Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Time to Upgrade to Pre-N?

A popular topic in magazines today is whether or not to upgrade your existing wireless equipment to the new pre-draft standard of 802.11n (dubbed pre-n). 802.11n is a new wireless technology which will not be ratified until next year. What is 802.11n? In short, it provides faster wireless speeds and better range than existing 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g technology. Whereas the fastest speed of 802.11g is 54 megabits per second (mbps), 802.11n promises speeds up to 300 mbps. This will surely please TiVo users. But should you ditch the router and cards you already have to buy pre-n equipment?

Mike Hogan of Entrepreneur magazine says yes. His rationale? He hooked up some equipment himself and it worked and it was nice.

In reality though, most people will probably not experience the seamless integration that Hogan bragged about. For starters, it is important to remember that 802.11n technology is not actually here yet. What is on the shelf is "pre-n" equipment. This equipment has not been certified to the 802.11n standard, which means you may experience compatibility issues when using different brands of equipment. For example, you may be used to using your Netgear brand wireless card on your laptop to connect to wireless access points anywhere you travel. But if you buy a Netgear brand pre-n card, you may have trouble connecting to some access points made by companies other than Netgear. Simply put, if your existing wireless network has equipment from various vendors, you may experience compatibility problems right out of the box.

Andrew Garcia provided a great technical analysis in the July 24th issue of eWeek magazine. Garcia pointed out that draft versions of the equipment "may not be compatible with shipping" versions of the equipment, meaning the actual 802.11n equipment released down the road. Garcia went on to note that "users could be looking at significant upgrades or even total overhauls of the draft based gear" once the 802.11n standard becomes mainstream.

Will you experience trouble as Garcia did, or will your new equipment work without issues as was the case with Hogan's? I can't tell you. But one thing to ask yourself right now is what would be the purpose of spending money on this pre-n equipment, knowing of possible compatibility and functionality problems? If you transfer hundreds of megabytes from PC to PC on your intranet, and are willing to shell out big bucks for a new pre-n router and pre-n cards for all of your PCs (both routers and cards start above $100.00 each), you may benefit from the faster transfer times. But if the primary use of your wireless network is so that multiple PCs on your network can access the Internet, you are not going to see much difference. The fastest cable and DSL broadband connections currently top out at around 9 mbps, so whether your wireless card can connect at 54 mbps or 300 mbps, it won't make a difference to your Internet speed. Kind of like having a card that can go 180 mph vs. a car that can go 250 mph. What difference does it make when you can't really drive over 75 mph anyway? Simply put, the faster speeds of pre-n equipment is not enough to justify its high cost.

What about range? If you're having coverage issues with your wireless network, you may be considering a shift to pre-n equipment to fix that. But if you are concerned about the costs, why not take a look at existing 802.11b and 802.11g long range products which can deliver ranges as good or better than pre-n gear, yet won't break the bank and WILL work seamlessly with your existing wireless network? Shameless plug in 3-2-1...we carry the Senao NL-2511CD ext2 PCMCIA card, for example, which has two external antenna ports, which, when used with an external antenna or two, will give you phenomenal coverage. If that laptop in the far corner of your house is not getting a good signal, buying one Senao card and antenna is a lot more cost effective than upgrading every single piece of equipment on your wireless network. Plus, when the 802.11n standard is finally ratified at some point in late 2007, it will be backward compatible with B and G networks, meaning you can continue to use the Senao card. The same cannot be said about pre-n equipment for sale in stores right now.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Laptops Without PCMCIA Slots?

Since the dawn of the Pentium processor in the 1990's, virtually all laptops have come with at least one PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) slot. PCMCIA slots accept PCMCIA cards which are an easy way to add additional functionality to a laptop, such as a modem card or wireless card. Many of the laptop products we sell, such as the Orinoco and Senao brand wireless cards, are PCMCIA cards. In the past, one could almost always count on the fact that a laptop they were going to buy came with a PCMCIA slot. Any doubts could be erased by looking for a small slot or pair of slots stacked on either side of the laptop.

Recently though it has come to our attention that both Dell and Compaq have released budget laptops that no longer have a PCMCIA slot. Instead, these laptops come with a new PC card architecture called "Express card" or "Express 54". These new "pc cards" are different from PCMCIA cards in that they are thinner and they have smaller ends. However the front of an Express card slot is about the same width as the front of a PCMCIA card slot, so at first glance it would appear that these laptops do have a standard PCMCIA slot when they really don't. To make matters more confusing, manufacturers like Compaq identify this card slot in the manufacturer specs as a PCMCIA slot and only denote in parentheses that the slot is an Express card slot. It is important to remember that standard PCMCIA cards will not fit into an Express card slot. There is no adapter available that will allow you to use PCMCIA cards on a computer that does not have a standard PCMCIA slot (currently a few manufacturers have plans to make such a device but no word on how long until they hit the streets; we also heard through the grapevine that such an adapter will cost nearly $200, putting it at almost half the cost of a budget laptop alone).

If you purchase a new laptop which does not have a standard PCMCIA slot, you will not be able to use the popular wireless cards such as the Orinoco and Senao products that we sell. To make matters even worse, as of today there are no Express card wireless cards made, so you will have to settle for your laptop's internal wireless card, or a USB device. Therefore, we highly recommend that before purchasing a new laptop, you check the specs to make sure the laptop comes with at least one standard PCMCIA card slot. What once could be taken for granted as being present in almost every laptop, may no longer be.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Are All Wireless Cards Created Equal?

You have probably seen them on eBay- sellers charging $5.00 for a generic no-name 802.11b wireless PCMCIA card, charging $10.00 for shipping and claiming that the card is "just like D-Link, Netgear, Linksys" in the item title. Is this true? Are all wireless cards created equal? The short answer is no. There is usually a huge difference between most of the cheap generic cards (and routers/access points) and some of the brand name devices like Linksys. That does not mean that a generic card will be nonfunctional or useless. But there is a difference concerning the range you will receive.

Different 802.11b cards sometimes have different antennae inside of them. Many Orinoco rebranded cards, which are enterprise level cards and cost upwards of $25.00, have up to 1.5 dBi gain antennae on them and get very good range (can vary depending on the wireless router or access point used). Linksys cards also use a stronger antenna that will allow connections across an entire house and up or down several stories. Most generic cards use a low range antenna that is generally only capable of picking up a wireless signal in the same or next room as the router or access point. They can get a better range if they are in a line-of-sight to the router.

Generic cards are a good value for very short range. But if you need something a little stronger, check out our rebadged Orinoco Gold cards that come with a built-in antenna as well a a 7 dBi gain external antenna with magnetic mount. So in addition to considering the price of the card when purchasing, also be sure to determine what kind of range you need. If you are not sure, just ask us.