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Verizon and the Sierra Wireless AirCard 555:
Accessing the Internet at High Speed from Anywhere Using your iPAQ with PC Card Sleeve or Notebook
 Posted May 2002 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief
Note that some info in this review about competing products is now dated, but the information on the card itself is still quite relevant.

It's finally here in the US: 2.5G in the form of CDMA 1x high speed for both voice and data. In May 2002, Verizon rolled out this service in 23 metro regions, including most of the northeast coastal area from Maine to Virginia, the SF Bay Area, LA, San Diego, Salt Lake City, portions of Texas, most of coastal Florida and more. They're aggressively rolling out the service, so now most all major metro regions are covered. Sprint rolled out its new high speed CDMA network nationally in the 2nd half of 2002, so Sprint users, check out our review of the 2031 CF card for Pocket PCs and notebooks! Note that Verizon Wireless will be switching to a new card that supports both 1xRTT and their new wireless broadband service where available.

You'll get a CD with drivers and an Acrobat manual for WinCE / Pocket PC and notebook PCs, a quick start guide, the AirCard, removable antenna, antenna extension cable in the box.

 

What is CDMA2000?

What the heck is CDMA2000 (otherwise known as 2.5G or 1xRTT)? Most cell phone providers in the US run this service over CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Verizon and Sprint are examples of these carriers.

The next generation network technology for CDMA networks is CDMA2000, which allows more users to connect to a cell tower than did CDMA and at a much higher speed (14.4k max vs. 144k max). If you've read about 3G (standing for 3rd generation cellular transmission technology), then 2.5G is the incremental step on the way. CDMA2000, 2.5G for CDMA carriers, is cheaper and easier to implement than 3G because providers can upgrade existing towers and networking hardware without too much cost or fuss. 3G will require a good deal of infrastructure replacement, so we likely won't see the techology in the US in less than several more years.

CDMA is the rough equivalent in terms of speed to GPRS, which is the GSM network's version of 2.5G. However, in the US relatively few carriers use GSM (those that do include Cingular, VoiceStream and AT&T). And none of these carriers has rolled out a significant GPRS network yet. Europe and parts of Asia are mostly GSM, and there users are already enjoying GPRS. For those of you who are CSM/GPRS customers, the Sierra Wireless AirCard 750 is the comparable card to the AirCard 555 for you service.

 

 

 

 

 

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High Speed Network and your Pocket PC

OK, so what does all this mean to you? There've been a bunch of Pocket PC Phone Edition PDAs announced recently, and while some of them will come out in Europe first running GPRS, others in the US will run or are running CDMA2000.

If you buy one of these new cell phone + PDA combos in the US, Canada or Mexico, you'll likely be using this new network assuming you're in a covered area. If not, the devices can fall back and use the very pervasive Quick2Net (qnc) connection that runs at 14.4 for data.

Sierra AirCard 555 comes both as a PC Card and Embedded in Pocket PCs with Phone

The new AirCard 555 and the Audiovox Thera Pocket PC+phone are the first two CDMA2000 devices to market. The Thera has fairly standard Pocket PC 2002 specs and includes an embedded AirCard 555 which allows it to also function as a cell phone and Internet lovin' PDA. The Thera is best used with a headset, as the speaker phone is loud enough to share your conversation with everyone else in the room. It will keep your cellular connection live even when the PDA is turned off, and give you about 6 hours standby time and 1 hour of talk time (not great).

I tested the AirCard 555 in an iPAQ 3835 wearing a PC card expansion sleeve. Casio has announced support for this card for the E-200 when used with their PC card sleeve, and I see no reason why it shouldn't work with the HP Jornada 560 series and their PC card sleeve along with the Jornada 720 Handheld PC 2000. Drivers for Pocket PC 2002 PDAs, the iPAQ running Pocket PC 2000 and the Jornada 720 are in the box. Drivers for older devices using processors other than ARM are supposed to be forthcoming. You'll also get drivers to use with your Wintel noteook (Win95/98, ME, NT4, 2000 and XP).

