Author: Tim Higgins
Review Date: 8/29/2000

Model: 3CRWE74796B

The AirConnect and other 802.11b products have been getting pretty positive reviews recently, with most reviews examining the products from a corporate buyer’s point of view. My approach in this review will be to look at the AirConnect from a home or small office user’s point of view.

Pros: – Fast and reliable connection.
– Good network performance utilities.
Cons: – Expensive for home user.
– No routing (sharing) function.
– Documentation not for network novices.

Review Updates

None yet.


The Stats

Check this page for a summary of the Airconnect’s capabilities.

Introduction

The 3COM AirConnect kit is probably not going to be popular with home and small office users due to its price and the fact that the Access point is only a bridge, not a router.  That’s fine for large corporate networks that already have plenty of routing horsepower around, but not so good for the person who’s just trying to share their cable or DSL connection with a few computers.  Let’s take a look at what you get for the big bucks that you’ll be paying!

 

Setup and Basic Features

I evaluated the AirConnect Starter Pack kit, which comes with one Access Point and three PCMCIA (PC Card) LAN client adapter cards.  Of course, you can buy each of these items separately.  Some of the 3COM promotional material describes a PCI LAN card, but that product isn’t available yet, and no timetable has been set for when you’ll be able to get one.

The Starter Pack comes with the following items:

  • The Access Point (AP)

  • External power adapter

  • “PowerBase-T module

  • Mounting bracket for Access point

  • Null modem serial cable

  • CD Rom with card drivers, utilities, PDF based documentation, and HTML based documentation

  • Three LAN PCMCIA (PC Card) adapters

The AP is an attractive beige box that houses a removable PC Card (same as the LAN adapter cards) that contains the radio circuitry.  This makes the AP easily upgradeable.  The card plugs into a chassis that contains the Ethernet bridge circuitry, and a moveable antenna that is attached to the AP case plugs into the PC Card.  The card is then secured by a bracket that secures both the card and the antenna connections to it. (see picture below)

The unit is powered by an external power supply that either plugs directly into the box, or into the “PowerBase-T” module.  This module lets the output of the power supply use a pair of unused wires in a standard UTP cable to remotely power the AP.  This gives large site installers increased flexibility in AP placement by freeing them from having to locate the AP near an AC outlet… a very nice convenience!

Installing the Access Point was somewhat confusing, and the AP could really use a “Quick Start” guide and instructions for setup without having to use the serial console connection.  As I said earlier, the AP is a bridge, but a managed bridge.  This means that the AP passes data between the wireless and Ethernet parts of your network transparently, with both parts of the network being in the same subnet.  But the AP itself has a number of features that you can (and need to) control (that’s the managed part), so it must have its own IP address in order to talk to it.  After wading in vain through the documentation for the AP’s default IP address, I finally managed to get connected to the AP’s web management interface.  So that you don’t have to repeat my learning curve, here’s what I did:

AP Installation Tip
(You’ll need a working network with DHCP server.)

1) Connect the AP to your network, verify that it connects ok, then power it down.

The AP’s Ethernet light doesn’t steadily light to indicate a good “link.” You need to watch it while you transfer a file on the Ethernet LAN and see if it flickers.

2) Go to your DHCP server and get a list of the existing DHCP clients/leases.

3) Power up the AP and wait for it to boot.

4) Refresh the DHCP server client/lease list and you should see a new IP address.

5) Enter that IP address into your browser and you should be able to connect to the AP Management Interface.

Yep, that’s right, the AP comes set as a DHCP client.  It sure would have been easier if the docs had just said so!

Having a Spock deja-vu

It always amazed me when Spock would enter a control room on some new planet and immediately start to make adjustments on a console in order to prevent the Enterprise from being sucked down to the planet by a tractor beam or something.  Me, I would have started looking for the instruction manual…in English preferably!

When you start poking into the AP’s Management Interface, you may get the feeling that you’re in that remote planet’s control room!  I suggest you resist the temptation to start changing settings and dig into the AP documentation first.  802.11b wireless equipment has many parameters that can be changed and a lot of the terminology will be different from what you’ve seen on previous consumer-grade wireless products.

