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Sierra Wireless PC AirCard 750 for Laptops

 

Simply plug the Sierra Wireless PCMCIA card into your laptop or PDA and within seconds, you're connected to the internet.

This is a convenient way of getting internet access anywhere there is cell phone service.  But it is also expensive to buy, and gives only a very slow connection speed.

 

 

Here's a different approach to getting internet access while you're traveling.

Because it connects to the internet through a cell phone service, it has the great benefit of working in much of the country, unlike Wi-Fi.  It can even work while you're being driven in a car.

But the theoretical promise of this device is not equaled by its practical real-world use.

Introductory Comments - Why Buy a Sierra Card?

The Sierra card is essentially a cell phone built into a PCMCIA card.  Instead of connecting to the internet via a modern digital cellphone, you can use this Sierra card instead.  You can even plug a headset into the Sierra card and use it as a regular cellphone (but only while it is plugged in to a laptop - it has no independent power supply).

Why would you buy a wireless modem card that clumsily doubles as a telephone, at a $300 cost, rather than a telephone that also provides the identical wireless modem service, and probably available for free when signing up for cell phone service?

I asked this question of Sierra Wireless' Manager of Marketing Communications, Kathleen Gallagher.  She never even replied to my email, and so I can only assume that she, like me, is unable to come up with any convincing reason why you should go out and buy her expensive product.

Now that most cell phones have built in data capabilities, it does seem that this is a unit which no longer has a niche in the marketplace.

But, in case you're still interested, read on.

What you get

Sierra Wireless PC AirCards are Type II PCMCIA devices.  They fit entirely within the PCMCIA slot, with nothing sticking out except for the external aerial.  This means the card is not likely to get damaged if you transport it while inside your laptop.

Each Sierra Wireless card has a detachable external aerial.  This can swivel and tilt - promotional material says so as to allow you to position it for the best signal, but in reality, the main of the swivel/tilt is to stop it being broken off.

And, if you do break the 3" aerial, because it is detachable, it is also replaceable.  It is much less money to buy a replacement aerial than a complete replacement card.  But, at a $35 replacement cost - for what is little more than a piece of wire - you'll still want to be careful with your aerial.

The removable antenna has another benefit, too.  You can swap the on-card antenna for a remote antenna, and then run a coax cable from the remote antenna to the card, giving you (potentially) a much stronger signal, meaning more range and faster data transfers.

The card comes complete with a Quick Start guide, a regular manual (with about 15 small pages of information) and a CDrom with software to be installed onto whatever computing device you are plugging the Sierra Card into.

Like most other PCMCIA cards, the unit comes in a nice protective clear plastic carry container.

When purchased through a service provider, it also comes with a SIM card containing your account information for that service provider.

Most people will want to get a SIM and dedicated account for their Sierra card.

If you preferred, you could buy a Sierra card by itself, and then use the SIM from your regular GSM phone; simply swapping the SIM between the phone and the card, depending on which you wanted to use.  But it is not clear why you'd want to do that!

The Sierra Card is compatible with Win 95, 98, Me, NT4, 2K, and XP.  It is also compatible with PDAs running PPC, PPC 2002 and HPC2000.  It is not compatible with Mac, *NIX or other OS devices.

The AirCard 750 is a tri-band unit, compatible with GSM/GPRS cellular service in the US (1900 MHz) and most of the rest of the world (900/1800 MHz).

It has a non-transferable one year limited warranty.

Installation

The Quick Start Guide has a simple four or five step procedure to install the software drivers onto your laptop.  You install the software first and then plug the card into the laptop second, and both the Quick Start Guide and the installation program make certain you understand this.

The installation program was fast and simple.  It didn't ask me any difficult questions, didn't require me to key in any ridiculous long serial numbers, and did nothing unexpected or undocumented.  Bravo.

I inserted the SIM into the Sierra card, and with T-Mobile's help, quickly set the user account details, and then it was working.  Wow - networking didn't used to be this easy!

Usage

Connecting to the internet is simple.  There is nothing to dial, nothing else to configure.  Just click the 'connect' button, and you're online.

It can take over 50 seconds for the device to be recognized and initialized and connected to the internet.  This is, of course, not a huge delay, and comparable to what you'd wait for with a regular modem dial up connection.

Like all GPRS devices, it is an 'always on' type connection, and you'd never normally want to disconnect it, unless either

(a)  You had a faster network connection

(b)  You were trying to save battery power

(c)  You're being charged for data usage rather than having an unlimited use account

If you want to disconnect it, simply click the 'disconnect' button in the control window and it disconnects.

