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Access Points:

D-Link Pocket Router/AP

WiFlyer

Palm OS:

Enfora Wireless Portfolio

PalmOne SD WiFi Card for the Tungsten T5, Tungsten T3, Tungsten E2 and Zire 72

SanDisk SD WiFi Card (Zire 71 only)

Sony WL100 WiFi CF Card for Clié

Windows Mobile, Pocket PC:

AmbiCom WL1100C type I CF card

Belkin type II CF card

D-Link 650W type II CF card

Linksys WCF12 type I card

Linksys WCF11 type II CF card

Mobis Just Mobile 802.11b/g SD card

SanDisk SD WiFi Card

SanDisk SD WiFi Card + 256 megs RAM

SanDisk Connect Plus CF WiFi + 128MB memory

SMC 2642W type II CF card

Socket P300 Go WiFi! SD card

Socket Communications LAN type I CF card

Socket SDIO WiFi Card

Spectec miniSD WiFi Card new!

 

WiFi (802.11b) Networking for your PDA

Enfora 802.11b Wireless Portfolio for Palm PDAs
Posted April 2005 by Tanker Bob

Palm OS device users have long grown accustomed to having virtually full Microsoft Office document compatibility on the road, image manipulation, music enjoyment, and a great deal else. Until recently, though, we’ve been living with dial-up connections to the Internet, though, either through modems or cell phones acting as modems. A few solutions to networking on the road have appeared in the form of SDIO cards from SanDisk and PalmOne. Now wel'll take a gander at a particular interesting solution—Enfora’s 802.11b Wireless Portfolio.

Enfora Wireless Portfolio for T3

Who are these folks?

Enfora boasts an extensive background in wireless technology. Their products span the spectrum from GSM/GPRS to CDPD to 802.11. Enfora’s partnership with Texas Instruments has borne fruit across the product range. The company web site vaunts their concentration of technical expertise—including an average of 20-years’ experience in wireless engineering across its senior technical engineers. This distinguished pedigree whetted our appetite for this review.

How DO we do it?

We tested the wireless portfolio with a Palm Tungsten T3 that uses Lubak’s Fonts4OS5 and Alexander Pruss’ FontSmoother with Lubak’s anti-aliased ComicSans font. Network connectivity occurred through a Linksys WRT54G Wireless Router to a Windows XP Pro SP2 desktop. The Internet was accessed through the same router, as well as a number of free public sites in hotels and restaurants.

Bottom Line Up Front

Here’s the short story—Enfora’s portfolio is definitely road warrior material! Its genius lies in three key advantages: 1) the portfolio has its own battery so doesn't need to tap the PDA for power; 2) when plugged in to AC power, the portfolio passes power through to the PDA to charge your handheld; and 3) while surfing the Internet or accessing your network, you have full access to all your PDA’s features, including/especially your SD card. SDIO card solutions fall short on all three of these counts, except in the Palm Tungsten T|5 on the last item because it has an internal drive that acts as an internal memory card.

Enfora Wireless Portfolio closed

It looks like a case because it is!

 

The Soft Side – Enfora WiFi Manager

 

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The Enfora WiFi Manager software takes care of all the connection details. The small 61K application simply Hotsyncs to your handheld. Upon opening, it shows the currently selected network connection. Initially there won’t be one, of course, but after setting up connections the screen provides the status of the current connection including signal strength and the battery status. The status line will move from AP Disconnected to Connection Pending to Associated. Upon reaching Associated, the top LED on the radio will turn green and you may connect to your access point.

Bringing up the menu offers a number of useful choices. Network Information lists the current IP address and subnet mask of the connection or association, access point name and MAC address, DNS addresses, router IP, and radio channel once the portfolio becomes associated with an access point. Device Information provides the device name, firmware version, radio version, portfolio serial number and MAC address, and power save status. It also provides a soft button to restore the system defaults in case of problems. The Power Save status can be changed from this dialog.

 

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The Profile Settings menu selection brings up a like-named screen that lists all currently stored profiles. Tapping on the Scan button starts a search for discoverable sites in range. This takes a minute or so, but seems thorough. When the search completes, simply select the network of interest and tap Add at the top. You may also change the settings of an existing network or delete nets from the list. The Manager can store four profiles.

 

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Upon tapping Add or Update, the manager presents a list of settings that may be chosen for the selected connection. If the network was just discovered, you must give it a profile name on the top line. The network Service Set ID (SSID) will appear on the second line. Most free public access points will not have security enabled, so you may usually leave that box unchecked while out on the town or on the road. The settings shown in the screenshot above will be the usual settings required for a public hook-up, except that a name must be entered for the profile.

