I’m trying to decide which of the following I should get:
Edit: TL;DR: If you have an Intel mainboard, then the AX210 is better than the AX211
And I’m not sure the AX211 is really an “upgrade.” because it’s less flexible. The AX211 is a “dumber” module. It has a Companion RF module (it’s just a radio and a signal processor, AFAIK) and all the general “network interface hardware” like the buffers, controllers, and the rest are built-in to the 12th gen intel chipset/CPU. These two subsystems communicate using a proprietary interface called
CNVio2. So basically the network interface card was split into pieces: some pieces live in the mainboard and some pieces live in the AX211 module. The pieces talk using “CNVio.” And that’s why it’s less flexible. You can’t just put this module in any old computer. You must put it in a computer with special chipset support (I think that’s why the AX211 doesn’t work with the 11th gen intel mainboard).
But the AX210 is different. It uses everyday PCIe. The AX210 shows up as a PCIe device. And this module includes everything it needs: the radio, signal processor, buffers, and network controller. When the OS wants to send network data, it uses standard PCIe messages to send commands to an “external” controller that lives in the AX210. So this module could be re-used more easily.
So I’ve been wondering:
- Why did Intel do this?
- Is one better than the other?
- What’s better for me?
I suppose Intel created the “Integrated Connectivity” standard (used by the AX211) to somehow make more money. Maybe at scale, it’s cheaper to just add more into the chipset/CPU/PCH than it is to make a more complex WiFi module with a controller, buffers and the rest. (I’m speculating)
There might also be some benefit for mainboard makers, like framework. I get the impression from Intel’s AX211 docs that it’s theoretically possible to make optimizations to the mainboard. But some of these “optimizations” would force the CNVio interface upon end-users. And it looks like framework decided to support both the AX211 (CNVio) and the AX210 (PCIe). (Thank you framework! I appreciate that). So this benefit doesn’t apply to framework owners.
So to figure out which is better, there are two groups of functions to consider:
- the functions shared by both the AX210 and AX211
- the “new” functions added to the AX211
When it comes to the common functions (like connecting to a WiFi 5 network), I think they perform about the same. It doesn’t seem like Intel somehow made a better network device when they added these networking blocks to the 12th gen CPUs. And I don’t think there’s much difference in battery life, range, latency, reliability or anything else… but I don’t know that…
But what about new features? There might be new functions added to the AX211:
- The AX211 might support Bluetooth 5.3 (and
the AX210 only supports 5.2the AX210 might also supports this)
- The AX211 might support “uplink MIMO” (MIMO is awesome) (the AX210 mightt also support this)
Edit: it seems both the AX210 and AX210 support all the same features.
Intel says the AX211 supports Bluetooth 5.3 and Intel also says the AX210 only supports Bluetooth 5.2. But on the framework marketplace, it says both modules only support Bluetooth 5.2. Maybe framework knows something I don’t and it really is the case that the AX211 module they sell only supports BL 5.2.
But in case the AX211 really does support Bluetooth 5.3, I wanted to see what’s better about it. As far as I can tell 5.3 adds these features:
- Connection Subrating: this ability makes it possible to switch between low power mode to high power mode more quickly/seamlessly.
- Periodic Advertisement Interval: this can help save power when receiving data from a bluetooth 5.3 device that uses the feature. This also enables the receiver to “increase the RX (Receive) duty cycle” and that’s just a good thing all around (it could mean longer range, more reliability, and lower latency). But the opportunity to use this feature is pretty niche and it only applies when a Bluetooth LE device engages in “broadcast data communications.” And as of today, in 2023, it’s a niche use case. Maybe the Makers out there could get value from this. They’re the only people I can think of who might get significant value from this feature because they might actually use bluetooth’s “broadcast data communications” feature.
- Channel Classification Enhancement. This is pretty cool. When BT devices are communicating they jump from radio channel to radio channel. Before BL 5.3, the “Central” device would look at the amount of radio interference and select channels that are suitable for use. Now with BL 5.3 the “Peripheral” device can also classify channels as suitable or not suitable. The “Central” device still picks what channels they’re going to use. But this way better channels can be selected and that improves basically everything. So to this feature. The only downside is that both devices need to support BL 5.3
- Encryption Key Size Control Enhancements. The bluetooth driver in your OS can now specify a minimum key size when establishing a connection. Basically your OS controls your bluetooth device by sending and receiving messages. The bluetooth standard lists all the possible messages. This is called the “Host Controller Interface” And BL5.3 added a new message. Your OS can now tell a bluetooth device: “please use an encryption key that is at least X bits long when you connect to a ‘Bluetooth classic’ device.” Overall, this is another good feature. But it’s not essential and I think work arounds exist for older Bluetooth devices.
If you’re looking for more info, the folks who make the Bluetooth standard wrote a blog post about these new features in 5.3. Overall they seem pretty cool but not essential. I really doubt I’ll realistically get to use these features. Maybe in the future these features will matter more.
The AX211 may or may not have and extra WiFi feature called “uplink MIMO” but it is a pretty cool feature. It basically:
- makes upload speeds faster?
- makes it so more devices can use WiFi together
But you’ll need an access point that supports this in order to use it. Again it’s nice to have but I’m not expecting much of a difference for most folks.
For me the AX211 scores:
+1for maybe having BL5.3
+1for maybe having uplink MIMO
-1for CNVio (I also have an 11th gen mainboard and it’s unfortunate that it won’t work in that mainboard)
And the AX210:
+1for more general compatibility
+1for already being in my laptop (connecting the Wi-Fi antennas is such a pain so I don’t want to swap the WiFi module in my laptop unless it’s worth it)
So yeah… I might get the AX210 again. I’m turning my 11th gen mainboard into a mini PC and that’s why I’m trying to buy a new WiFi module. No matter what an AX210 is going in my 11th gen framework mini PC. But I was thinking I might take the AX210 from my 12th gen laptop and put the AX211 in there to replace it. But now I think I might just buy an AX210.