Sony Vaio wireless LAN PC Card model PCWA-C150S
Company: Sony Corporation
PC card 802.11b driver software
Price: $14.95 (while in beta test)
Apple PowerBook G4 Titanium owners are painfully aware that AirPort reception range is woefully inadequate. The thin titanium sheathing of the case severely inhibits the built-in antenna. The newest PowerBooks, the aluminum 12″ and 17″ versions, have antennae located around the edge of the screen bezel, which is supposed to improve reception range.
But most Titanium owners are not going to sell their existing computers and buy a 12″, a 17″, or wait for the rumored 15″ aluminum version, just to get better AirPort range. What alternatives are there for better AirPort reception?
A more powerful wireless access point is one possibility. The Asante VR2004 AC fits the bill nicely. But this would involve selling an existing base station, and buying a new one, just for some improved range. While not as costly as buying a new computer, it still is a significant expense.
Another alternative is to buy a PC card 802.11b antenna. Buying a PC card is far cheaper than either a new WAP, or a new computer, and you can sell the unneeded Airport card to defray the cost.
Most Titanium PowerBook owners never use their PC card slot, so they tend to forget it even exists! But most PC laptops don’t have internal WiFi cards, so they use PC-card based 802.11b receivers. This means several models are available. PC card receivers have the antenna itself mounted externally: some are real wired antennae, and some are little flat rectangles that are flush with the side of the computer. Portability is enhanced with a flush-mounted antenna, as you don’t need to worry about removing the card to protect the antenna when in the case, or during transport.
I tested the Sony Vaio wireless LAN PC Card model PCWA-C150S (can’t Sony use a comprehensible naming system?) This card uses a small flat external plate for the antenna. The external plate is quite small, measuring approximately 1.25″ long, 3/8″ wide, and 3/16″ deep. The small depth means that the card does not interfere with a carrying case.
While the 802.11b hardware is cross-platform, the Sony-supplied Windows WiFi card drivers are not. Also, not surprisingly, the Apple AirPort software does not recognize 802.11b PC cards. There are two Mac-compatible drivers that will work with most PC card-based 802.11b receivers, including the Sony card. One is a freeware effort that supports several 802.11b PC cards . The other is a driver written by IOXperts, a well-regarded programming shop that also writes drivers for USB and FireWire webcams. While others have been able to get the freeware driver to work, I could not. Your luck may be better. In contrast the IOXperts software worked very well from the start.
The driver, priced at $14.95 while still in beta, is regularly revised for better performance and compatibility. The first version I used caused a kernel panic when the card was ejected. Within a couple of days of this being reported, IOXperts had a fix out. Great service! The IOXperts software supports multiple WEP encryption keys, and it also has a better indication of signal strength that does Apple’s software. Installation was easy, using an OS X-style installer. The software is configured via a preference pane, with multiple tabs for status, setup, advanced, and diagnostics. The main drawback to the preference pane is that access to the software is not as easy as with the menu bar controls that the Apple AirPort software provides.
IOXperts support is good, and they even provide a mailing list for their users. While list traffic is not high, support people are regular posters, so answers are available fairly quickly.
This is a good piece of software right now, and it continues to get better.
Sony range versus AirPort range
802.11b reception range is highly variable. Even weather can influence effective range. Your particular house/office layout and construction materials will strongly affect your wireless network range.
My range with an AirPort card, and an Apple Base Station (the original Graphite version) varied from 25 feet in some directions, to 35 in others. In my house, I found that the Sony card increased my usable reception range by about 15-25 feet over the AirPort card. While this does not seem like much, imagine a reception circle whose radius is 15-25% larger than what your AirPort card provides. This increase allowed me to work in locations that were unusable with the Titanium’s built-in AirPort card. To me, this clearly made the Sony card a worthwhile investment, even though the Sony card is slightly more inconvenient to use. Sure, you now have another gadget to track, and more software (the driver) to manage, but it is fairly transparent once configured.
If you have a new “AluBook” you probably won’t need a third-party card, but if you have a Titanium 15″ ‘Book, the combination of the Sony Vaio wireless LAN card, and the IOXperts driver software is a great combination.
Highly recommended for those who need additional range!
MacMice Rating: 5 out of 5