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Wi-Fi 6E isn’t here yet—but Broadcom is clearly banking on it

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Today, Broadcom announced the availability of a new phone-targeted Wi-Fi chipset, the BCM4389. The new chipset offers support for Wi-Fi 6 and—more interestingly—Wi-Fi 6E.

For those who aren’t immediately familiar with the latest bit of alphabet soup, Wi-Fi 6E isn’t a new protocol at all. Instead, it’s a branding name for 1200MHz of additional spectrum in the 6GHz range. The FCC hasn’t yet formally approved the public use of this spectrum, but its chairman Ajit Pai expressed a desire for the agency to “move quickly” in approving it in September. Broadcom’s decision to go ahead with designing and releasing actual hardware for use on the spectrum clearly strongly anticipates 6E becoming “a thing” sometime this year.

We’re going to spend a little time talking about why Wi-Fi 6E is important before diving into features specific to BCM4389 itself—which go well beyond a simple “connects to 6E if available.”

Why Wi-Fi 6E matters

Frankly, the jury is still out on how great Wi-Fi 6 really is. Although the Broadcom VP we spoke to confidently stated that “OFDMA is working quite well on Broadcom chipsets, and the 4389 is no exception,” the vendor-unaffiliated RF engineers we’ve spoken to paint a different story. Even if Broadcom’s designs have 100% solid OFDMA, the majority of access points, phones, and laptops absolutely do not, as verified exhaustively by Tim Higgins at Smallnetbuilder.

Without OFDMA, Wi-Fi 6 is a bit of a pig in a poke. The protocol offers other features that aren’t in question—such as higher bitrate 1024QAM encoding for devices with very good connections—but OFDMA is the really killer feature that was supposed to make Wi-Fi 6 perform so much better and more consistently in crowded environments.

Wi-Fi 6E is in a much better position to show obvious, immediate, seat-of-the-pants improvements when it becomes available. Due to its use of 1200MHz of contiguous, uncongested 6GHz spectrum, it can offer seven non-overlapping 160MHz channels, as compared to 5GHz’s two-or-three-if-you’re-lucky 80MHz channels. This means much easier channel planning for enterprises and much less likelihood of being unavoidably congested by neighboring networks if you’re an urban apartment dweller.

In addition, the 160MHz channels really do mean double the available throughput—and the lack of legacy devices in the spectrum means no ancient, slow devices hogging up all the airtime. The slightly lower range and decreased throughput of 6GHz as compared to 5GHz—which Broadcom characterized as “roughly 10%-20% less range”—should also be viewed as a feature, not a bug.

Remember, decreased range and penetration doesn’t just mean “my router doesn’t reach as far”—it also means “my neighbors’ networks don’t mess with my network as much.” We are hopeful that widespread 6E adoption will ultimately mean the death of the enormously expensive standalone router and the final move to Wi-Fi mesh (or mesh-capable) APs for everyone.

For those of you trying to figure out in advance what the slightly decreased range and penetration means for you, we’ll have considerably more detailed recommendations soon in a feature dedicated to access point placement. (One really short rule of thumb—which hasn’t exactly changed from 5GHz, we just mean it extra serious now—is to plan for no more than two walls in between access point and station.)

Why the BCM4389 matters

As always, we caution readers to take vendor claims that haven’t been third-party verified yet with a grain of salt. But the technological improvements in the BCM4389 certainly look compelling.

Lower power consumption

A recent Broadcom chipset, the BCM4375, powers the Wi-Fi in Samsung’s S10 line of flagship phones. Although our own Ron Amadeo did not love the S10+ he tested, and neither of us is fond of Samsung’s software, I haven’t heard any complaints about either the Wi-Fi or the battery lifetime of the S10 line, so using that phone’s BCM4375 as a reference point for comparison with the new BCM4389 makes a lot of sense.

First up, power consumption should be drastically lower in the BCM4389. Broadcom’s process size shrank from 28nm to 16nm, which should result in a significant decrease in consumption all by itself. But more interestingly, Broadcom has added a new third radio to the new chipset.

The BCM4375 was capable of maintaining a Wi-Fi connection on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands simultaneously, and so is the new BCM4389. But it also has a third radio, with far lower power consumption than the other two, which can be used for background scanning (to see what Wi-Fi SSIDs are available, on which channels) and also to allow the main radios to sleep during periods of inactivity. The TBS radio can notice inbound communications and wake the appropriate big radio in time to receive them, without either big radio needing to waste power idling.

