Wireless devices are hot

New standard reaches critical mass, offers cool devices

by ALAN ZISMAN (c) 2001

First published in Business in Vancouver, Currentz section, Issue #622 September 25-October 1, 2001: GearGuide column

Even in the current cool market for computer upgrades, wireless is hot. And while some proposals for wireless connectivity seem not quite ready to be hatched, so-called IEEE 802.11b networking has reached critical mass. The standard lets notebooks and other computers connect to a business network or the Internet without needing to run cables. Now prices have dropped and a wider range of computers and PDAs can be hooked in. 802.11b networks (also known as WiFi) can be set up in businesses or at home, and wireless networks are starting to show up in hotels, airports, universities and other public spaces, allowing users to connect to the Internet without having to plug in.

Look, ma! No wires!

Linksys is one of several companies with a complete range of WiFi products, aiming at home offices and small businesses. Typically, WiFi networks are built around one or more base stations that are connected into an existing Ethernet network, or a cable or DSL modem. Linksys offers two models. The Etherfast Wireless 4 Port Switch ($450) combines a WiFi base station with a fast, four-port Ethernet switch, making it a good way to link both wireless and wired systems to the Internet or to an Ethernet network.

If you don't have any systems to connect using traditional cables, its Wireless Network Access Point Hub is about $70 cheaper. Yet another base station combines wireless access, wired access and a print server. Both can be managed from any computer with a Web browser and offer optional encryption for added security.

It's easier than ever to mix and match, so Apple Airport-connected Macs can connect to these base stations along with PCs equipped with WiFi wireless network adapters from different manufacturers. Linksys sells a range of adapters for notebooks and desktops, including PC Card models for notebooks and a USB model that can be plugged into this convenient external plug on both notebooks and desktops, both about $200. They also offer an internal PCI adapter ($79) for desktop computers, letting users plug a notebook PC Card wireless adapter into these models. (Frankly, I can't imagine who would want one of these!)

Wireless in the Palm of your hand

Xircom, an Intel company, is making it possible to connect Handspring Visor and Palm M500/505 PDAs into WiFi wireless networks, giving users the same network and Internet access on their handheld computers.

The Visor model, like other devices using that PDA's Springboard ports, plugs in and instantly installs its drivers along with a Web browser.

The Palm M500 and 505 are the first expandable models from that company and Xircom, in July, released its Wireless LAN Module for that standard as well. The company's also promising a model for Compaq's Ipaq series of Pocket Windows PDAs. All models include optional encryption and cost about $450.

Want a phone with that?

Not a WiFi networking device, but another way to connect without wires is local company Arkon Technologies' Parafone (www.myparafone.com). Another Springboard module, it offers easy plug and play to turn a Visor PDA into a 900-MHz cordless telephone ($179).

By adding a telephone to its PDA, Visor owners are able to make use of the handheld's address book, highlighting an entry and tapping the dial button added by the Parafone.

The Parafone won a Best of Show award at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, and includes a base station/charger. It uses the Visor's screen for call display on call waiting and includes 50-entry speed dialing, calling card support, a 1,000-entry call history and hands-free headset support.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan