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Wireless Wide Area Networking Via Cellular Providers: Sprint CF2031 Compact Flash Card with PC Card Adapter
  - Posted May 2003 by Lisa Gade., Editor in Chief

The CF2031 Compact Flash card from Sprint PCS is a combined data/voice card running on Sprint's US 2.5G high speed cellular network (also known as CDMA 2000 and CDMA 1xRTT). Sprint has most major metro regions covered with this high speed service, and they're still expanding their network. What makes the Sprint card so cool? It's a CF type II card that works with Pocket PCs that have a CF type II slot (Dell Axim, Toshiba e740 and e750, and iPAQ with a CF sleeve). It also comes with an adapter so that you can use the card in your Windows notebook PC. Sprint has the edge on Verizon, the other major US CDMA mobile phone service provider, since Verizon only sells PCMCIA cards like the AirCard 555 which work with Windows notebooks and the iPAQs using the PC Card Sleeve.

What is PCS Vision?

What the heck is PCS Vision? It's Sprint's name for their high speed CDMA 2000 wireless cellular network. Most mobile phone service 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 technology in the US in less than several more years.

PCS Vision is the rough equivalent in terms of speed to GPRS, which is the GSM network's version of 2.5G. However, CDMA 2000 speeds (Sprint's PCS Vision and Verizon's Express Network) get about 50 - 60k speeds, while GPRS gets 40k.


What's in the Box

You'll get a driver CD for Pocket PCs and Windows notebooks. There are drivers for Windows 98SE, ME, 2000 and XP (no Mac or Linux). There is no manual on the CD. Instead the installer has a link to the manual on Sprint's site, but that link was broken. I was able to find the manual by perusing the help section of the web site. Of course you get the CF card itself, which has a 1" extendable antenna that rests flush with the card when retracted (see the black nub on the right side of the unit in the picture to the right). I never had to extend the antenna to get a strong signal. The card has a standard mobile phone 2.5mm headset jack on the top edge, and you must use a headset if you wish to make voice calls. You'll also get a CF to PCMCIA adapter so you can use the card in a notebook with a type II PCMCIA slot. There's a battery pack that attaches to the head of the card when using it with a Pocket PC, and a charger for the battery pack. The battery pack holds a replaceable 3.7v Lithium Ion cell phone style battery.





Sprint PCS 2031 CF card

You'll get a CD with drivers for Pocket PC and notebook PCs, a quick start guide, the CF card, CF to PCMCIA adapter, battery pack for use with Pocket PCs and a charger for the battery pack.

Sprint 2031 CF card in Toshiba e755

The Sprint PCS 2031 CF card and battery pack in a Toshiba e755.

Setup and Use with Pocket PCs

The CF2031 supports Pocket PC and Pocket PC 2002 PDAs with a type II CF slot. We tried it on a Dell Axim X5 and a Toshiba e755 and it worked reliably on both. When using the card with a Pocket PC you must connect the battery pack (the manual states that you can do "fatal" damage to the PDA if you don't attach the battery pack). It clips onto the back side of the card and has a swivel joint so that you can swing the battery behind the PDA (see illustration, right).

Driver installation was a breeze, and requires about 500k of storage space on the Pocket PC. Upon completing installation, you'll see the PCS Connection Manager application on your Pocket PC. It launches automatically when you insert the card, and stays running even if you switch to another application. Data connections were reliable and speeds averaged around 50 to 55k.

The main screen, shown below, has a signal strength indicator, battery pack charge level icon and a Go button which initiates a data session. If you wish to use the card for voice calls, you can select the voice option from the Tools menu, and you'll see the dialer interface shown below, which mimics a mobile phone keypad and display. Call quality for voice on both the Pocket PC and notebook were quite good— just remember that you must use a headset to make voice calls. When the card is inserted, your Pocket PC will indeed ring and you can accept incoming calls by pressing any key other than End or Back on the Dialer screen, or by pressing any of the 4 application buttons on the Pocket PC: very cool! If you're in an active data session you won't be able to send or receive calls, but if the data connection is dormant (the connection goes dormant when no data has been transferred for a period of time) you can make calls.

The PCS Connection Manager can also display incoming text messages, your call history and an alert log. Last but not least, it has an embedded phone book, which pulls your Pocket Outlook contacts. You can't add new contacts into the Phone Book, instead you'll need to enter then in Pocket Outlook or in Outlook on your desktop.

PCS Connection Manager screen PPC
PCS Connection Manager Dialer screen

Setup and Use with Windows Notebook PCs

Setup and installation was a painless process on our Windows XP notebook as well. You'll pick your OS version from the setup menu and the installer places necessary drivers on your notebook and creates a dialup connection for the card (which acts as a modem, not network card).

The installer places an icon for the PCS Connection Manager on your desktop, and a system tray applet that watches for the card. The PCS Connection Manager for Windows has all the features mentioned in the Pocket PC version and looks quite similar, so you won't have to learn two different applications to use this card on both platforms. One difference is that the PC Phone Book doesn't integrate with Outlook or any other PIM app, so you'll need to enter your contacts manually.

Performance was reliable, and connection speeds averaged around 50 to 60k. These are about the same speeds you'll get using Verizon's AirCard 555 without compression software. The Verizon card does come with Venturi compression software that can increase download speeds dramatically. I'd love to see Sprint bundle a similar app with their data cards.

Why Choose the PC Card Over a Pocket PC Phone Edition PDA?

First, here's why to choose a Pocket PC Phone Edition PDA over this card: If you're looking for a voice-centric solution, then the Pocket PC Phone Edition units may be a better choice. You won't be able to use this card for voice without a headset.

When buying a Pocket PC Phone Edition like the Audiovox Thera, Toshiba 2032 or T-Mobile, you're married to the device. If you want to upgrade your Pocket PC, you've also got to worry about changing your mobile phone (and associated contract issues if switching providers). PPC Phone Edition PDAs tend not to have cutting edge features like the fastest processors, lots of memory or SDIO expansion slots, and for Pocket PC power users and frequent upgraders, this can be a downer. With the 2031 CF card, you can switch/upgrade you Pocket PC whenever you wish, as long as your Pocket PC has a CF type II slot. The card also does double duty, acting as a modem for your notebook computer, which is a big bonus for road warriors. While you can use other phones as modems for your notebook with the sometimes hard to find data cable accessory, this card is a much more turnkey solution.


Pro: High speed access for both your Pocket PC and notebook PC. Very reliable data connections and speeds, with good quality voice. Good national coverage of metro areas in the US. Software on PPC and Windows is friendly and intuitive, and the Phone Book integration with Pocket Outlook on the Pocket PC is very nice.

Con: You must use a headset if you want to use your PDA or notebook for voice calls. You have to be in a PCS Vision coverage area to use this card (it doesn't work over the regular digital network at 14.4 as does the Verizon AirCard 555). No Mac Powerbook drivers. I'd love to see bundled compression software for notebooks that enhances download speeds.

price: $179,



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