Why Choose the PC Card Over a Pocket PC Phone?

Why did I go this route rather than a Thera? My intent, if all went well, was to use this as my new wireless anywhere solution (this was not a loaner review unit). I already use my iPAQ 3835 as my main PDA and have sleeves. The $299 card didn't hurt my wallet nearly as much as the Thera which costs $799 (with activation). I had no desire to replace my beloved iPAQ. While I love Pocket PCs, they are not the most stable PDAs, prone to occasional crashes and odd behaviors. I can live with these mostly minor inconveniences in a PDA, I cannot have a cell phone that crashes or goes bonkers. And I need longer standby and talk times than the Thera offers. So, I went with wireless data on my iPAQ (with occasional phone use) and my trusty separate cell phone.

You Palm OS Smartphone users many be giggling just about now. Yes, Palm OS is generally more stable, so if you're looking for a convergence device, do also consider the Kyocera 7135 offered by Verizon and the Samsung i330 offered by Sprint PCS. However, none of these Palm OS smartphones have high res screens, so if you want to do serious surfing, the small screen size may not ring your bell.

Does it Work?

Yes! The speed is impressive relative to other wireless techologies (Earthlink/Omnisky wireless runs at 19.2k and standard cell phone connections at 14.4k). I consistantly get 60 to 70k, which is faster than using a CF modem. Somehow it feels considerably faster. On a notebook, you'll use Sierra's compression software which will make you think you're connected via DSL (no, not kidding). Until the Ricochet Network is revived later this year, not much else can touch it. And it's hard to say how many metro areas the revived Ricochet network will cover.

Software and Drivers that won't Drive you Crazy

While networking can be a little tempermental with Pocket PCs, the Watcher software and driver are some of the most hassle free and turn-key I've seen. It behaves better than my WiFi / 802.11b cards. The included CD contains drivers for all platforms (though you may want to download the latest versions from Sierra Wireless' website). Simply run the installer, press the soft reset button on your PDA and you're in business. An icon called AirCard 555 is installed in your programs group, and once you insert your card and run the app, it'll stay resident on your task bar. The taskbar icon tells you whether you're currently connected, and you can click on it to maximize the Watcher program.

Always On and Yes, your PDA will Ring if Someone Calls You

Phone Functionality

The AirCard's main purpose in life is not to turn your PDA into a cell phone, but rather into a wireless Internet machine. While CDMA2000 is an "always on" technology, much like your cell phone that's always connected to the nearest cell tower and is ready to ring whenever someone calls you, with Watcher, you must click the "Connect" button to connect to the Express Network. Once you've done so, your PDA will "ring" (really!) if you have an incoming voice or fax call, even if you've disconnected from the Network. If you soft reset your PDA, you'll have to launch the AirCard 555 program again to bring back this feature. Don't worry, you aren't being charged while your AirCard and PDA are listening for calls, it's a resident program that queries the "always on" network just as your cell phone does when it checks to see every few seconds if you have a call or new voicemail.

If you want to use your PDA for voice calls, you'll have to plug in a headset (any standard 2.5mm cell phone headset should do). There's a jack for the headset at the top of the AirCard. It works: the voice quality is decent and you'll use the on-screen keypad to dial your calls. There's an icon on screen to call up your Contacts from the built-in Pocket PC contacts list (the UI is somewhat different from the built-in contacts app) and a scratch pad where you can take notes while in a call (see bottom image above). However, it obviously isn't as convenient as a standard cell phone: you must make sure Watcher is resident, and have a handset you can quickly plug in should your PDA ring. The Audiovox Thera does not require the use of a headset and runs Watcher at all times, so it's a better bet if you want something closer to full cell phone functionality.

AirCard 555 Watcher screen

Above: The Watcher screen used for data connections.

Right: Phone dialer screen. You change between these two screens by tapping the tabs at the screen's bottom.

