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 Proxim Symphony Cordless PCI Card

 Author: Tim Higgins
 Review Date: 1/17/2000


Model: 440205 (PC Card)
Model: 411005 (PCI Card)

Bottom Line: Easy to install, 
but performance not as good as specified.

NOTE: This product is no longer being manufactured for sale in the United States or Canada. No updates will be made. These pages are provided as a reference only. This product was replaced by the Symphony HomeRF USB Adapter

The Stats

Product Name Proxim Symphony Cordless Cards (PC and PCI)
OS Supported

Windows 95/98, NT4, Linux (see Note)

Transmission
Method

Frequency-hopping 2.4GHz spread spectrum

Standard

Proprietary. Supports only Proxim wireless cards.

Card Format

PCMCIA (PC Card), PCI, ISA (ISA not tested)

Data rate

1.6Mbps (Manufacturer's specification)
0.14-0.44Mbps (Measured)

Price
(List / Street)

$129 (PCI) $149 (PCMCIA)/ 
as low as $110


Introduction
The Proxim Symphony Cordless Cards use second generation 2.4GHz band wireless technology to allow you to network your Win95/98 or NT computers.  The cards use FHSS (Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum) as the transmission  method, but are NOT specified to be IEEE 802.11 compliant.  This means that they won't work with 802.11b 11Mbps products like Apple's Airport.

Each card comes with the following items:

  • An omni directional antenna with 6 foot cable

  • Quick Start Guide

  • User's Manual (available in PDF format here - 632KB)

  • CD Rom containing the "Composer" installation wizard, "Maestro" configuration tool, "Conductor" Internet sharing program, and drivers.

The cards don't have any activity indicators on them, but Proxim supplies the "Maestro" Configuration tool to monitor status.  This application runs in the Task Tray and changes color to indicate whether or not you are connected to the rest of your Symphony network.  You can also open it and run a Link Quality check and set various configuration parameters.

 

Proxim lists the following System Requirements

  • at least a 486/66 processor, 

  • Win95, 98 or NT4.0

  • 16MB of RAM, 

  • 10MB of free hard drive space

  • CDROM drive.

  • free slot to match the card type

Win2000 drivers are in Beta and you need to ask to be a Beta tester.  You can also find a Linux driver for the PC and ISA cards at www.komacke.com.
NOTE: Proxim does not provide any support or guarantee of functionality when using these drivers.

Proxim also makes a Cordless Modem that can connect the Symphony LAN to your dialup ISP, and a Cordless Ethernet Bridge, which you'd use to either connect the Symphony LAN to a broadband Internet connection (cable modem, DSL, etc.) and/or into your regular 10BaseT LAN.  (A review of the Bridge can be found on this page.)

 

Simple Installation...
Installation was straightforward and I didn't need to consult the very detailed User Manual.  The installer doesn't use the Windows Plug and Play installation system and you cancel out of the PnP wizard when it appears and start the Setup program off the CD.  I had problems with my Compaq Presario 1650 laptop locking up during the three reboots that the installation process requires.  But the installer was robust enough to pick up where it left off after I managed to clear the lockups, and I was able to finally get installed.  If you run into trouble during installation, the User's manual and Symphony Web site contain more useful Troubleshooting information than many other products that I've seen.

The Installer installs the TCP/IP protocol only and assigns a 10.X.X.X series IP address to each card.  It also walks you through sharing drives or folders and printers, but sets full permissions with no password on anything it sets up sharing on and doesn't warn you that it is doing this.  (The User Manual does mention password protecting shared resources, but I'd like to see either a warning in the installer or a default of password protection.)  The installer will also rename your Workgroup name to "WORKGROUP". This could cause problems with finding computers in Network Neighborhood if you use the Cordless Bridge to connect your Symphony wireless LAN to an Ethernet LAN where computers have a different workgroup name, but otherwise shouldn't cause any problems.

