Wireless PC Card Modems

For PowerBook owners who suffer from e-mail withdrawal when they travel, it may be time to join the wireless set. Three PC Card modems make this possible: Novatel Wireless's Merlin and Merlin for Ricochet and Nextcell's Spider II let you connect to the Web via cellular data networks. The Merlin for Ricochet offered the best speeds and stability, but Ricochet's coverage areas are limited and its service is expensive.

Speed or Coverage?

It's best to buy any of these cards directly from your service provider, so that it comes to you already activated. (You'll also be assured of competent technical support during installation.)

The Merlin and the Spider II use the Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) network, a 19.2-Kbps protocol offered by telephony providers such as Verizon and AT&T Wireless. Its actual throughput is more like 14.4 Kbps, and though this may seem like Stone Age speed, it's adequate for basic e-mail and viewing the occasional Web page. The Merlin for Ricochet uses the Ricochet service, which offers blazing speeds as fast as 128 Kbps (average speed is about 96 Kbps).

CDPD's coverage is wider than Ricochet's, although neither compares with that of regular cell phones. (For complete maps, see the vendors' Web sites.) And CDPD's basic service is relatively inexpensive: monthly plans vary from $10, for limited access, to about $50, for unlimited regional service. Ricochet costs about $75 per month, depending on the length of the contract.

The Merlin and Spider II modems have subtle advantages and disadvantages. The Spider II has a three-year warranty, compared with one year for Merlin, and its handy, detachable antenna means you don't have to eject it from the PowerBook when it's time to travel. However, the Spider II uses a SLIP connection, requiring you to fill in many more fields during initial setup than the Merlin's PPP connection.

The Merlin for Ricochet is the much faster alternative, but the service is available only in limited areas: currently it's offered in and around 13 cities, including Los Angeles; New York; Minneapolis-St. Paul; and Houston, Texas. The greatest density of coverage is along the East Coast. Metricom plans to extend the service to 33 additional areas. Of the modems we tested, the Merlin for Ricochet was the easiest to install-plug it in, enter data in a few fields, and you're on the Net.

Three for the Road

You can use any of these modems outdoors, indoors (as long as you're not too far away from a window), or even in a moving car. On a recent trip, I used the Merlin to log on to AOL Instant Messenger during the hour-and-a-half drive from Boston's Logan Airport to Manchester, New Hampshire. Since chatting on Instant Messenger takes very little bandwidth, performance wasn't noticeably slower. I even received some e-mail while I was chatting. The Merlin did disconnect a few times (presumably when moving from one cell area to another), but it took less than a minute to reconnect.

I tested the Spider II and Merlin for Ricochet in cars around the San Francisco Bay Area and found that the Spider II's performance was similar to the Merlin's. The Merlin for Ricochet modem card was much faster than either, of course, but it still disconnected and reconnected when moving in and out of cell areas.

As with cell phones, signal strength can vary, even if you don't actually get disconnected. Unlike cell phones, which get faint or noisy, a data signal loses transmission speeds when a data signal is weak. Since CDPD speeds are low to begin with, CDPD can become almost unusable if a signal is weak, timing out when connecting to mail and Web servers. Fortunately, all three modems we tested provide a utility that shows signal strength, so you can move to a location with a better signal (near a window, for example).

Following a couple of tips will ease a lot of frustration with the CDPD cards. First, set your e-mail preferences to receive only the initial 30K or so of large messages. Most messages are smaller, unless they have attachments or HTML formatting. You won't lose larger messages-they will stay on the server till you download them in full. Second, if you surf the Web, turn off settings for pictures, sounds, and animations.

Steady As You Go

All three cards showed a few stability problems. My PowerBook sometimes crashed after waking from Sleep mode or after switching from one modem configuration to another. The Merlin for Ricochet was the most stable in these circumstances. With the two CDPD modems, the most reliable way to connect after switching configurations was to first change all the connection settings and then restart with the modem in the slot. The Merlin regularly crashed the PowerBook or failed to reconnect after Sleep mode. I ended up turning off the Automatic Sleep option while using that modem. Similar problems with the other two models were far less frequent and wouldn't prevent them from being worthwhile tools for the road warrior.

Power Drain

All three cards draw on a PowerBook's battery. The CDPD modems use less power than the Ricochet modem-when you use the Merlin for Ricochet for extended periods, your battery's life can be halved. It pays to invest in an extra battery if you buy one of these cards. After all, what good is wireless Net access if you have to find a power outlet to use it?

Macworld's buying advice If you need wireless Web access enough to pay hefty monthly fees, the hands-down best wireless PC Card modem is Novatel's Merlin for Ricochet. It's easy to install and lives up to its high-speed billing. The catch is Ricochet's limited coverage area, so check that before you buy. CDPD networks, although much slower than Ricochet, cover a lot more territory. If you need only to get e-mail occasionally and don't want to pay high fees, the Nextcell Spider II will do the job; it was more stable than the Novatel Merlin in our tests.

Clockwise from top: the Novatel Wireless Merlin, the Nextcell Spider II, and the Novatel Wireless Merlin for Ricochet
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