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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Above: The Watcher screen used for
Right: Phone dialer screen. You change
between these two screens by tapping the tabs at the screen's bottom.
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.
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
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.
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.
TFT color LCD, 64K colors, Screen Size Diag: 3.5",
Resolution: 240 x 320.
Ion Polymer rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
1000 mA. 1800 mA extended battery available for purchase.
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.
x 2.78 x .53 in. Weight: 4.67 oz.
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player
9 included for your MP3 pleasure.
WiFi 802.11b (also supporting LEAP) and Bluetooth.
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.
SD (Secure Digital) slot, 4 bit data bus, supporting
SDIO and SDIO Now!. Can NOT use iPAQ expansion