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Choosing an EPC Gen 2 Interrogator

There are important differences between the Gen 1 and Gen 2 protocols. The RFID Alliance Lab found that there also are significant differences among the four commercially available EPC Gen 2 certified interrogators it tested.
By Daniel Deavours
Jun 01, 2006—Many companies are anticipating the improved performance promised with EPCglobal's Generation 2 interrogators and tags. Gen 2 incorporates numerous enhancements over Gen 1, including faster data-transfer rates, greater security of tag data and special features such as "dense-reader mode," which can greatly increase read rates when more than a handful of interrogators share the same space. In addition, more efficient use of the allowed ultrahigh-frequency spectrum should boost performance when reading tags on goods traveling on high-speed conveyors or through dock doors.

The RFID Alliance Lab, a not-for-profit research facility, tested the Gen 2 interrogators that have earned EPCglobal certification by an accredited lab. Certification means an interrogator has undergone a series of tests to ensure that it conforms to Gen 2 specifications and implements all the mandatory features. There are many Gen 2 interrogators on the market that have not been certified. These may be compatible with Gen 2 standards, but there is no guarantee until they have been certified.

There's every reason to believe Gen 2 is going to enjoy the same kind of improvements as Gen 1, as vendors learn how to implement Gen 2 more efficiently.

When we conducted our tests in the first quarter of 2006, there were five certified Gen 2 interrogators: Alien ALR-9800, AWID MPR-3014, Impinj Speedway, Symbol XR400 and ThingMagic Mercury4, running version 2.3.14 of the interrogator's operating system (the firmware that runs the device). The Impinj Speedway was not being offered for sale, so we did not test it (the interrogator should be available by the time you read this article). Also, Intermec and MaxID Group offer EPC-certified interrogator modules that can be incorporated into printers and other devices, and SAMSys Technologies offers a certified interrogator that operates under European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) regulatory restrictions, but we chose not to test modules or ETSI interrogators for now. (SAMSys went into receivership and its assets were purchased recently by Sirit, an RFID systems provider.)

In this report, we focus on the design of each interrogator and how it affects performance. We also explain several of the optional features of the Gen 2 protocol and examine if and how they are implemented in the interrogators (see sidebar on page 32).

Upgrading to Gen 2
If you've purchased and installed Gen 1 interrogators, your upgrade path will depend on the kind of interrogator you purchased. Those who have the Gen 1 ThingMagic Mercury4 interrogator will have the easiest route. It can be upgraded to Gen 2 by installing new firmware (the firmware change is the only difference between the Gen 1 and Gen 2 versions). The process of upgrading the firmware involves launching a Web browser on a PC connected to the same network to which the interrogator is connected, typing in the proper URL to access the Web server running on the interrogator, and clicking on a few obvious menus and buttons. It takes about 5 minutes; bundled manuals provide the details.

The Alien ALR-9800, AWID MPR-3014 and Symbol XR400 are completely new products. Companies will need to remove their old interrogators and install the new hardware. Many vendors offer upgrades for their Gen 1 interrogators, such as the Alien ALR-9780, AWID MPR-2010 line and Symbol AR400, but none are on the list of certified Gen 2 interrogators, so it's not clear what level of compliance they have.
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