GPRS access for Windows laptops

Sierra Wireless Aircard 750

Review The Sierra Wireless Aircard 750 is a PC Card which gives a Windows laptop computer GPRS access. It is not alone. There are a number of competing cards—a flip through the advertisements in What Mobile will reveal four cards.

So for £299 plus VAT it's up against the Globetrotter from Option International, the D211 from Nokia, Sony Ericsson’s GC75, and the Novatel Merlin G201. Xircom has also announced one but it’s touch and go whether it ships, after a takeover. Alternatively, you could look at older devices without GPRS: the Nokia Cardphone 2 and the £99 Ubinetics card.

The Aircard 750 is a standard type II PCMCIA card. The antenna plugs on the end and is jointed in two directions so that if you bang a hand against it—which you do a lot on a small notebook —the antenna just moves without being damaged. The SIM card pushes right in. There is a button on the top to remove it.

Although its technology features are much the same as other cards, with an always-on GPRS connection, PC card form factor and power-saving, it scores very highly on the ease of use front. Mobile data has been the coming thing for ten years but has never got round to arriving, mostly because of the configuration nightmare. If you exclude text messaging it’s small beer compared to voice, at around two per cent of traffic. That’s still a 20-fold increase in the last three years and it is predicted to grow to six per cent in the next four.

Hence seamlessness is seen as the key to cracking mobile data, and it’s here that the Sierra Wireless Aircard 750 scores very highly. There is support for a full range of flavours of Windows including ME and XP. General lack of support for XP can be a problem, as can the new Windows’ habit of trying to do anything for you. Windows is happy installing products which it recognises but when something new comes along it can guess at what driver to load and spiral into a mire of incompatibility. The best solution is for the card manufacturer to get the drivers included with Windows, but that is politically difficult.

The second best solution, the one adopted by Sierra Wireless, is to make sure you install the bits in the right order. This means NOT putting the card in the laptop first, but putting the CD in. For this review I used a Sony PCG-SRX41P, which was chosen with a view to reviewing things for What Mobile as it has both 802.11 and Bluetooth built in. What it doesn't have is a CD-ROM drive, that connects using a PC card adaptor. Which is fine, unless you want to connect another PC card and install the drivers from CD. Deviating from the install instructions for a device is always a little dangerous. Like finding a worm in an apple, it's worse to have half a driver installed than the whole wrong one. Hoping that Sierra Wireless had got the install process right I copied the CD to the hard drive and installed from the CD until the need to put the Aircard in. Then at the reboot I unplugged the drive put in the card and hoped Windows would find the right drivers. It turns out that Sierra Wireless know their stuff and it all worked wonderfully. Not just the install but the simple prompts to use GPRS connections. Getting the What Mobile home page up over Orange GPRS took 20 minutes from shrinkwrap to final punch of the air. The first time I configured a PC card in a Compaq iPAQ for wireless data it took me six weeks.

The install process installs a standard modem driver and a Network Interface Card driver. This last driver is what makes the Aircard very special. The usual way to get a mobile device onto the Internet is to install a modem driver and then configure dial-up networking. Lots of toggling through menus in Windows Control panel, typing in IP addresses and phone numbers. This is why tech support admin people go on courses and take exams. In my day they just read computer magazines.

Even if you know what you are doing it’s complex, and if you get something wrong the error messages are irritatingly uninformative. You can do all this with the Aircard 750, and if you are out of GPRS coverage you will have to do so, but for simple mobile coverage using GPRS the Aircard is dead simple to configure. It comes with a program called ‘Watcher’ which takes care of putting all the settings in the right place for you. If you have a number of SIMs you can set up profiles for different connection settings.

In use with both O2 and Orange SIMs it worked just as you would expect. Good, reliable GPRS access. The speed is much like that of using a dial-up connection. The Aircard 750 is class 12 GPRS, the fastest we've seen. GPRS uses the timeslots usually allocated for voice channels to send data. Each frequency can handle eight channels either eight separate voice channels or slots, or combine them for greater data speeds. The speed of a slot can be set by the network, balancing speed against reliability. In practice this translates to 13kbps. So a four slot device will do 52kbps.

The class refers to the number of slots used. Class four is three slots receive and one to send. Class six is the same as four or two slots in each direction. Class eight is one up, four down, and is what is found on most phones, class 10 is 2 up and four down. Class 12 is four up and four down, but only five slots active at any one time (so 1+4, 4+1, 3+2 or 2+3). The ability to send quickly is great if you are a photographer who wants to send pictures to a newspaper.

Unfortunately the networks are a bit huffy about letting you know just how well their hardware is performing and so there is no easy way to find out what kind of connection you have. There are some extended programming commands that let you specify the quality of service (QoS), a kind of way of asking politely for the number of slots you want. But like a kid at teatime, ask for too much and you get nothing. The supplied software doesn’t tell you how many slots are being used.

The greediness extends to power and using four slots to upload exceeds the PC card specification by so much it is unlikely that many laptops will be able to cope with the need to supply half as much power again as the PC card specification usually allows for. But that's OK, none of the networks can really cope with four slots up either.

That said, in use the card felt very quick. In tests we got a sensible 40kbps download on Orange and O2, and would undoubtedly have done so on Vodafone as well if time hadn’t run out, as Vodafone has the best compression technology for talking to Windows devices and it is Vodafone which is keenest to promote the Aircard 750. Officially T-Mobile hasn't launched a GPRS service—although it's been reported as quick and has to be in place for MMS.

The card has a headphone socket which can allow you to make voice calls but this is disabled on UK models. The 'Watcher' software tells you that you have a connection and the signal strength, but does not integrate with Outlook or any other contacts. This is a shame, particularly on the Pocket PC where you might well want to send text messages to the people whose details are already in the device.

A different solution is to use a phone as a GPRS modem. You can do this the hard way (getting Bluetooth to work, then configuring everything) or the easy way and find some software that does it all for you. Elex Business Systems in Northolt sells a collection of cables and driver programs for using phones. We looked at the USB cable for the Motorola v60 phone (they also have cables for Ericsson, Siemens and other phones).

With the v60 you get one slot down and four up. The cable connection works well and charges the phone. However, since the phone has its own battery, this option is going to drain the notebook less. The install instructions are fine, but there is no network card emulation. Elex is on 0208 8423777.

For Sierra Wireless the toughest part of selling the Aircard 750 will be that it doesn't say Nokia on the box. But word of mouth will do the job once people try it. With luck the Class 12 designation will be enough to get it that far.

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