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D-Link 11Mbps Wireless LAN Compact Flash Adapter

Model: DCF-650W -- $99 MSRP

D-Link's Wireless Compact Flash adapter is a PRISM II based 802.11b wireless adapter in a CompactFlash (CF) Type II format.  Many PocketPC users have been eagerly awaiting 802.11b adapters in this format, and although this product isn't perfect, it will make many people plenty happy.

Pros:
- Relatively low cost
- Relatively low power draw

Cons:
- Larger than you might like


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Product Stats

View a summary of the D-Link Wireless Compact Flash Card's wireless capabilities.

D-Link Wireless Compact Flash Type II Card [click to go to product website!]Installation and Features

I used a Compaq iPAQ 3150 PocketPC with Compact Flash sleeve to put the adapter through its paces. The D-Link manual says that the adapter is compatible with the following products:

Pocket PC

  • Compaq iPAQ (StrongARM)

  • Casio E115 and E125 (MIPS R4000)

Handheld PC (HPC)

  • Sharp Telios (MIPS R3000)

  • HP Jornada 720 (StrongARM)

  • Intel Pentium/X86

Presumably, the adapter would work with other machines using StrongARM or MIPS processors, but note that SH3-based HP Jornada users won't be able to use this product.

The CF adapter is 3.25 inches tall, with 1.5 inches of that being the antenna section that sticks out of your PocketPC or HPC.  This section is also almost 0.5 inches thick.

Fingers can get a little cramped!

When I inserted the adapter into my iPAQ's CF sleeve, I found that although it didn't totally block either the stylus or its eject button, it did cramp my finger area a bit.  The size of the exposed portion of the module may also cause you to remove it before you throw your PocketPC into your bag or pocket, to avoid damage to either the adapter or your PocketPC!

iPAQ with DLink Wireless CF installed

Installation consisted of popping the Installation CD into the drive of a computer that was running Microsoft's Active Sync and connected to the iPAQ, clicking the "Install Drivers" icon on the autorun screen that popped up, and following the clear instructions in the printed Quick Install Guide.

Once you're installed, you'll open the Client Utility (which is located in the Start > Settings > System screen) to check and configure the adapter, so let's step through each of its screens to see what it lets you do.


The Configure screen gives you access to all settings except WEP.  The "Non-Specific ESSID" setting was interesting, because it automatically senses and uses the ESSID of the Access Point that it connects to, instead of requiring you to enter the default "ANY" ESSID that usually works when you don't know an AP's ESSID.

Tip: See this page for info about the difference between Ad-Hoc and 802.11 Ad-Hoc. The D-Link user guide has a typo that may confuse you!

D-Link CF Wireless Adapter - Configure screen


The Info screen tells you pretty much everything about the status of the adapter. It doesn't sit in the Today screen "System Tray" when you "OK" it, however.  So you'll need to restart it or remember to just leave it running when you switch to another application, if you want it quickly available.

You get a readily available indication of link status from the big ol' Link LED...the one on the right...anyway. It's normally lit and blinks when it loses network connection.  I thought the Power LED was unnecessary, since the Link LED told me all I needed to know about the adapter's power status!  I'd rather use the few extra milliamps for a few extra minutes (seconds?) of battery life...

D-Link CF Wireless Adapter - Info screen


The inclusion of a ping utility on the Link tab is a thoughtful addition, since the PocketPC OS doesn't come with one built-in, and you need some way to start debugging connectivity problems.  But I was frustrated with not being able to see the time information from the ping response (the output area isn't horizontally scrollable), so that I could use it for my test purposes. I also found it a pain to have to keep entering the IP address of the ping target, since it's not saved when you quit the utility.

On the plus, side, however, note that this tab tells you the PocketPC's IP address (My IP).  Very helpful if you're running as a DHCP client, since it tells you that you have at least successfully leased an IP address!  Now if D-Link could just add Gateway and DNS IP info and a DHCP Release/Renew function, you'd have most all the info you'd need to debug common connectivity problems. (BTW, I had no problem establishing a connection to my Access Point with the adapter set to be a DHCP client.)

