Netgear WAB501 Dual Band Wireless Adapter
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Model Number: WAB501 ($180.00)
Someday there will be one definitive standard for wireless networking. Or maybe someday, Bill Gates will give you a billion dollars.
Until then, you not only have to keep your day job, but you also have to decide between competing wireless technologies and standards to keep your computers up to date. Many consider wireless networking one of the more muddled and confusing technologies, even as it gets easier to set a network up. The confusion stems from the opaque jargon and numerical ciphers (802.11b, Wi-Fi, WEP, etc.) that the inventors generously heap upon unwitting consumers. It doesn't help that new products based on different, incompatible technologies seem to come out just as you're grasping the concept of the current one.
So, do you wirelessly gear your laptop with popular 2.4GHz 802.11b products? Or do you opt for the faster, but more expensive and less widespread 5GHz 802.11a? Netgear seems to think you shouldn't have to decide. Its Dual Band Wireless Adapter PC card allows you to connect automatically to any 802.11b or 11a access point. This way, you don't have to sacrifice widespread access for faster throughput when it's available.
- Connects to 802.11b and 11a networks
- Three-year warranty
- Relatively inexpensive
- 802.11a connection drops
At the first glance, Netgear's Dual Band Wireless Adapter looks very similar to many other wireless PC cards on the market. The part of the card that contains the antenna is almost three times as thick as the PC card slot. It sticks out of the slot and houses a green light that blinks when there is network activity. It also has a small groove on the part nearest to the slot to make it easy to insert part of your thumb and pull out the card. Should your thumb prove too strong and the card breaks, or should there be any other problems beyond your control, Netgear provides a reassuringly generous three-year warranty. It's a better than the paltry one-year warranties other companies offer.
Setup was glitch-free. During installation, Windows XP users will see the warning window that says the drivers for the adapter are unsigned and therefore may not work, but Netgear assures us that they've been tested on the new OS. I installed it on a Windows XP laptop and experienced no extraordinary problems.
Netgear also recommends that, in order to take advantage of all its features, you should use its wireless networking software instead of Win XP's built-in wireless networking configuration. You'll have to disable this operating system feature manually. For other Windows versions, Netgear's is the default configuration software.
In concert with a new D-Link multimode router, Netgear's adapter produced impressive speeds in my tests. At close range with a standard 802.11b connection, the card revealed its prowess by giving out an average speed of almost 4.9 Mbps -- faster than a lot of cards. When I moved to a floor above, throughput was a powerful 4.13 Mbps. The card screeched down to almost 3 Mbps and to less than 2 Mbps when I started roaming away. It was still fast enough to perform large file transfers without feeling like you're watching paint dry.
With 128-bit WEP encryption, there was nary a drop in speed in the same four locations in which I previously tested. In fact, when I moved away from the router and began roaming, I got even faster throughput: almost 4 Mbps at about 50 feet and 3.8 Mbps at about 60 feet with walls in between.
The 802.11a tests were even more impressive. With and without encryption, the resulting speeds were almost identical: around 21 Mbps average at close range; about 20 Mbps on the upper floor; and over 13 Mbps from across the room. I did experience a larger difference when I went behind walls over 50 feet away: without WEP, average throughput was just a little over 11 Mbps, while encrypting my network slowed it down to 8.3 Mbps. The card supports up to 152-bit encryption.
One thing of note is that I encountered minor problems with the adapter dropping the signal when it came to 802.11a connections. Even at very close range, I received infrequent but annoying "page not found" errors when I surfed the web. It took several browser refreshes before I could visit pages again. If you switch to an 802.11b mode, the adapter picks up the signal within seconds. Moving to 802.11a, however, sometimes required a restart, but sometimes it did not. This inconsistency caused some concern, though not enough to subtract too many points from its overall performance.
Netgear's Dual Band Wireless Adapter connects you to a newer wireless world without leaving the old one behind. I was initially concerned with how much speed it could attain; fortunately, the card allayed my fears and surprised me with some of the fastest, most consistent throughput under WEP encryption. The list price indicates it's comparable to single-mode 802.11a adapters and may even be a little cheaper when it becomes widely available. If you're still deciding on what 802.11a adapter to get, this is a no-brainer.