Wireless connectivity options for Pocket PCs

Do you want to browse the Web, read the news, track stock quotes, and check email while you're on the go? If you want wireless access to important personal and work information so that you're not tied to your home or office PC, you're not alone. According to Forrester Research, the number of mobile Internet users in the United States is forecast to grow from 2 million today to 23 million in 2003.

If you're in the market for an unplugged PDA solution, you have many wireless connectivity options from which to choose. Before you select a solution, you need to think about how you plan to use the PDA. Will you need nationwide or local coverage? What's an acceptable speed for that coverage? You also need to consider memory, storage, and expandability. Will you want to expand the capabilities of your wireless device by adding memory, storage space, and accessories? Perhaps my experiences with this gadgetry can help guide your selection.

My experiences lie with a popular type of PDA, the Pocket PC, which is a device that runs the Microsoft Pocket PC OS. Pocket PCs typically have large color displays and offer well-lit screens and resolution. They have excellent multimedia support and usually provide fast processor speeds and enhanced storage capacity.

A few of the popular Pocket PCs are Casio's CASSIOPEIA E-200, Compaq's iPAQ H3800 and iPAQ H3700 series, and Hewlett-Packard's HP Jornada 560 series. For a quick review of these and several other PDAs, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "Popular Pocket PCs," http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 25207.

When you select a Pocket PC, you need to know which wireless card format you want and the type of connectivity you need. The main types of wireless card formats for Pocket PCs are CompactFlash (CF) and PC Card, which both come in Type I and Type II. The types of connectivity fall into two categories: wireless WAN (WWAN) and wireless LAN (WLAN).

Wireless Card Formats
To determine which wireless card format is appropriate for your PDA, you need to understand the differences between the formats. CF cards and PC Cards provide the same data storage and I/O functionality and compatibility. Thus, the difference lies in the cards' size. CF is a small, removable device that weighs a half-ounce and is the size of a matchbook. PC Cards are about the size of a credit card. You can purchase adapters that let you use CF cards in a PC Card slot.

The difference between Type I cards and Type II cards is the thickness. Type I cards are 3.3mm thick, whereas Type II cards are 5mm thick.

WWAN Connectivity Options
WWAN connections let you stay connected outside your home and office. The coverage area is limited only by the extent of your wireless service provider's network. However, the connections are excruciatingly slow: typically 14.4Kbps or 19.2Kbps, depending on the type of connection. Fortunately, you can use optimization software such as BlueKite's BlueKite to increase the speed. BlueKite works by either reducing the amount of bytes transferred or increasing the browsing speed.

Nationwide WWAN connectivity is possible through the multiple antenna sites that a wireless service provider maintains. Currently, wireless service providers use either Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) or Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology.

CDPD is currently the most popular PDA wide-area wireless Internet connectivity technology. With CDPD, you're connected as long as your modem is on. However, CDPD is slow at 19.2Kbps, with actual throughput about half that speed. CDPD service is available through nationwide wireless data network carriers (e.g., AT&T Wireless) or resellers (e.g., GoAmerica Communications).

CDMA is a spread-spectrum technology, which means that it spreads a signal's information over a greater bandwidth than the original signal. CDMA provides speeds of about 14.4Kbps. CDMA service is available through nationwide wireless data network carriers, such as Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless.

You might also have a third option: 2.5G wireless technology. Several metropolitan areas have rolled out 2.5G, which utilizes existing wireless service provider equipment infrastructure and provides always-on high-speed wireless access of up to 144Kbps. Sierra Wireless and Novatel Wireless already have hardware that will support 2.5G networks.

When selecting the WWAN connectivity option, you must determine which wireless peripheral and connectivity configuration is right for you. The following information can guide you through some of the most popular solutions:

Cellular phones with cable. You can use any compatible digital phone, digital phone card, and cable to connect your Pocket PC to the Internet, as long as your mobile phone service supports this configuration. For example, I once configured a Samsung Electronics SCH-8500 cellular phone with an iPAQ, which didn't exactly feel like a truly wireless solution, considering the dangling cable attached to the cellular phone and Pocket PC. However, this solution was the least expensive of the wireless peripheral options and was the most battery-friendly.

Socket Communications is a leading supplier of phone cables, which it calls Digital Phone Cards (DPCs). Socket's DPCs support more than 85 popular handsets by manufacturers such as Ericcson, Nokia, Samsung, Audiovox, and Motorola.

WWAN PC Cards. Pocket PCs that support PC Cards can use WWAN PC Cards for connectivity. Pocket PCs that support such cards include UR There's @migo Pocket PC, which has a built-in PC Card slot, and the iPAQ H3800 and iPAQ H3700 series through their PC Card expansion packs. Following in Compaq's footsteps, HP, NEC Solutions, and Casio will soon be coming out with expansion packs that will provide PC Card compatibility.

Web Table 1 describes several available WWAN PC Cards and their features. (For information about how to view this table, see "More on the Web.") Sierra Wireless's AirCard 510 is by far my favorite wireless peripheral. The antenna slides out of the card and snaps up to provide cellular connectivity through the Sprint PCS network for Internet and email access.

WWAN CF cards. Most Pocket PCs have CF card slots. The only WWAN CF cards available on the market today are Enfora's Pocket Spider and Pocket Spider IIc. The card has a thick antenna that sticks out 3.75" from the top of the Pocket PC and includes a built-in 3.5-ounce battery that won't drain your Pocket PC's battery. Unique to the WWAN PC Cards and CF cards I reviewed, the Pocket Spider has a convenient built-in LCD panel that displays connection status and strength.

Not all Pocket PCs support both WWAN PC Cards and CF cards. Web Table 2 displays several popular Pocket PCs' compatibility with WWAN PC Cards and CF cards.

WLAN Connectivity Options
WLAN technology provides high-speed (up to 11Mbps) access to data, email, and the Internet. However, the coverage area is extremely limited. With WLAN connectivity, a Pocket PC can communicate over distances of up to only 1500 feet, with 500 to 1000 feet being more common.

WLANs use Access Points (APs) that are distributed throughout a coverage area such as a building. These APs connect to a local wired network. As long as a wireless card has been certified as IEEE 802.11b (aka Wi-Fi 802.11b) approved, it can interoperate with any of the 802.11b products.

You have several card options for WLAN connectivity with your Pocket PC. You can use a PC Card, CF Type I, or CF Type II format. Because of the WLAN's limited coverage area, consumers typically don't go with this connectivity option. Thus, I won't go into detail about the WLAN PC Cards and CF cards that you see in Web Table 2.

Configuring the Cards
After you've selected your Pocket PC and the WWAN PC Card or CF card, you'll need to set up that card. For information about card setups, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "Configuring PC Cards and CompactFlash Cards," http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 25210.

A Plethora of Options
You've just explored only a few of the many wireless PDA options available today. Although you can never keep up with ever-evolving wireless technology, you can always use your unplugged PDA to surf for your next gadget purchase.