A Road Test of Traveling Laptops

Wherein I try two PC cards, two machines, two networks. Guess what? Nothing's perfect

When using wireless handheld computers, I have come to regard flaky connections and slow network downloads as normal. But working with a wireless laptop somehow creates a different level of expectation; what seems acceptable on a Palm or Pocket PC becomes frustrating on a notebook.

With that mind-set, I tested a couple of PC Cards, which serve as wireless modems for laptops. Compaq Computer (CPQ ) is selling its new, ultralight Presario 800 bundled with a Novatel Merlin card that allows it to run on the Ricochet network. Sprint PCS (PCS ) offers a Sierra Wireless AirCard 510 that uses Sprint's digital wireless phone network. Both add a new dimension to a laptop--and both suffer from serious limitations.

Metricom's Ricochet service (www.ricochet.com) has been around for several years but has relied on bulky external modems that limited its usefulness. Now, the only sign of the modem is an awkward antenna that gets in the way when the notebook is closed. Windows treats the card like a modem on a dial-up network. Ricochet offers speeds of up to 128 kilobits per second in 13 markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, with older networks providing 28.8 kbps in Washington and Seattle.

The Merlin card and 3.5-pound Presario 800 make a good mobile combo, especially when the $1,699 laptop is equipped with an optional extended-life battery. The standard battery life of under two hours is too short for serious mobile use. Compaq offers Merlin (which can also be used in an iPAQ Pocket PC) for $300, plus $74.95 a month for unlimited service. Similar prices are available from other Ricochet resellers.

Ricochet presents two drawbacks. One is limited geographic coverage. It won't work unless you live in a Ricochet city and even then may be useless when you travel. Worse, Metricom (MCOM ), which has been forced to make major cutbacks in its network expansion plans, warned in a May Securities & Exchange Commission filing that it could run out of cash as early as August. That would be a huge blow to the growth of wireless data services, because in those places that it works, it's the best service out there.

There's not much fear that Sprint PCS (www.sprintpcs.com/wireless/), which offers service in most urban areas across the U.S., is going away. But what it gains in ubiquity, it loses in performance. The Sprint network is set up to move data at just 14.4 kbps, typical of wireless services. The actual speed is significantly slower, especially when the signal is weak.

I tried Sprint using a Sierra Wireless AirCard 501. The card runs around $400, and the cost of service varies with service plans. For $74.99, you get a total of 2,000 minutes, with free long-distance for your phone or your laptop. In addition to inherently slow speeds, the service displays the vagaries of wireless phones: Sometimes a connection is nearly instantaneous; sometimes it takes up to a minute. Calls fail and connections break off in mid-session for no apparent reason. But if you need mobile Internet access on a laptop, the Sprint service is a lot better than nothing. I managed to use it to fetch mail while on a New York-Washington train.

DISCRETION. E-mail is the critical application for mobile wireless, and software companies, especially Microsoft (MSFT ), could improve matters by offering mail programs tailored to mobile needs. Standard programs, such as Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, assume stable, relatively fast connections. It would be useful if these programs had a mode that emulated the sort of e-mail people use on Pocket PCs and other handhelds. For example, it would help if the program only downloaded the header and first 500 characters or so of each message, then offered the choice of getting the rest of the message or any attachments. That way we could scan all messages, retrieving only the important ones in full.

Meanwhile, wireless phone networks are slowly getting better as a result of consolidation and new technologies. In next week's column, I'll take a look at these changes and what they mean for voice and data service. The improvements are probably worth waiting for, but if you need service now, you'll have to make a tough choice between performance and coverage.


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