Author: Tim Higgins
Review Date: 7/8/2001

Model: KX-HGC200

Pros: – Can improve wireless multimedia (streaming) performance
Cons : – Expensive compared to 802.11b cards
– You see improved multimedia performance only in peer-to-peer, multiple client networks

The Basics

 

Indicators
  • Link

  • Ready

Comes with
  • software CD

Other
  • Not compatible with 802.11b or HomeRF

 

Introduction

Panasonic is the first company to field an 11Mbps wireless networking product using Sharewave’s Whitecap1 protocol.  Whitecap’s claim-to-fame is improved wireless multimedia performance, but I had a mixed experience with the technology.  Read on for the full report.

 

What is Whitecap™?

Put simply, Whitecap is a wireless networking protocol that is optimized for wireless home networking.  To Sharewave this means three key things:

  • the ability to handle multiple multimedia application streams

  • easy network configuration

  • strong resistance to microwave oven and 2.4GHz cordless phone interference

The price you pay for these improvements is incompatibility with 802.11b/WiFi equipment, i.e. Whitecap and 802.11b clients can’t communicate with each other.  Perhaps realizing the barrier to market share that this incompatibility presents, Sharewave announced the Whitecap2 protocol a few months ago.  This version of the protocol will be compatible with 802.11b, but won’t support on-the-fly switching between the two.

But Whitecap1 is what’s available now, with Panasonic being the only vendor shipping Whitecap based products in their Home Networking line, which consists of the PC Card and the Concourse Broadband Networking Gateway which we previously reviewed.  Sharewave says, however, that other vendors will be shipping Whitecap based products shortly.

With all that competitive situation stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at the product!

Setting Up

Panasonic’s Whitecap client card comes in only the PC Card flavor, so it’s best suited for wirelessly connecting laptops.  Panasonic doesn’t offer either a PCI adapter or USB version for adding desktop computers to a Whitecap network, (but NETGEAR just announced a Whitecap based PCI card and Bridge).  Of course you can get your Ethernet or HPNA network members talking to the HGC200 via the Broadband Gateway, but this puts a crimp in the multimedia handling improvements of the Whitecap based system (more on this later..).

Adding the card to the Panasonic Gateway is easy, you just power off the Gateway, plug in the card, and plug the Gateway back in.  When you do, you’ll see the new “Wireless Setup” admin menu item.

Adding the card to my Win98SE equipped laptop (Win95, ME, and 2000 drivers were also on the CD) was straightforward.  Windows detected the card, loaded the driver and prompted for a network name.  On reboot, the installer for the Network Manager was automatically started.  The Network Manager lets you both manage settings for the PC card itself, and view the state of the Whitecap network. There aren’t a lot of settings to fiddle with and the Device Management app handles them in a straightforward way, as shown in the screen shots below.

  

Network utilities

The Network Management application is a little more complicated.  It’s a Java-based application that installs and runs a small webserver and uses Internet Explorer for its display.  With it, you can see the nodes in the Whitecap network and their link quality, look at link packet statistics, bandwidth allocation, and switch into a mode that lets you add new network members.

   

Maybe it’s just me, but there were a number of things that bugged me about the Network Manager.  First, the installer makes a couple of Registry entries so that the Network Manager and associated applications launch automatically at startup.  This made it harder to make them not auto-start than just moving shortcuts from the Startup folder (I used Win98SE’s System Configuration Utility Startup tab).  Second, the use of thin colored lines to indicate link quality made the Node Information next to useless for me, since I’m partly color blind and I couldn’t tell the difference between the thin green and yellow lines.  I would have much preferred some sort of numerical or text indication.  I’d also add the Node quality information to the System Tray icon, which presently just tells you only whether you’re linked or not.  Finally, I’d make the app not require IE and a mini-webserver to run…just seems like too many things to go wrong!  (My laptop locked up a number of times when left running the Network Manager and I suspect it may have been due to conflicts with Windows power management.)

But how did it perform?  Is the price of 802.11b incompatibility worth it? 

Performance – Quantitative

My testing for the HGC200 included my usual suite of Qcheck tests, plus a set of qualitative tests that were intended to check Whitecap’s enhanced multimedia handling performance.  I ran the same tests on Whitecap and 802.11b test partners:

  • Whitecap setup: Panasonic KX-HGC200 card in a Compaq 1650 laptop running Win98SE.  Connecting to Win98SE desktop via a Panasonic KX-HGW200 acting as a wireless to Ethernet bridge.

Test Conditions:

Firmware/Driver Versions:

– Dynamic Channel
Change: 
Disabled
– Master Node: 
No
– FEC: 
Enabled
– Channel: 6

AP f/w: 2.04U
Wireless client software: 
3.3.0.12
Wireless client f/w: 
03.03.011

  • 802.11b setup: ORiNOCO Gold PC card in a Compaq 1650 laptop running Win98SE.  Connecting to Win98SE desktop via a D-Link DWL-1000AP acting as a wireless to Ethernet bridge.

Test Conditions:

Firmware/Driver Versions:

– WEP encryption: Disabled
– Tx Rate: 
Automatic
– Power Save: 
disabled
– Channel: 6

AP f/w: 3.0.35
Wireless client driver: 
Variant 1, Version 4.00
Wireless client f/w: 
Variant 1, Version 6.16

(Details of how we tested can be found here.)