AirCard 555 Phone Dialer screen

On screen, as you can see in the screen shot above, Watcher incorporates a little green window that emulates a cell phone screen. It tells you signal strength, whether you're connected in a data or voice call, whether you're roaming, and if you're in range of a 1xRTT high speed tower, if you have voice mail or SMS messages (yes it supports send and receive of text messages). Excellent use interface-- anyone who's used a cell phone will feel at home here! You'll also get a call log which surprisingly tells you just about everything except call duration. Hopefully it will appear in a future version of the Watcher call log.

Internet Access

But you want data and the Internet, right? Toggle to the data screen using the tabs at the bottom of Watcher's screen to connect to your choice of the Express Network (high speed) Quick2Connect, aka the old and pervasive "qnc" CDMA 14.4k digital network or to your ISP at 14.4k (see the top image, above). You can set the default connection method and never worry about selecting a network again. Press the Connect button, wait about 8 seconds and you're connected to the Express Network at high speed. Connecting to qnc takes about the same amount of time, while dialing an ISP takes about as long as if you were dialing using your PC or a Pocket PC with a CF modem. If you're using the Express Network or qnc, you' won't have worries about futzing around with network settings or DHCP, the software takes care of it for you in a seamless fashion. If you wish to set up a connection to your ISP, you'll do so using Watcher, and the connection will appear along with any other dialup connections you've created in your network settings Pocket PC control panel applet.

Billing for connect time to the Express Network is supposed to be more accurate than with CDMA 1st generation cell phones and data devices. The system is able to caculate how much time you've really spent connected, rather than counting connect time from the 6th ring and always rounding up. So far, I find my billed minutes to be less than when connecting with older CDMA network cards and phones.

Conclusion

Pro: Yes! Now that you can get high speed access that feels fast starting at only $35/month for 150 minutes with no roaming and free domestic long distance. With speeds fast enough that you won't be obsessing on how may minutes your Internet session just ate up, you may be pleased at how few minutes you actually use. The unlimited plan arrived in June 2002, so for you heavy users, you can get unlimited data access minutes for $79/month (you will pay .69/minute for voice calls, however with the unlimited plan). It doubles as a backup cell phone that has a National Single rate calling plan. Software and driver are very robust and user-friendly.

Con: I would still love to see prices fall into the consumer mainstream. We need $50/month and unlimited data minutes! The Watcher call log doesn't keep track of call durations, so you'll be worrying how many minutes you've used. You must use a headset if you want to use your PDA for voice calls. You have to be in an Express Network (CDMA2000) area to take advantage of high speed Internet access. No Mac notebook drivers.

 

Specs:

Display: Transflective TFT color LCD, 64K colors, Screen Size Diag: 3.5", Resolution: 240 x 320.

Battery: Lithium Ion Polymer rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. 1000 mA. 1800 mA extended battery available for purchase.

Performance: Intel XScale PXA 255 400 MHz processor. 64 MB built-in RAM (55 megs available). 32 MB Flash ROM with 2.85 megs available in File Store for your use.

Size: 4.47 x 2.78 x .53 in. Weight: 4.67 oz.

Audio: Built in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player 9 included for your MP3 pleasure.

Networking: Integrated WiFi 802.11b (also supporting LEAP) and Bluetooth.

Software: Pocket PC 2003 Premium operating system (aka Windows Mobile 2003). Microsoft Pocket Office suite including Pocket Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook. Also, Terminal Services, MSN Instant Messenger for Pocket PC, MS Reader and Voice Recorder as well as handwriting recognition. 3rd party software: Westtek ClearVue Suite, F-Secure FileCrypto Data Encryption, Colligo Personal Edition, Adobe PDF Viewer, RealOne Player for Pocket PC, iPresenter PowerPoint converter, MobiMate WorldMate. ActiveSync 3.7 and Outlook 2002 for PCs included.

Expansion: 1 SD (Secure Digital) slot, 4 bit data bus, supporting SDIO and SDIO Now!. Can NOT use iPAQ expansion sleeves.

 

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