Faster, better bluetooth pairing

BCM4389 also brings serious improvements to Bluetooth device pairing. The low-power TBS radio enables much faster scanning for available devices—Broadcom claims a two-to-threefold improvement in pairing time.

In addition to faster pairing times, Broadcom has added a new feature it has dubbed “BT MIMO” to its Bluetooth functionality, aimed at reducing the glitchiness users experience in technology-crowded environments. BT MIMO is a marketing term, not an established technical term, and it will probably seem a little misleading to many readers—it doesn’t refer to increasing bandwidth by using multiple spatial streams, like Wi-Fi SU-MIMO.

Broadcom’s BT MIMO is actually the use of beamforming transmit and MRC (Maximum-Ratio Combining) to improve connections and decrease operational latency for connected Bluetooth devices. The company says that by directionally isolating the signals this way, instances of audio skipping and pausing due to the presence of many other active Bluetooth devices will decrease. BT MIMO does not require any particular feature support from connected devices; it operates entirely in the phone chipset itself.

We don’t have a BCM4389 to test BT MIMO with, but we suspect it will fall in the category of “nice to have, but not a magic wand.” The described spatial isolation should help increase the signal-to-noise ratio significantly, but it won’t magically make CMDA/TDMA multiplexing issues go away when the competing devices are close enough to be received as Bluetooth transmissions by the phone or headset itself. So this is likely to be more of a feature for reducing the impact of long-range noise rather than dealing with nearby crowding.

Wi-Fi 6E

Last but not least, BCM4389 of course brings Wi-Fi 6E support to the table. There isn’t an extra radio for use with the 6GHz spectrum; the same radio does double-duty for either 5GHz or 6GHz connections—so although a BCM4389-equipped phone can be simultaneously connected to one 2.4GHz network as well as a 5GHz or 6GHz network, it cannot connect to both 5GHz and 6GHz simultaneously.

Assuming, of course, that use of the 6GHz spectrum is ratified, we expect new models of virtual reality headsets designed to pair with phones or tablets to adopt 6E quite rapidly. The new spectrum’s combination of high throughput, low latency, and low range and penetration (and thus low congestion) are pretty much ideal for this kind of connection.

Listing image by Broadcom

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The MacBook Pro will soon get a resolution bump, macOS beta suggests

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Enlarge / The 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro.

Samuel Axon

The seventh beta of macOS Monterey contains what appear to be references to new screen resolutions suitable for the MacBook Pro line, as discovered by MacRumors.

In a list of supported graphics resolutions within macOS, there are two new resolutions: 3,456 by 2,234 and 3,024 by 1,964. Each carries a “Retina” marker, which Apple typically only applies to its own devices’ screens.

The aspect ratio for these new resolutions is very close to the current aspect ratios on the MacBook Pro computers sold today, but they’re lower than what we currently see in the iMac line, suggesting that they aren’t for Apple’s desktops. Further, the numbers fit nicely with a move to true 2x Retina, as opposed to the scaling approach presently used for Retina displays.

It is possible that this is a mistake, but the timing is convenient. macOS Monterey is expected to launch this fall alongside new MacBook Pro models featuring custom-designed Apple silicon that would be faster successors to Apple’s much-lauded M1 chips found in lower-end Macs and the most recent refresh of the iPad Pro.

If reports in Bloomberg and elsewhere are to be believed, the new laptops would also include Mini LED displays, which provide better contrast than the display technology currently used in Mac laptops, as well as additional ports like HDMI or an SD card slot. These devices would also drop the Touch Bar, which some users like but others hate, in favor of a return to physical function keys. The 13-inch MacBook Pro would probably see reduced bezels, making it a 14-inch MacBook Pro. (A similar change replaced the 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 16-inch model a couple of years ago.)

So increased screen resolutions join a plethora of other likely changes that would make for the most significant redesign of the MacBook Pro since the first Touch Bar models in 2016.

Leaks have also pointed to an upcoming MacBook Air redesign, but that laptop is unlikely to come until later.