 

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For home or corporate networks, encryption will usually be enabled. Enfora’s WiFi Manager support WEP (Wired Equivalence Privacy) encryption with 40/64-bit and 128-bit flavors. The manager will store up to four keys for each encryption level, and the keys may be hex or ASCII. The encryption settings must match those of the router or access point exactly. Although inputting 128-bit keys can be tedious, Tanker Bob recommends using the highest level of encryption possible to protect your network and data. 128-bit encryption will theoretically be slower performing than 64-bit or no encryption, but I found no difference on the 400 MH z T3.

Although the Manager supports Infrastructure (using access points/wireless routers) and AdHoc (peer-to-peer) modes, Infrastructure should be the architecture of choice for most users. Accompanying PDF manuals on the CD describe connection setups step by step for WiFi Hotsyncing and AdHoc support very c learly. Strong hint: If you intend to Hotsync over WiFi, be sure to set the Primary PC Name to “!!” without the quotes under Hotsync’s Primary PC Setup menu item. Wifi Hotsync through the portfolio isn’t nearly as fast as through the USB cradle, but it does work.

The Advanced button at the bottom of Network Settings takes you to a screen that allows the user to set a static IP and DNS server, though these should usually be left to the default automatic discovery. One note: If you choose to set a static IP, you must also set a DNS server.

 

screen shot

 

At the bottom of the Advanced Network screen is a More button. Tapping it takes you to some more technical settings. Except for the Preamble, these should generally be left alone. The defaults match most router and access point default settings. The default Preamble setting comes set to Long, but I found that this should sometimes be set to Short to get reliable connections. If for some reason you don’t get a quick connection on initial setup and your WEP keys recheck as good, try setting Preamble to Short.

Hardware Easy on the Eyes

The Enfora Portfolio comes in an attractive black mesh and leather design, with most of the interior being leather as well. The high quality stitching and excellent general construction make it at home in any environment, including business use. It zips open/closed, opening like a book with the PDA on the right side and the radio, four credit card holders, and two SD card holders on the left. These features give the portfolio a handy wallet-like function in addition to its WiFi functionality.

This particular Wireless Portfolio supports all PalmOne PDAs with the Palm Universal Connector. The PDA goes in the portfolio at about a 20 degree angle to the hori zontal in order to engage the connector. As is standard for the Palm connector even in the cradle, the PDA can rock in the connector causing disconnects. To help stabili ze the Palm, Enfora provides a pair of Velcro-like dots (one is a backup) with adhesive on their backs to stick to your PDA. The dots then press into a similar pattern on the inside of the case, holding the handheld against movement. The dots have a wavy pattern that matches the backing in the case. Pressing the dot into that wavy pattern holds it in place. The system only requires one dot, but Enfora provides the other as a spare.

My recommendation for best results is to push the dot firmly into the backing in the case in a location roughly where you want it to end up on the back of the PDA, then expose the adhesive on the back of the dot. Carefully place your PDA correctly on the connector and then press it back against the dot. If the portfolio won’t be your primary case, you might want to check the spacing in your usual case to ensure the PDA will still fit with the dot on its back.

The radio has two LEDs on a panel that runs vertically along the center of the left-inside of the case. The bottom LED serves both as a power-on and charging indication. The power-on button sits on the inside of the radio spine just above the bottom LED and is recessed to prevent inadvertent powering of the radio. The top LED flashes amber while connecting to an access point, then steady green when associated with a network. After being connected to a net, the top LED flashes during data transfer. The charger connects at the bottom center under the power LED, making it possible to zip the portfolio almost closed while plugged in.

In the Wild

The Enfora Wireless Portfolio’s operation proved incredibly simple. Reliable connection to the Linksys router characteri zed its performance at all encryption settings. It reliably found discoverable WiFi access points on the road. The portfolio no-kidding saved my bacon in one instance during testing. I had it with me during a business meeting in a hotel when I needed immediate answers to a question that I knew I could find on the Internet. I fired up the portfolio, searched for and found the hotel’s free WiFi connection, gave it a name, and jumped on the net in less than a minute. Sweet!

