No computer needed

If you use a personal digital assistant, you know how convenient it is to carry a small device that provides access to a host of information when you travel or work away from the office. But wouldn't it be nice to have the same freedom of movement within the office when working on a local-area network?

The folks at Compex Inc., maker of the irdaNet iRE201 wireless infrared access point, think so.

IrdaNet is a small silver device with an infrared transducer in the front. It's about 1 inch wide by 4 inches long by 4.5 inches thick, so it can fit in very small spaces. It communicates with handheld computers via their infrared ports and can be used for direct LAN access and Internet access via the LAN, cable modem, Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) modem or a V.90 56 kilobits/sec modem.

This device is useful for environments in which workers are moving between different rooms or floors of the same building. For example, a doctor's office could have an irdaNet in each examination room so the doctor could use a handheld computer to retrieve patient records from the LAN.

An office worker could dash to meetings carrying only a handheld computer, or an information technology manager could retrieve network information at various locations when assisting users.

Quick Start

Using the device for Internet access via a LAN could not be simpler. Just connect the irdaNet to any available network port with a Registered Jack-45 network cable (not included), which holds up to eight wires, plug in the AC power cord and the device is running. LEDs on the unit indicate successful AC power and network connections.

If your handheld computer already has Web browsing software, you can connect to the Internet immediately. You do not need a subscription to a wireless carrier for Internet access because the connection is made through the LAN. In fact, your handheld computer need not have wireless capability at all.

To work on the LAN, you must first complete a synchronization process that is straightforward and only takes a few minutes.

The first step is to synchronize the handheld computer with a desktop PC using the handheld's cradle. Then select network synchronization options on both the desktop and handheld, log in to the network from the handheld, and enter the IP address and subnet mask of the workstation to which you are synchronizing.

We tested the irdaNet by connecting to the Internet via our office LAN. We had no problems connecting, and speeds were faster than when using a wireless service. Each infrared transducer emits an arc that spans 120 degrees horizontally and vertically, allowing connectivity up to approximately three to six feet away, depending on the humidity and other environmental factors.

The irdaNet features a 10/ 100 megabits/sec Fast Ethernet port for a direct LAN connection, in addition to a serial port for connecting to a modem.

One clever feature is the external infrared transducer. Less than 1 inch long, the transducer connects to the irdaNet via a cord that is about 6 feet long. It can be connected to a wall with the included Velcro strip, giving users a larger area of coverage.

Unanswered Questions

Although the device itself is easy to use, the accompanying documentation is not, and this is our biggest complaint. The main problem is that both the user manual and the quick-start guide instruct users to complete a somewhat lengthy configuration process via a proprietary Web interface before they can start to use the irdaNet.

When we spoke with a technical support representative, we were surprised to learn that the majority of irdaNet users do not need to bother with that process at all. The manual does not indicate this anywhere. We had to read through several chapters before we found the section we needed — and even then, the instructions stated that we must first complete the Web-based configuration process. We were thoroughly confused before we talked to the representative.

We would also like to see written, step-by-step setup instructions instead of a diagram. Even though the physical setup is simple, a person unfamiliar with the device might have trouble.

Aside from the manual problems, the irdaNet is an easy, convenient way to provide extended mobility and flexibility to workers who need to be mobile within the office. Users can have Internet access through their handheld computers without subscribing to a wireless service, and they can retrieve or update data on the LAN from any room containing an irdaNet device.

The device is compatible with a host of handhelds: Handspring Inc.'s Visor, handheld computers running Microsoft Corp. Windows CE, IBM Corp.'s Wordpad and notebook computers running Windows 95/98/2000.

A host of Palm Inc.-compatible software is available to take advantage of network applications. To access documents, for example, you can load software such as Aportis Technologies Corp.'s Aportis Document Converter or Dataviz Inc.'s Documents To Go. For office e-mail access, you can use packages such as Palm Mail.

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IrdaNet specifications

Compex Inc.'s irdaNet iRE201 wireless infrared access point is designed to provide mobility through the use of infrared technology for those who have access to a local-area network. It works with the following standards:

Wireless connections: IEEE Standard 802.3 10Base-T Ethernet, IEEE Standard 802.3u 100Base-TX Fast Ethernet, FCC Class B, Microsoft Corp. Windows CE 2.1 and above, Infrared Data Association standards.

Interface: 10/100 megabits/sec, Registered Jack-45 LAN port, fixed FIR port, external FIR port, Recommended Standard-232 serial port supporting external analog modem.

LAN protocols: Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, TCP/IP, Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet.

LED indicators: System power, infrared link/activity, LAN link/activity.

Data rate: 1.152 megabytes/sec, 4 megabytes/sec selection, 10/100 megabytes/sec auto negotiation.

REPORT CARD

IrdaNet iRE201

Score: B

Compex Inc.

(714) 630-7302

www.cpx.com

IrdaNet iRE201 is available through a host of retail and online stores for an estimated price of $73.

If not for the hard-to-understand user manual, irdaNet would have received an A. The device is affordable, easy to use and extremely convenient, giving office workers direct local-area network and Internet access through their personal digital assistants. Laptop users can also benefit by connecting via the computer's infrared port.

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