Taking the line out of 'online'

If your department has remote users who need to connect to the Internet

or your local-area network but aren't always in a location where a telephone

jack is available, you'll want to take a look at the AirCard 300 by Sierra

Wireless Inc.

The AirCard 300 is a network interface card for laptop and handheld

computers that allows users to go online via a wireless cellular network.

The card works on systems that support Type II PC Cards and that use Microsoft

Corp.'s Windows 95, 98, NT or CE operating systems.

Before it can be used, the AirCard 300 requires you to sign up for service

with a wireless cellular provider that uses Cellular Digital Packet Data

(CDPD) networking technology, which is fairly common.

Once service is in place, the AirCard 300 is capable of transmitting

data via the cellular network at about 19 kilobits/sec. That means you will

have to wait a little longer than at your desktop for Web pages to appear

or e-mail to be sent. We did encounter downtime when waiting for pages with

lots of graphics to download.

If a relatively slow connection isn't a deal-killer — and remember that

those transmission rates are a result of CDPD service, not the AirCard — you'll find the product flexible and easy to use. During testing, the AirCard

performed flawlessly. When we were done with a session, we left the card

in the computer and carried it with us. All we had to do at our next location

was boot up the computer, attach the antenna, and launch our Web browser

to begin working on the Internet again.

With just a few changes in Windows configuration files, systems administrators

can configure the AirCard to connect to a LAN instead of the Internet. Administrators

and security-conscious users will be glad to know that CDPD networks use

RSA public-key encryption, the same type of encryption used for many e-commerce

transactions.

The AirCard 300 is small and light, consisting only of a standard PC

Card and an extendible antenna that plugs into the end of the card. Even

when extended, the antenna rises only four inches and remains conveniently

out of the way if you are typing or need to close your laptop or handheld

device. But be careful — the antenna is slightly fragile when it is extended.

AirCard 300 installs with additional software that enables users to

monitor connections and trouble-shoot problems that may occur, such as interruptions

in cellular service. The AirCard Watcher and ToolKit assisted us in diagnosing

minor troubles we encountered after installation. (Again, these difficulties

were all CDPD service-related and were not problems with the AirCard or

its software.)

Aside from slower download times, the other noticeable drawback to the

AirCard was its slight penchant for draining battery power. We disconnected

our laptop AC power supply and actively surfed the Internet using a fully

charged battery. The battery life decreased faster than it would have under

normal conditions.

The situation is even worse for users of smaller handheld PCs running

Windows CE. The batteries in those devices take a much bigger hit from add-on

devices such as the AirCard than do the more powerful batteries in laptop

computers.

In AirCard's defense, Sierra Wireless does incorporate some advanced

power-management techniques to minimize battery drain. For example, the

card enters a sleep mode that draws less power if you are not actively using

it for a period of time. Additionally, there is an optional power pack available

that provides 16 hours of AirCard power for handheld PC users.

Overall, the AirCard 300 is a quality product that is worth a look for agencies

that need to mobilize their users but need them to remain connected to the

Internet or a LAN.

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