Walking around the seemingly endless halls of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, you almost get the idea that everyone can already use the internet via 5g. Not only network suppliers such as Huawei and Ericsson have stands full of 5g, chipmakers such as Qualcomm and Intel are also working on it, as are countless suppliers who attract attention with slogans such as ‘delivering a seamless cloud experience with 5g and AI’, or any other random combination of buzzwords.
What is sometimes lacking are real devices. Just a thing you can hold in your hands that has a 5g connection. Intel did show that; the chipmaker has brought along a prototype that connects via 5g to an antenna on the 28GHz band. We took a look at this demonstration.
Antennas in kickstand
It turned out to be quite an art to get the necessary mmWave antennas in the laptop. The name mmWave stands for the high frequencies with which 5g will work. In addition to the current lower frequencies that are also used for 4g, those high frequencies should lead to bizarrely high throughput speeds.
The laptop turned out to have two antennas, which are in the two kickstands of the 2-in-1. One has the antenna oriented horizontally, the other vertically. A double antenna is not only useful, but also necessary. The Intel engineers discovered that you can block the signal with your hand. That is inconvenient for a device that you can also hold in your hand as a tablet.
The kickstands measure approximately 6×4 inches (15x10cm), about the size of a small photo print. That format is necessary for the antennas. The mmWave technique works with an array of antennas that simply need so much space to receive the signals. The 2-in-1 also contains a modem that can convert the signals.
At first glance, the demonstration was unimpressive; the 2-in-1 showed a streamed video at a relatively normal resolution. Anyone can stream video at a high resolution with a normal internet connection, so that didn’t blow us away. However, the throughput speed is impressive at 4.3Gbit/s. The antenna must be close for this. The 2-in-1 and the antenna were about four meters apart.
The intention is that manufacturers get to work with the hardware and antennas, and try to incorporate them into their own laptops in a nice way. Those laptops should be out before the end of 2019 . That will be quite a challenge, because the antennas are large and must be directed outwards. Laptops with a metal unibody therefore seem out of the question. In addition, the application of mmWave networks will be limited. The technology can work to enable wireless high speeds within offices, for example, or outside in a limited space. The distance between transmitter and laptop should not be too high; Intel says that it really stops with about fifty meters, because otherwise the cell tower has to be too loud.
That it is easy to block the signal can also become a problem. With the iPhone 4, Apple already had an ‘antenna gate’, which made it possible to disrupt the signal during normal use. What good is a fast internet connection if you break it when you grab your laptop? The future will show whether the technology will prove useful.
It’s hard to see if the participating manufacturers, such as Lenovo and Dell, manage to make laptops with mmWave support that are beautiful and work well. In that respect, the prototype has raised more questions than Intel could answer. Still, it’s interesting to see that finally, after years of talking, there’s something 5g to grab and try. With the promise that the laptops will be on the market at the end of next year, the 5g era is getting closer. Now the question is how providers will support the new network technology.