Sony Vaio 802.11g Wireless LAN PC Card

Price: $99.99
Pros: flush-mounted antenna
Cons: flush-mounted antenna; won’t fit in some notebooks; pricey

Sony’s new 802.11g Cardbus NIC is the $99, Atheros chipset-based PCWA-C300S, and physical design being one of Sony’s hallmarks, they made their card a little different than most similar products.

Case in point: unlike most cards, which use antennas that extend horizontally out of the card, Sony uses a vertical antenna that sits almost flush against the side of the computer. (A side effect of this antenna orientation is that there’s no power or link light on the card.)

Sony says customers prefer this design for reliability reasons, and certainly an antenna that doesn’t extend so far from the notebook is less likely to suffer physical trauma.

On the other hand, an immediately obvious downside to this approach is that the extra height of the antenna means the card may not fit in notebooks with recessed Cardbus slots. The box warns prospective purchasers of this, and in fact the card would not fit in two (an IBM ThinkPad and a Toshiba Tecra) of the three notebooks I have on hand.

Once I found a notebook that could accommodate the card, the PWCA-C300S client utility was straightforward and easy to use. It doesn’t provide a profile feature however, making switching between multiple networks a little more work than necessary.

Like most utilities, the Sony software will display your current signal quality and link rate, but it also features a graphing capability that lets you plot these performance metrics plus actual throughput on a 60-second time grid. This feature can be very useful for ad-hoc and informal performance testing, and I wish more utilities offered it.

Regarding performance, in my testing the PCWA-C300S exhibited some apparent difficulty maintaining higher signaling rates (and thus throughput) at distances beyond the line of sight of the access point.

When paired with the Sony PCWA-AR300 WLAN router, throughput was typical at short range (20 Mbps) but dropped to around 6 Mbps at 25 feet, a point that is beyond a right angle and no longer in the direct line of sight of the router. Also unusual was the fact that both the throughput and the signaling rate remained essentially constant all the way to 125 feet, with almost no fluctuation at all.

Performing the test using an 802.11g access point from another vendor resulted in more fluctuation of the signaling rate, but didn’t substantially improve the throughput. This would seem to imply that the lack of a protruding antenna in the PCWA-C300S could result in reduced signal strength, particularly in scenarios where there are obstacles between it and the access point.

The PWCA-C300S client application also offers a so-called streaming mode, which can be invoked with the click of a button. Sony says this mode improves the performance of video/audio playback and other large data transfers by preventing the card from periodically scanning for available access points. However, although the data transfers performed by Chariot certainly qualify as large, enabling the PCWA-300S streaming mode didn’t improve throughput performance in the test runs.

Because of its relatively high $99 price and its less-than-universal compatibility, it’s hard to recommend the PCWA-C300S to folks other than existing owners of Sony computer equipment who will likely appreciate the attention to design.

But, given that the same design seems to come at the expense of signal strength and throughput, it’s clearly not for everyone. It should work fine in open environments, but it may not be the best choice for deployment in homes or offices with lots of obstacles or potential sources of interference.

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