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The Surface Duo’s two-year-old Android OS will be updated sometime this year

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If Microsoft wants to be taken seriously as an Android manufacturer, one of the things it will need to establish is a track record of reliable, on-time software updates. But as the company launches a second generation of the Surface Duo and the company’s first Android phone turns a year old, so far Microsoft has failed to impress.

The Surface Duo 1 shipped in September 2020 with Android 10, which was a full year old at the time, and Android 11 had already launched. The hope was that Microsoft would quickly update the Duo to the latest version of Android, but that never happened. Today the device is still running Android 10, which is now two years old, and Android 12 is about to ship. Microsoft has finally broken its silence about Surface Duo 1 updates, and the company tells The Verge it plans to update the device to Android 11 “before the end of this year.”

Assuming Microsoft follows through on its promise, the company’s $1,400 flagship device will be updated from a two-year-old operating system to a one-year-old operating system. Microsoft committed to three years of updates, and it has been delivering monthly security updates. But this is still worst-in-class update support, especially for the price. Samsung usually rolls out Android to its latest flagship three months after Google’s release, while OnePlus usually takes around a month—Microsoft’s one-year timeframe is really bad.

Microsoft is, at least, communicating. Before, it never really let its customers know when Android 11 would be arriving on the Surface Duo until this latest report, leaving the rumor mill to fill in the gaps. It would be nice to get a timeframe for Android 12 releases, given the latest update will be out any day now. Perhaps Microsoft’s lack of communication was due to the company just not knowing when Android 11 would be done. The Android 10 build that shipped on the original Duo had all sorts of bugs, and the company is clearly having a hard time transitioning to Android.

Perhaps some of Microsoft’s update problems were caused by the Duo 1 originally being designed for a now-canceled mobile resurrection of Windows; Microsoft was essentially forced to switch to Android later in that product’s development life. Unsurprisingly, the Windows-maker didn’t have a lot of Android OS engineers on staff at the time, and Microsoft ended up outsourcing the Duo’s OS development to a company called “Movial.” Microsoft ended up acquiring Movial just two months before the Duo’s release date, which doesn’t sound like ideal timing.

The Duo 1’s Windows DNA resulted in a device with very different underpinnings from a normal Android phone, like a “custom engineered” Microsoft UEFI instead of the normal Qualcomm one. The Duo 2 should have been designed from the start with Android as the target, so maybe things will be better for the sequel?

Listing image by Ron Amadeo

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Windows 11 hits the Release Preview Insider channel as official release nears

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Enlarge / The “official” Windows 11 update, complete with the UI that regular people will see, is now available in the Release Preview channel for Windows Insiders.

Andrew Cunningham

Yesterday, Microsoft released a near-final build of Windows 11 to Windows Insiders in the Release Preview channel, which (as the name implies) is generally the last stop for a major new Windows version ahead of its release to the general public. The official release date for Windows 11 is October 5, but Microsoft is planning to roll it out gradually over the next few months to prevent widespread problems.

The build number in the Release Preview channel is 22000.194, the same version released to the Beta channel on September 16.

While Beta- and Dev-channel builds of Windows 11 are simply downloaded and installed like regular Windows Updates, the version in the Release Preview channel gives you the same upgrade message that will be offered to the public when Microsoft offers the Windows 11 upgrade for their PCs. This includes a system notification that users can click through to learn more about Windows 11’s new features and a special update message in Windows Update that will give you the opportunity to waive the Windows 11 upgrade and stay on Windows 10 (seen above).

Windows 10 can run on pretty much any PC that could run Windows 7 or Windows 8, but Windows 11 comes with stringent new processor and security hardware requirements that severely limit its compatibility. The most important is the CPU requirement, which generally mandates an 8th-generation Intel Core processor (introduced in late 2017) or newer or a 2nd-generation AMD Ryzen processor (introduced in mid 2018) or newer. There are only a handful of exceptions for older processors, including for Microsoft’s own Surface Studio desktop—Microsoft has the full list of Intel and AMD processors available on its documentation site.

If your PC can run it, Windows 11 includes a refreshed user interface, rescued from Microsoft’s failed “Windows 10X” project. The redesign overhauls the taskbar, Start menu, system tray, the Settings app, and Windows Explorer, as well as right-click menus and built-in apps throughout the OS. It also adds some gaming features and improvements to the Windows Subsystem for Linux, though some of these will be backported to Windows 10.

Listing image by Microsoft

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