Apple’s AirPort wireless-networking technology is nothing short of a minor miracle. With little more than two AirPort cards in two modern Macintoshes, you can link Macs together without the hassle of wires. While most users who lack a recent Mac — a slot-loading iMac, Power Macintosh G4, or iBook — must continue to get along with wired networks, those with PowerBook G3, 2400, 3400, 1400, 5300, and 190 models have the option to join AirPort networks, thanks to wireless networking cards such as Farallon’s SkyLine 11MB PC Card.
Unfortunately for Farallon, Lucent Technologies’ Orinoco Turbo Silver 11Mbps Wireless PC Card is — at nearly $50 less than the SkyLine card — a more capable alternative. Like the Orinoco card, the SkyLine 11MB Wireless PC Card is a Type II PC card that conforms to the IEEE 802.11b standard and supports AirPort’s 40-bit WEP encryption. Plug this card into a PowerBook’s CardBus slot, and you can create a wireless network with AirPort-equipped Macs — either via an AirPort Base Station, or between a PowerBook and an AirPort-equipped Mac. Unlike the Orinoco card, the SkyLine card does not use Apple’s AirPort software. Instead, Farallon provides its own Wireless Configuration control panel, which isn’t difficult to configure once you’ve read the manual. However, it also isn’t nearly as easy to use as Apple’s AirPort Setup Assistant — an assistant that does work with the Orinoco card.
SkyLine’s inability to use the AirPort Setup Assistant is more than a minor inconvenience. Networking our PowerBook to a group of Macs connected by Ethernet to an AirPort Base Station was a fairly straightforward proposition, but we had far more difficulty making a computer-to-computer connection to an iMac DV’s AirPort card using the Wireless Configuration control panel. We eventually succeeded in establishing a wireless AppleTalk connection between the two Macs, but once we configured the iMac DV as a Software Base Station, it took several restarts to establish communication between the PowerBook and iMac DV. With the Orinoco card, we simply ran the AirPort Setup Assistant, asked it to configure our PowerBook to join the existing network hosted by the iMac DV, and in short-order, the connection was successfully made.
Although we didn’t compare the speed of the SkyLine and Orinoco cards, we did measure how SkyLine fared against Apple’s AirPort card when placed inside a 400MHz PowerBook G3 (FireWire). While the two cards boast the same theoretical transfer speed of 11Mbps, the SkyLine card performed sluggishly in our tests. In a computer-to-computer connection, the SkyLine card took 13 seconds longer than the AirPort card did to transfer a 50MB file from our PowerBook to an iBook. Using an AirPort Base Station, the SkyLine card took 15 seconds longer than the internal AirPort card did to transfer this same file.