Netgear 802.11b Wireless USB Adapter

Model: MA111

Price: $59.95 (ESP)

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve got to be honest with you–I just didn’t think there was much left that could be cool or interesting about an 802.11b NIC device. Receiving the Netgear 802.11b Wireless USB Adapter, model MA111, changed my opinion a bit though.

While like most products, USB-based WLAN adapters have followed the industry axiom of smaller, cheaper, faster (well, two out of three ain’t bad), the $59.95 (ESP) MA111 places a clear emphasis on “smaller.”

In fact, the MA111 is very likely the smallest USB WLAN adapter currently available– and they can’t get much smaller than this. If you’re situation calls for the use of a USB-based WLAN NIC, it’s hard to imagine one that would be less obtrusive than the Netgear MA111, which manages to shoehorn an Intersil Prism 3 chipset into its narrow form.

The device measures 3x.75x.5 (HWD) and will easily fit in a shirt pocket (indeed, you could fit several in one). Physically, the MA111 is very much similar to the many USB Flash storage devices now available. Two green indicator lights are on the unit, one on either side. They don’t do much other than glow steadily, and since they’re not likely to be in a user’s line of sight, that’s probably good enough.

A removable cap protects the USB connector on one end of the MA111. It would be even better if the cap were tethered to the device, to prevent it from being lost.

In light of its small size and direct connection to the computer, you may have to pay a bit more attention to physical location and placement when using the MA111 in some environments. Netgear thoughtfully includes a 5 ft. USB cable with the product to accommodate the need for more distance or elevation from the computer it’s connected to.

On the other hand, I didn’t experience any inordinate diminution in range when, for example, I connected the MA111 to a notebook’s rear-mounted USB port and worked with my back to the access point. I did notice that the adapter gets somewhat toasty, but not excessively so.

The MA111 is a USB 1.1 device, so its maximum bandwidth is limited to 12Mbps. Since the device only aspires to 802.11b speeds, the MA111’s wireless throughput was not constricted by the interface.

In fact, throughput was quite respectable. The MA111 yielded about 4.2Mbps throughout the distance range we test, from 10 feet up through 125 feet. This throughput figure is consistent with most PCI or PC-Card/Cardbus-based adapters. Enabling 128-bit WEP encryption took a bit of the wind out of the MA111’s sails, as speed dropped to 3.62 Mbps, about a 15% reduction, slightly more than what is typical.

For some folks, smaller doesn’t automatically mean better. The size of an object often has a reverse correlation with the likelihood of its being lost. People with the coolest, small cell phones often attest to this. And, unlike a cell phone, you can’t call the MA111 to find it if you do misplace it.

So, I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the minute size of the MA111 is a good thing or a bad thing. If you can manage to keep it in your possession though, it’s definitely a cool and handy unit to have around.

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