RealTime IT News

Ashton Digital AirDash Wireless USB Stick

Price: $99 for pair, $59 individually
Pros: extremely compact, excellent performance
Cons: only supports 802.11b, may be awkward with some computers

Technically speaking, there's not a lot that can be new and exciting about 11Mbps 802.11b WLAN client adapters anymore. However, that doesn't mean that they can't be interesting due to design characteristics. The AirDash Wireless USB Stick from Ashton Digital is an example.

The AirDash USB Stick has an interesting physical design, looking similar to a USB keychain storage device. The Intersil PRISM-based AirDash is slightly less than four inches long, and can swivel out 180 degrees from the point where it's inserted into a USB port. There's a single blue status light on the rear of the unit.

Pricing for the AirDash is an MSRP of $59 for one and $99 for a pair -- the thought is to use it for ad hoc (peer-to-peer) connections. Based on my informal survey of online sources, the AirDash is slightly more expensive than comparable compact USB 802.11b adapters from the likes of Netgear.

What distinguishes the AirDash from similar compact USB client adapters from other vendors is the swivel action. This capability can potentially allow the antenna portion of the AirDash to be perpendicular from the USB port rather than protruding straight out from it. This orientation could have two possible benefits. One is extending upward rather than outward would give the antenna more altitude and theoretically better signal strength. Also, by not extending straight out, the potential for damage to the device or USB port (by snagging on something) is lessened.

The practical dilemma is that depending on the orientation and location of your notebook's USB ports, you may or may not be able to realize the benefits of the device's physical design.

For cases when a port may be recessed or otherwise inaccessible, extension adapters are provided. But, since they're almost as long as the AirDash itself, their use makes the AirDash extend excessively and awkwardly from the machine.

A case in point is the situation with my Compaq Presario 722 test machine. Its USB ports are vertically oriented and located along with other ports behind a long tensioned door, which necessitated the use of the extension adapters.

Physically speaking, the AirDash will probably meld best with a notebook with an unobstructed and horizontal USB port located on the rear. Of course, the AirDash will work equally well with a desktop.

Setup of the AirDash was not as straightforward as it could have been. If you allow Windows XP to identify the device as I did on two separate test systems (and which Ashton Digital recommends against), the device drivers and control utility are installed, but an application Program group or Add/Remove Programs entry are not created unless you re-run the installation CD.

The AirDash specification sheet refers to the product as a "dual function Mini-USB access point/network adapter." I didn't quite understand how a USB device, which cannot function independently of a host computer, could legitimately be called an access point.

It turns out Ashton Digital was taking a bit of license with the term "access point" and referring to the ability to share a broadband Internet connection via a peer-to-peer WLAN. Of course, such capability can be found in any other client adapter. However, the product does include a wizard that completely automates the process. It can automatically locate a PC's wired Internet connection (including dial-up, according to Ashton Digital) and automatically configure it to be shared via an ad-hoc network.

I tried it and it did work as advertised, correctly identifying my DSL connection and making it available to other wireless clients. However, given that a direct Internet connection to a PC is not advisable from a security perspective (at least not without a software firewall), sharing that same connection with other PCs doesn't seem particularly wise.

Also consider that an 802.11b wireless router and client adapter can be had for roughly the same $99 as the AirDash duo (and perhaps even less with current rebates), which give you the benefit of greater features -- most notably a hardware firewall -- and no reliance on a PC being on and functional to act as a relay.

Even though its suitability as an access point is somewhat dubious, it doesn't mean the AirDash isn't a good client device. I tried the AirDash in infrastructure mode with several 802.11b and 802.11g access points, and in all cases it associated without any problems. As part of an 802.11b infrastructure network, the AirDash posted good throughput numbers--5.39 Mbps at 10 feet--which is excellent for any 802.11b adapter, even at close range. The AirDash performance is doubly impressive considering it's a USB 1.1 device limited to 12 Mbps maximum bandwidth.

The AirDash configuration utility provides a standard collection of features, including the ability to define the transmit rate, disable the radio or create profiles for different wireless networks.

We don't necessarily recommend it, but if you have a PC with a direct Internet connection and you want to share it wirelessly sans router, the AirDash will make that process easy as pie. For most users though, the AirDash is better suited as a compact USB client adapter.