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Pros: high-gain directional antenna can make usable connections from weak signals; uses USB connection and offers XP/Vista/Mac OS X support
Cons: expensive; chunky; cumbersome mounting bracket
Almost any notebook built within the last five years has (or at least had as an available option) a Wi-Fi adapter tucked somewhere within the bowels of the system along with an antenna contained within the lid. Integrated Wi-Fi is the most ubiquitous and convenient kind, but its also designed primarily to be unobtrusive rather than for performance. While built-in adapters are often sufficient for common connection scenarios, they may not be up to the job in situations where signal strength is marginal or weak.
For users that find themselves in this kind of situation, hField Technologies offers the Wi-Fire, a $79.99, high-performance external 802.11b/g wireless adapter. External Wi-Fi adapters are hardly a new concept, but rather than using a standard omnidirectional antenna, the Wi-Fire distinguishes itself by incorporating a high-gain (+10.4 dBi) directional antenna that promises to pull in a usable signal when lesser adapters cant. We found that the Wi-Fire can live up to its promise, but not without a few significant caveats.
At a quick glace, you might think the Wi-Fire was an apparatus designed to detect subatomic particles or intelligent extraterrestrial life. The device is a broad slab measuring approximately 4x3.25x.5 inches, with a beveled edge to indicate the business end of the antenna. These dimensions dont include the Wi-Fires permanently attached mounting hardware, which you can configure either as a desktop stand or a bracket that attaches to the top of a notebook display--albeit not very securely (more on that in a moment).
Out of thin air
We tried the Wi-Fire out on an HP notebook running Vista and equipped with an integrated Broadcom 802.11a/b/g adapter. We started off outdoors on the back porch of our single-family home, which overlooks a large pond with a row of houses about 300 feet away on the opposite side. All are masonry construction with plenty of metal obstruction due to screened lanais (pool cages). With the notebooks integrated wireless adapter, we could intermittently detect four different networks, but contact was so fleeting that they would appear and disappear every few seconds and the signals were never strong enough to actually connect to. (Vista reported them as having No signal or Poor signal quality, which is no bars or one bar out of five.)
When we plugged in the Wi-Fire and set it atop the notebook display, our connection options expanded markedly. Suddenly there were no fewer than eight networks listed as available, and depending on where we pointed the Wi-Fire, most of them offered the opportunity to connect with consistent signal strength of Low or Fair (two or three bars) and in a few instances, even Good. To be sure, these werent necessarily blazing fast links, but they were stable and functional connections where they didnt exist before.
Because the Wi-Fire uses a directional antenna, its extremely sensitive to positioning; you can swivel the Wi-Fire on its base and use the included utility to measure signal strength as you make your adjustments (an auto-refresh feature lets you do so without having to manually summon updated signal values).
A pointed limitation
The need to position the Wi-Fire brings us back to the issue of device mounting we mentioned earlier. Because the device simply rests on a notebooks lid rather than actually attaching to it, it can be tough to keep the Wi-Fire aimed exactly where you want it. So mounted, moving a notebook or even just tilting the lid slightly can be enough to send the Wi-Fire careening down--and your connection along with it.
Moreover, though you can adjust the antenna a full 360 degrees, the USB cable turns with the device and can be an impediment to free motion (and depending on which way the Wi-Fire is pointed, that cable can obstruct a corner of your display). Positioning the Wi-Fire next to, rather than on top of, your computer is a way to mitigate most of these shortcomings, but that can also deprive you of 8 to 10 inches of antenna altitude that may be helpful in getting the best possible signal reception.
The Wi-Fires $79 price tag isnt too far from that of other external wireless adapters with USB, Cardbus, or ExpressCard interfaces. Then again, you can only buy the Wi-Fire directly from hField Technologies or from a handful of small online retailers--we couldnt find the Wi-Fire for sale at brick and mortar stores, either, including Best Buy and Circuit City. That means the Wi-Fires list price is also the street price.
Wireless connections are dependent on so many variables that theres no way to know whether or not the Wi-Fire will make the difference in a given scenario, and its also worth noting that for those looking to piggyback on nearby privatealbeit unencryptednetworks, doing so can be ethically problematic and in some places legally questionable. Nevertheless, if theres a Wi-Fi network thats just out of your reach with a standard and/or integrated wireless adapter, theres a good chance the Wi-Fire can reel it in for you.
Joseph Moran is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.