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Wireless How To

Client-side Helpers - Portables

In my tests of many 802.11b PC Card wireless client adapters, I've found little to differentiate the performance of one from another - aside from WEP-enabled throughput loss in older designs.

The reason for this is simple: the antenna in most 802.11b PC cards is awful! I'll describe just how awful later, but for now, I'll just say that investigating the following alternatives might be a quick way to enhance your wireless laptop's performance:

  • Go dual band Although it may seem a contradiction to what I just said, I have found a clearly better 802.11b PC card client in the form of any Atheros-based dual-band CardBus card. Maybe you don't need the 802.11a aspect of the card, but pop one of these babies into your laptop and you should see a significant difference in 802.11b performance vs. range due to its superior radio and antenna design.

    Note that the improvement holds for both the older dual (a/b) and newer tri (a/b/g) mode cards. Check out my reviews of the NETGEAR WAB501 dual-mode, or WAG511 tri-mode cards for more details and performance data. Other models that should offer equivalent performance are the Linksys WPC51AB and ORiNOCO Silver and Gold Dual-Band cards.

  • XWing marks the spot

    Asante's AL1511 AeroLAN XWingAsante's AL1511 AeroLAN XWing Wireless PC Card uses an effective antenna design that's so simple you wonder why someone else didn't come up with it sooner. My testing found significant, measurable improvement with the antennas in their unfolded vertical position.

  • Switch to USBLinksys WUSB12 Wireless Compact USB Adapter
    Huh? Why would you want to switch to an adapter type that has such a bad reputation for slow performance and has to dangle on the end of a cable? Once again, the difference is in the antenna. The newer class of small USB adapters such as the Linksys WUSB12 can plug directly into your notebook's USB port and also sports a flip-up antenna.

    I've even seen larger adapters like NETGEAR's MA101 or Velcroed to the back of a notebook's screen, again to take advantage of the adapter's superior antenna.

  • Go built-in

    Although not the cheapest way to fix a flaky laptop connection, switching to a notebook that has integrated wireless capability should help boost your performance. The reason, again, is better antennas - usually built into the laptop's screen with vertical orientation, too.

  • Yes they do exist!
    Although hard to find, there are PC card adapters that directly accept connection of higher-gain antennas. The ORiNOCO Gold card sports a proprietary miniature connector in addition to its built-in stripline antenna. While convenient because it can also operate with its built-in stripline antenna, there aren't any little antennas available that just snap onto the card.

    ZoomAir 4103Zoom's ZoomAir Model 4103 is a little easier to deal with, given its robust RP-SMA connector which accepts a little dipole "whip" antenna that comes with the card.

But since all wireless clients don't have to move around, I'll next look at some alternatives for desktop machines.

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