Theoretically, 802.11b handles transfer rates up to 11 Mbits/sec. PalmOne’s USB Universal Connector can theoretically transfer data at 12 Mbps—ostensibly a good match for 802.11b capability. I tested the Enfora with McAfee’s Speedometer using WebProV 3.5. On an average of ten runs over a 4Mbps cable modem connection, the portfolio came in at 350 Kbits/sec (43.7 Kbytes/sec)—very impressive. However, when transferring files locally over WiFi links, including WiFi Hotsync, and even downloading from the web, the numbers came in more like 68 Kbits/sec (8.5 Kbytes/sec). I assume that’s because Palm’s Connection Manager offers serial connections natively. I attempted to reconcile the two sets of test results, but I certainly can’t argue with the file transfer tests where I could control the test entirely. After testing with other handheld and desktop connections, I believe the Speedometer result to be erroneous with most handheld browsers and prefer direct file transfer and download results for accuracy. While 68 Kbits/sec is not even close to WiFi speed, this proved adequate for mobile-oriented sites and far superior to cell phone surfing.

Critical to a T3 owner, the Enfora portfolio had no negative effect on the PDA’s battery. I could surf the Internet or work on my network for as long as the T3’s battery normally lasts, checking my email over WiFi and downloading attachments to my SD card. Even better, when plugged into AC power, I could charge my T3 while doing the same. So, I only needed to take one charger with me on trips. Beauteous! Enfora rates the LiIon battery at 8 hours of normal operation, far longer than any color PDA currently on the market. I found no reason to doubt that rating during testing.

Long-range Thinking

The portfolio’s antenna being outside of the PDA and separated from the PDA’s electronics offers the opportunity for improved reception. Enfora claims this advantage and my experience bears that out. I enjoyed strong reception on the opposite side of the house and up a floor. In fact, I connected to the router from the street in front of my neighbor’s house. While I don’t live in a Graceland look-alike, I easily validated Enfora’s claim of 150 foot range outdoors—even from my basement office!

Measuring up

So what’s the downside? Well, the portfolio is not small, measuring in at 6” long, 4” wide, and 2” deep. It’s not shirt-pocket eligible, and in fact barely fits in my front pants pocket. The issue isn’t the length so much as the thickness. It travels best in a coat pocket, briefcase, or a medium to large purse. It only weights 9 ounces, so it isn’t heavy. On the plus side, the portfolio protects the handheld and radio very well. The inside face with the card slots presses on the PDA when the case is closed, so you’ll need to use Keylock on the T3 or a utility that disables the buttons’ ability to power-on the handheld. The leather spine will probably stretch with use, lessening the pressure on the PDA when closed.

Then there’s the data transfer rate. Card-based WiFi solutions suck battery power like cra zy, but the PalmOne SDIO card can deliver data transfer rates around 133 KBytes/sec in a T3. Enfora doesn’t seem to have tapped the T3’s connector’s USB capability, instead settling for serial transfer speeds. A driver or firmware upgrade may be able to tap the USB capability, but I didn’t find any indication that such an upgrade might be on the hori zon. All that said, I found surfing or keeping up with email a p leasant experience with the portfolio.

And So…

Overall, I grew quite fond of the Enfora 802.11b Wireless Portfolio. By bringing its own battery to the party, providing pass-through charging to the handheld, and freeing up the SD slot for email attachments and net downloads, Enfora offers a strong WiFi alternative for Palm OS devices. Teamed with Enfora’s portfolio, my Tungsten T|3 definitely replaces a laptop on business trips. The tradeoff here comes down to preserving battery life and card operation vs. slower WiFi-delivered data transfer rates.

The portfolio retails at $149, and is compatible with OS 4 and OS 5 Palms with the Palm Universal Connector. Other models interface with m-series Palms, mini-USB connector-endowed Tungsten E, and sleds for the Treo 600 and Treo 650 will be re leased soon. Enfora has well-answered the Palm community’s p lea for WiFi connectivity while preserving our batteries and SD card slots. Bravo!

Pros:

Self-powered
Long battery life
Pass-through charging of the handheld in the case
Simple, reliable operation
Excellent radio sensitivity
Attractive leather/weave case w/SD and credit card carry
Clever, simple PDA stabilization in the case

Cons:

Too large for standard pocket carry
No WPA or shared key support (yet)
Essentially serial transfer rate through the Palm connector

Web Site: www.enfora.com

Price: $149

The Palm Universal Connector model reviewed here is compatible with several Palm and palmOne brand models such as the Tungsten T3, T5, Palm m125, m130, m500, m505 and m515). A mini-USB connector Portfolio is available for Tungsten E as well.

 

 

Deals and Shopping!

For palmOne models with the Palm Universal Connector

 

 

 

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Want to learn more about WiFi? Read our Primer.

 

 

 

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