Fortunately, once the AP gets its IP address, you shouldn’t have to make any changes to the AP settings in order to communicate with LAN cards.  The LAN cards do a pretty good job of looking for APs and connecting up without any knob twiddling.  For the curious, I’ve included a few of the Web Management tool screens (click on the image to open another window with a full-sized view)

Among the features you can control on the AP are:

  • Allow/disallow clients by MAC address

  • Set the AP channel (frequency)

  • Control AP access methods (Ethernet, Telnet, PPP via serial port, SNMP)

  • Set Encryption keys and configure client access controls

You can also monitor various wireless client statistics. Plenty of interesting stuff to keep inquiring minds busy!  I mainly used the HTTP Admin interface, but briefly explored the Telnet version, which seemed to be inconsistent in providing prompts for possible actions.  You’ll probably need to read the AP User Guide to navigate it effectively.

A note on encryption.  My eval kit had a Version 1.0 CD which does not enable encryption for the client LAN cards.  To enable up to 128 Bit encryption, you can order a Version 1.5 CD from 3COM’s Web site until Sept 30, 2000. After Sept 30, 3COM says you’ll be able to download the CD files from their site.  I hope they make the files individually downloadable and not just offer the entire CD image.  There are still folks like me who don’t have broadband connections!

Bring in the clients, please…

The standard form-factor for 802.11b LAN client adapters is PCMCIA or PC Card.  The AirConnect card uses the Intersil Prism II chip set (the other 802.11b chipset manufacturer is Lucent) and has a detachable antenna.  The antenna module also contains two LEDs which both indicate wireless LAN activity. Drivers for virtually all flavors of Windows (except for ME) are included on the CD, along with Netware 4.x and 5.x drivers.  Linux and MacOs users will have to go elsewhere for the LAN card needs, however (see the Chart).

Driver installation went smoothly on my Win98SE Compaq 1650 laptop, with the only hitch again being poor documentation.  The driver installation doesn’t include the “Launcher” application which is a System Tray app that provides a number of handy features for monitoring the adapter’s performance and changing its properties.  You need to run the separate Mobile Connection Manger installer (located under the CD’s “Install WLAN Applications” menu).

After installation, the Launcher will appear in the System Tray each time you start up.  The screen shots below give you some idea of the goodies that the Launcher gives you.

The Launcher window opened from the System Tray

Signal Quality window

Link Performance window

LAN Adapter settings are done via the Adapter properties in the Network Control Panel.  You can set the Adapter’s power mode, its LAN Service Area, and enable “Mobile IP”. This last option lets you move between Access Points in larger networks. I assume that the Encryption driver upgrade also lets you set the Encryption mode and keys, too.

How fast is it?

The AirConnect was definitely faster than other wireless products that I’ve reviewed.  The fastest non-802.11b product previously reviewed was the WebGear Aviator 2.4 (now Aviator Pro), which clocked in at about 0.8Mbps at a 10 foot operating range.  The AirConnect came in at 3.2Mbps at the same 10 foot range.  See the table below for more speed test data.

Test Description

Transfer Rate (Mbps)

Ping
(msec)

AP to Client – Condition 1

3.2

< 10

AP to Client – Condition 2

3.2

< 10

AP to Client – Condition 3

1.45

< 20

AP to Client – Condition 4

0.59

< 10

(Details of the measurement method can be found here.)

As I was wrapping up this review, I came across netIQ’s (formerly Ganymede) free QCheck utility.  It looks like a great little tool and I may be using it for my future performance testing.  I ran a quick TCP Throughput test  with Condition 1 and got readings from 3.2 to 3.8Mbps.

Of course, your mileage may vary!

Summary

The AirConnect is definitely not aimed at the home or non-professional market.  Its pricing, although in the league with other professional 802.11b products, is more than only the most got-to-have-it home networker will be willing to pay.  The documentation is good as a reference for an IT professional (although it could use a good index), but poor for a networking novice.  A “Quick Install” guide would definitely be helpful, with AP installation instructions that don’t require that you start with the serial console connection, preferably!

If you go for it, be sure to download the free 128bit encryption software update, if it doesn’t come with your unit.