The WEP tab is clearly laid out and easy to use. You can enter four keys for either 64 or 128 bit mode, either as Hexadecimal or Alpha-Numeric values.  The D-Link manual has clear instructions on the number of characters, and which ones are allowed, too.  Note that you can't use the "passphrase" method of key generation.  Sadly, I found that WEP keys are not remembered if you Disable, then re-Enable WEP.

Finally, the About tab shows driver and utility version info.

D-Link CF Wireless Adapter - Link screen

 

D-Link CF Wireless Adapter - WEP screen

Performance

Since netIQ doesn't have an endpoint for WinCE, I had to come up with other methods to test the adapter. Here are the results:

Test Conditions:

- WEP encryption:
Disabled
- Tx Rate:
Automatic
- Power Save:
disabled
- Channel: 6

Firmware/Driver Versions:

AP f/w:
1.4f4
Wireless client driver: 
0.9.5
Wireless client utility: 
0.9.5
Wireless client firmware:
0.8.3

Test Description

Transfer Rate (Mbps)

[1Mbyte data size]

Response Time (msec)

[10 iterations 100byte data size]

AP to Client - Condition 1

 1.2 [No WEP]
 1.2 [w/WEP]

4 (avg)
6 (max)

AP to Client - Condition 2

1.2

4 (avg)
6(max)

AP to Client - Condition 3

1.2

4 (avg)
6 (max)

AP to Client - Condition 4

1.2

4 (avg)
5 (max)

Comments: I was surprised at the relatively low Transfer Rate of the adapter, and suspect that something in my measurement method may be limiting what I'm measuring.  I found no difference in rate with or without WEP, but at the low measured rate, I'd certainly hope that to be the case!

Range was pretty good, although I found it difficult to use the Client Utility signal level and quality indicators unless I concentrated on keeping the iPAQ still.  There was no question when I moved out of network range, however, since the blinking Link LED made it very clear.

The measurements aside, I found browsing a local web server to be plenty responsive. I didn't do any Internet based testing, since my dialup net connection would be the limiting factor.

Battery Life

One of the key advantages that 802.11b CF cards are supposed to have over their PC card cousins is lower power draw.  Compaq takes one approach to the problem, including a separate battery in their PC card sleeve to provide the extra juice needed by PC card devices.  But Compaq doesn't include a battery in the CF sleeve, putting a CF-sleeve-equipped iPAQ on par with PocketPCs with built-in CF slots.

My battery life test was simple.  I started a CNET radio stream with the Windows Media Player 7.1 at moderate volume with a fully charged battery and let it run.  (Since the monochrome iPAQ doesn't rely on a screen back or sidelight, I didn't have to worry about shutting one off!).  I was able to get 2 hours and 10 minutes of play before I got a low battery shutdown message and had to plug back in.  At some point I'll get a CF/PC card adapter and try the same test in the iPAQ with the PC card sleeve and its extra battery, and update this review with the results.

Summary

As I said at the top of the review, 802.11b CF cards should quickly become a fairly hot item, and the D-Link CF Wireless adapter should be one of the hottest.  D-Link is taking an aggressive pricing strategy, with on-line pricing at the time of this review running mostly between $126 to $150 (compared to $180 for Symbol's Wireless Networker).  Supply will probably be tight at first (product will probably not be available until mid September) and keep prices up, but given that essentially the same card is already popping up under different not-so-famous names, I'd expect prices to come down over the next few months as volume production comes on line.

A PocketPC by itself is a useful little gadget, but some of the real fun begins when you have a network connection, given the multimedia capabilities of the PocketPC platform.  With the D-Link CF Wireless adapter, you can tap into your LAN without being wired down, and isn't that what mobile computing is all about?

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