I was looking around for a solution to hook up an application with an MCU to a wifi network. I'm basically looking for a chip that can talk to my MCU via an interface like I2C or SPI and is able to connect to a wifi network so that I can do some IP traffic. I'm okay with putting my own antenna and the necessary RLC stuff on the PCB.

I've found a bunch of really expensive modules which didn't seem very interesting (and were basically a lot bigger than I expected) and I've found the max2831 which looks like it might be good enough for the job.

However the data sheet doesn't contain too much detail about how to actually use the chip, ie. how to send commands to it, what kind of commands there, etc. The manufacturer says that this is just a "WLAN front-end solution", so I'm getting the impression that this chip isn't what I'm looking for, or at least isn't what I expected.

I googled around but didn't find any information about how to actually use this chip to connect to a wifi network and send/receive data.

Could anybody please shed some light on what exactly a "WLAN front-end" means and how to use it to implement the ability to connect to a wifi network?

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    It's just a front-end chip which implements all the RF transmitter and receiver stuff. The WiFi protocols need to be implemented on another device such as an MCU. This should be obvious from the data sheet. – Leon Heller Jun 18 '15 at 8:16
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    ESP2866 are probably the complete solution you want. – pjc50 Jun 18 '15 at 8:23
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    TI CC3200 maybe? – Andy aka Jun 18 '15 at 8:26
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    As pjc50 says - ESP8266 - this is the red oill. You're life will never be the same again :-) (This may or may not be a pleasant ride). – Russell McMahon Jun 18 '15 at 8:34
  • MAX2831 evaluation board - shows what you do not want to know about. | ESP2866 is a complete system in a small module. 2 ICs min. One is a EROM and the other a SOC IC with processor system and full WiFi capability and ... . Official documentation is non-existant shopping and the manufacturer does not wish to know you exist. Variants are head spinning and proliferating prolifically. Amateur and also professional development community are working on making it a solid very low cost professional alternative. Usable now. Better "soon" – Russell McMahon Jun 18 '15 at 8:44
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Short answer: you combine it with a backend :-)

The MAX2831 you mention is a transceiver and that is all it does. As the manufacturer says, its a "frontend". What you miss is the "backend". Guess which part is even more complicated ? ;-)

The frontend contains only the radios needed to send (TX) and receive (RX) ! It does NOT generate the WiFi signal, I mean, in principle (ignoring some details) you could also use it to send and receive Bluetooth or Zigbee signals (which will need to be generated by a backend IC).

In other words, what is also needed is the modem. The modem is the backend and it takes care of the Wifi protocol, what frequency must be used (it controls the frontend besides sending and receiving the data) sets the bitrate etc, etc...

Indeed as pcj50 suggests, you're far better of with a complete module. Also, this will be cheaper as there are special components required to build a complete working Wifi module and these components might not be that easy to acquire and/or very expensive (as you would probably buy 1 instead of 1000).

Another thing is that on the software side the ESP8266 will be far easier, anything else (not a module I mean) and you might have to write your own drivers to talk to the backend. Ouch.

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