The Results!

Test Description

Qcheck TCP Transfer Rate (Mbps)

[1Mbyte data size]

802.11b

Whitecap

AP to Client – Condition 1

4.0

1.9

AP to Client – Condition 2

4.0

2.0

AP to Client – Condition 3

3.7

2.0

AP to Client – Condition 4

2.6

2.0

Comments: This was a puzzler.  Try as I might, I could not get the Whitecap TCP Transfer rate above 2Mbps, which was just about half of the 802.11b rate.  Since the Sharewave Network Manager Bandwidth tab indicated that bandwidth was allocated 50% to the gateway card and 50% to my client,  my conclusion is that the behavior is by design.

Test Description

Qcheck Response Time (msec)

[10 iterations 100byte data size]

802.11b

Whitecap

AP to Client – Condition 1

4 (avg)
6 (max)

32 (avg)
32 (max)

AP to Client – Condition 2

4 (avg)
6 (max)

32 (avg)
33 (max)

AP to Client – Condition 3

4 (avg)
5 (max)

32 (avg)
32 (max)

AP to Client – Condition 4

4 (avg)
5 (max)

32 (avg)
33 (max)

Comments: The Whitecap numbers were so consistent, that again, I can only conclude that this behavior is by design.  I don’t know what these higher-than-normal numbers would mean for gaming performance, where as-low-as-possible ping times are desired.

Test Description

Qcheck UDP stream
[10S@500Kbps]

(Actual throughput- kbps)

(Lost data- %)

802.11b

Whitecap

802.11b

Whitecap

AP to Client – Condition 1

495

492

0%

0%

AP to Client – Condition 2

491

491

0%

0%

AP to Client – Condition 3

489

492

0%

0%

AP to Client – Condition 4

445

492

0%

0%

Comments: This UDP-based test shows a slight advantage for Whitecap for the longest distance Condition 4 test.  But when I tried to run a 1Mbps stream, Qcheck showed that the maximum rate was limited to about 650kbps.  I suspect this may be a Qcheck limitation, but don’t know for sure.

 

Performance – Qualitative

Sharewave emphasized that qualitative tests, involving looking at and listening to multimedia streams, should be included in any Whitecap evaluation.  So, armed with some encoded movie files supplied by Sharewave, I set up some multimedia based tests, mostly using a 2Mb MPEG file played on a Version 6.4 Windows Media Player.  My plan was to open the movie from the same Ethernet connected machine that I used as a Qcheck test partner, then move to each of my four usual test locations and see if the movie quality changed.  This test would be repeated with same Sharewave and 802.11b test setups used for the Qcheck tests above.

Well, the tests didn’t yield the expected results of showing Whitecap’s superior multimedia handling, and after discussions with Sharewave, I can explain why.  In a nutshell:

Whitecap produces its enhanced multimedia experience when the wireless network is carrying UDP data streams among multiple clients on a peer-to-peer basis.

Some explanation may help clarify the above summary:

1) If you open an MPEG or MP3 file via Windows network browsing (Network Neighborhood) on an Ethernet or HPNA connected machine with a wireless Whitecap client, the TCP protocol is used. Assuming you’re using the Panasonic Gateway, the TCP data then goes through the gateway’s Ethernet/Whitecap bridge. This bridge DOES NOT support the TCP-to-Whitecap UDP “fast read” conversion that is provided by peer-to-peer Whitecap wireless connections. (This is not a technical limitation, but a product development priority trade-off, i.e. Panasonic did not add the “fast read” capability to the bridge.)  As a result, you don’t get the Whitecap UDP-based enhancements.

2) The other key to experiencing Whitecap’s superior multimedia performance is having multiple Whitecap clients on the network. This allows Whitecap to parcel out bandwidth as needed among clients, which it can’t do if there are multiple data streams (such as playing an MP3 file and doing a long data file download or transfer) between just two clients.

Since I don’t have multiple laptops and Panasonic doesn’t offer a PCI adapter or USB version of its adapter, I couldn’t test out Whitecap’s multimedia enhancements.  However, Sharewave provided plenty of detailed test data to back up their claims, and I certainly don’t doubt them!

 

Summary

Sharewave has an interesting story to tell with the Whitecap technology and they may very well have a jump on the competition by getting Whitecap’s Quality of Service (QoS) features spec’d into the developing 802.11e specification.  But in my opinion, 802.11b just has too much of a head start for Whitecap to make much headway against it, even with Whitecap’s multimedia handling advantages.

Unless you’re going to build your network the way that Whitecap needs it built (all peer-to-peer wireless clients) and use it to primarily carry multimedia streams (MP3s, streaming videos) among LAN based clients (not from the Internet), and you don’t care about 802.11b compatibility, then I’d pass on the Panasonic HGC200.   If you’re really interested in trying something with better performance than 802.11b, wait a few months! The wireless networking world will soon get shaken up with Whitecap2, HomeRF2, and 802.11a all trying to wrestle market share away from 802.11b.   Then you can have the best of both worlds (802.11b and enhanced multimedia handling) with Whitecap2, and according to Sharewave, it should cost you less too!