaling down to 110Mbps at distances up to 10 meters.

Because WUSB operates at a frequency of between 3.1-10.6GHz, it shouldn't suffer from interference from wireless network (Wi-Fi) devices. Bluetooth was originally designed for use in so-called Personal Area Networks (PANs), but due to it's low 3 Mbps transmission rate, has been sidelined into little more than a method for connecting headsets to mobile phones.

Bluetooth 3.0 is currently also under development, it too will use UWB as the underlying protocol. However, unlike WUSB, Bluetooth can use security to pair devices, which when coupled with the proposed 480Mbps transmission rate, could make it a serious contender for short-range peripheral connectivity.

Wireless HD

WirelessHD (WiHD) and Wireless HDMI (WHDI) are essentially two ways of doing the same thing; transmitting an High-Definition video and audio signal from one device to another. WiHD currently has a throughput of 2-5Gbps, but should scale up to 20Gbps. Due to the fact that WiHD operates at an extremely high frequency (60GHz), it is a very short-range protocol.

Unlike WiHD, Wireless HDMI is not a specification and in fact current systems use the UWB platform. One problem with this is that data throughput is limited to 480Mbps. This means that systems from companies like Gefen are forced to use lossy compression systems, which will inevitably impact picture quality. In contrast, WiHD does not use any compression at all.

Although Philips demonstrated its own wireless HDMI transmitter at CES last year, an actual retail product has so far failed to see the light of day. Belkin has wisely decided to ditch UWB as the carrier and is using the Wireless HD Interface (WHDI) instead. It had a unit on show at CES.

What about WiMAX?

Worldwide interoperability for Microwave Access, or the slightly more catchy WiMAX is another technology that has promised much, but so far failed to deliver, well, anything at all really. In ultra simple terms it's designed as a long-range, wireless phone system, that can either be used in a point-to-point fashion, or in a cellular way, like mobile phones. The widely-advocated and Intel supported protocol is IEEE 802.16 standard.

WiMAX would potentially be an excellent way of delivering broadband over the "last mile" (the part of the phone system between your house and the exchange). However, so far, other than a few trial systems, WiMAX has failed to make any real impact, though the next iteration of Intel's Centrino will support the standard. Codenamed Motevina, it will debut in the middle of the year.

What's NFC then?

Near-field communications ( NFC) is something you're going to be hearing much more of in 2008. Oyster card users are already be familiar with the concept of passing a card very near a reader, to pay for their London Underground Journeys. The system uses RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), the same system used in the new British passports.

Manchester City football club has also run a trial with selected season-ticket holders, who used specially modified Nokia mobile phones to operate the entry turnstiles. Mobile phone manufactures, banks, credit card companies and mobile service providers are also developing NFC systems to enable consumers to pay for items by placing their mobile phone near a reader.

Microsoft may have wowed us all with its Surface demo last year, but it is Sony who has been the first to implement a NFC system for audio and video, with its TransferJet system. At present, however, this is limited to Sony products, which rather limits its usefulness. Virtually all these systems work on the principle of induction loops, where the reader generates enough current to power the device's transmitter, so that the device itself doesn't need a power source.


Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.