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All I need is a miracle

Our intrepid reporter tries out two ways to go wireless, and has his faith in technology tested by a call to tech support.

The eminent cartoonist Sidney Harris once drew a cartoon featuring two scientists. The caption reads “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.” When you squint at the chalkboard in the cartoon, you see a mess of formulae surrounding the words “Then a miracle occurs.”

I’m with the scientist who wrote off Step Two as a miracle. Technology should be full of inexplicit steps. Consumer-level computer products nowadays should plug in and just work. So I was a little disappointed recently when no miracle occurred during my trials of two new wireless networks. I persisted for only one reason: They boasted double the speed of regular 802.11g networks. And under the right circumstances, they delivered on that boast.

The good news

D-Link and Netgear have both introduced 802.11g wireless base stations and PC Cards based on an Atheros chipset with a hidden advantage it calls Super G. This design uses compression techniques, and the ability to use two wireless channels at once helps you reach a nominal transfer rate of a whopping 108Mbps.

In my tests of networks built around D-Link’s Xtreme G products and Netgear’s WGT624 wireless firewall router and WG511T PC Cards, things proved much faster than on my old 802.11g and 802.11b networks.

Of course, real-life throughput never came close to 108Mbps–it topped out around 26Mbps, but that still beat out Wireless G’s real-life rates of 14-to-18Mbps and .11b’s scant 5-to-6Mbps. And because most people’s Internet connections top out at 1.5Mbps anyway, we’re talking overkill anyway–though both Netgear’s and D-Link’s base stations pepped up my DSL-to-wireless connection about 15 percent with the turbocharged 108 settings engaged.

Both companies’ base stations retail at around $130-$150; the matching PC Cards go for around $80. This is a price premium of around 10 or so percent higher than comparable 802.11g rigs–a bargain considering the speed boost.

The bad news

So what, given the good news, was the problem with this miracle speed boost? The trouble came when I tried to incorporate an IBM ThinkPad with built-in 802.11b wireless into the network. It couldn’t even find the 108Mbps wireless network for D-Link, and it wouldn’t connect to the Netgear one. Even though the new devices are based around what should be a compatible standard (802.11g), the speed-boosting 108Mbps mode messes with that compatibility.

Netgear’s product literature ‘fessed up to the incompatibility, and the company is promising a firmware fix that should be available by the time you read this. D-Link claims that even in its 108Mbps Dynamic Mode, their products are backward-compatible. But not in my world, they weren’t.

Calls to technical support forced me through network settings, something I’d sooner write off as a miracle than see in detail. I waded through IP Config settings–a Windows app that shows the IP addresses of network hardware and default gateway. (Under Windows 98/Me, select Run and type in WinIPCfg; under XP, it’s Run, type in CMD, and at the command prompt, IPCONFIG). Then I had to wade through configuration Web pages embedded in both base stations.

For both Netgear and D-Link’s products, I had to turn off the zoom-fest 108 mode to hook up my 802.11b notebook. And D-Link’s dismissive technical support never did explain why their feted backward compatibility wasn’t so–but then again, they refused point-blank to help me with what they called a problem with my notebook. I had to browbeat them into telling me how to set their base station to 802.11b mode manually so that my 802.11b notebook could recognize it. So much for product claims.

A happy ending

However, a miracle did occur in Step Two. Even without turbo mode, I still connected to the Internet about five to 10 percent faster with these products than I had before. So when I browsed more of Sidney Harris’s great cartoons at Science Cartoons Plus, I got the joke all the more quickly.

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