 

Sharing the Internet
The Installer asks you to choose whether you are going to Internet share via a Symphony Cordless Modem, a modem in a computer, or setup without Internet sharing.  There isn't a choice for sharing via cable modem, DSL or other broadband connection, because they're not supported by Proxim's software sharing solution.  If you need to share a broadband connection, you'll need to either purchase the Cordless Ethernet Bridge, or setup without Internet sharing and then use another sharing solution.  Note that you can't use both the Cordless Modem and Cordless Ethernet Bridge on the same network, and that if you purchased a Cordless Ethernet Bridge, you'll use the installation CD that comes with that product.  

You can change any of these choices later, by rerunning the "Composer" installation program.

If you choose to share via an existing modem, the "Conductor" sharing program will be installed.  You must install this program on each Symphony equipped computer, selecting one computer to be the "Conductor" server and the others to be clients.

"Conductor" worked reliably for me, autodialing my ISP whenever a Symphony computer wanted to connect to the Internet.  But "Conductor" might not suit everyone, especially on-line gamers, AOL users, or users of other applications that need special protocols or ports.    There isn't any ability to map or open ports for special applications, although there is a "Single User Mode".  Proxim says this mode is for programs that can't be configured to use LAN connections, but I'm guessing that you might be able to use it for gaming and other programs that don't work well with firewalls.  NOTE that no other users can connect to the Internet while this mode is in use by a computer.  

Fortunately, if Conductor's limitations are too much for you,  you can use whatever Internet sharing program you like and Proxim even gives instructions for configuring Symphony to use Win98SE's ICS capability.  

 

How fast is it?
I tested data transfer speed between a 10BaseT connected computer (using the Cordless Ethernet Bridge) and wireless computer and also from wireless to wireless computer. Although it could be my imagination (or my test technique!) I reached the following conclusions:

  • Data transfer is slower between wireless nodes when operating through the Bridge vs. operating in "Peer-to-Peer" mode, i.e. without the Bridge.  

  • Transfer between wireless nodes is faster than transfer between Ethernet and wireless nodes.

Here's the data I used to reach these conclusions.  I used the same 5.30MB zipped file for each of the tests and rounded transfer rates to the nearest 10kbps.

Test Description

Transfer Rate (kbps)

With Bridge

Desktop 1 [10BT] to Laptop [Wireless]

141

Desktop 1 to Desktop 2 [Wireless] 170
Laptop to Desktop 2 250

Without Bridge

Desktop1 [Wireless] to Desktop 2 [Wireless] 400

NOTES
1) A Symphony PCI card was added to "Desktop 1", its 10BaseT connection was disconnected, the Bridge was powered down, and the regular (non-Bridge) drivers were installed on Desktop 2 for the "Without Bridge" tests.
2) "Laptop"'s antenna was about 3 feet from the Bridge's antenna.
3) "Desktop 2"'s antenna was about 10 feet from the Bridge's antenna.
4) "Desktop 1" and "Desktop 2"'s antennas were located about 10 feet apart.

This data says that you take a 60% hit in transfer speed when operating wireless nodes through the bridge (vs. Peer-to-Peer) and can lose up to 70% of transfer speed going between Ethernet and wireless nodes.

NOTE: I've heard from a few Symphony users and they've reported speeds from 120kbps to as high as almost 800kbps. So your experience may be better or worse than these numbers indicate.

 

Summary
Proxim's wireless solution is the broadest in the business with wireless cards for ISA, PCI and PC Card slots, and both a wireless modem and Ethernet bridge.  It's clear that Proxim has put quality work into the Symphony product line.  The documentation is tops, the software is well done, the support Web site contains useful information, and you even get a utility that tells you something about the quality of your wireless connection (something I'd like to see as standard for all wireless and maybe even phoneline networking kits). 

The main weak point is that Proxim's transfer rate and range specifications are too optimistic and the typical user's experience will fall short of the specified performance.  Although the performance is satisfactory enough for dialup modem use,  users with broadband connections will probably not like being reminded what life at dialup speeds was like!

If you want a relatively easy to install and use wireless product that can integrate easily with an existing Ethernet-based network, the Symphony is hard to beat! 


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