Performance (AirCard 750)

Note that different performance will be experienced with the different model AirCards on different types of cellular networks.

GPRS performance varies depending on how many channels are open for the connection.  The Sierra 750 is a GPRS Class 12 device, capable of taking over up to five channels simultaneously, with a maximum of four being used for either uploading or downloading, and the balance being used for data being sent in the opposite direction simultaneously.

Each GPRS channel represents about 10-15kb of bandwidth.

If the cell site is servicing very many data requests simultaneously, you'll get fewer channels than if it is only servicing a few data requests.

Actual speed depends both on the number of channels you get and also the signal quality.

I tested the card at www.bandwidthplace.com which reported performance of (at various different times) 37.4 and 39.5kb downloading, while signal strength was showing at three out of the four bars.  This performance is consistent with three or four channels being allocated to downloading.  Repeating the test with a 10dB degradation in signal quality (now showing two bars) slowed the speed down to 33.6kB.

Testing for latency, I did some pings of www.google.com.  These varied enormously, indicating some congestion and instability in the wireless data link.  The first set of four pings resulted in one lost, and the other three averaging 2125 msec.  The next set all returned, with an average of 874 msec.  The next set averaged 906 msec.  The next set averaged 1601 msec.  The highest time (apart from the timed out lost ping) was 3829 msec and the lowest was 589 msec.

By comparison, I dialed out on a modem with a 53.2k connection, and got pings averaging 220 msec with little variation in timing.  This was five times faster than from the Sierra card.

And then, for the sake of completeness, I swapped from the Sierra card to a LAN connection, and Google pings then came in at a consistent 45-46 msec - a massive 25 times faster than the Sierra card!

The much longer latency and occasional packet loss means that the effective throughput of the Sierra card will probably be appreciably lower than you'd get on a regular phone modem connected at the same raw data speed.  But, sometimes balancing this is the fact that the Sierra card can transmit and receive data simultaneously, whereas a phone modem only works in one direction at a time.  A lot depends on the type of application you're running - a simple ftp streaming file transfer might be faster with the Sierra card, but something more interactive like email or web pages would not be.

Both the Sierra card and regular modems support V.42bis type data compression, which can sometimes speed up effective data rates.

Clearly, GPRS data connectivity is no speed demon, and the simple bandwidth measurement is only part of the overall performance picture.

It is also very inconsistent.  Late in the evening, I went to repeat my testing (originally done in the middle of the afternoon), expecting to get better results.  I was unable to do this.  Bandwidth was so slow I couldn't even open up any web pages.

Some extra throughput can possibly be obtained, if using the T-Mobile service, by changing some proxy server settings at http://getmorespeed.t-mobile.com .  This speeds up web page serving by reducing the size of images on pages and using other data compression techniques.   However, during my several weeks of testing, this service was always offline for 'upgrading' so it could not be evaluated.

As a Phone

If the service plan you've signed up for allows it, the card can also be used as a regular phone.  You manage its virtual phone capability through the little control program, dialing numbers, accessing address books, etc.

The unit did not come with a phone headset.  It seems miserly that a $300 unit does not include a $5 headset.

Annoyingly, the card does not use headsets with common three wire type plugs, but instead requires a Nokia type connector with four wires.

And, compounding its limited phone capabilities, you can't use it with any microphone or speakers that might be built in or connected to your laptop (or PDA).

In operation, the card worked much the same as a regular phone, with similar sound quality, although perhaps the volume, at maximum, was a bit quieter than on my Nokia 3650.

Note that this card can only be used as a phone while it is plugged in to a powered on laptop or other PDA device.  It has no power supply of its own, and also uses the laptop or PDA to give you a dial pad and other control buttons.

Battery Life

The card has no power supply of its own.  It takes its power from whatever it is plugged into.

The faster the data connection, the more current that the card uses.  With a normal fast connection, it is using about 3 - 3.5W of power.  My laptop averages about 30W of power, and so if the Sierra card was to be permanently in use at full speed, my typical 2 - 2.5 hour battery life would be reduced by about 15 minutes to compensate for the extra power used by the Sierra Card.

Note that if your laptop is not as power hungry as my P4 monster, then the impact of the Sierra Card's power consumption will be proportionately greater.  But even if your laptop used only half the power of my Dell Inspiron 8200, then a battery that normally lasts 3 - 3.5 hours would reduce by about 30 - 40 minutes to reflect the impact of AirCard.

Different Models for Different Networks

Sierra offer three main types of PC Card that are essentially identical, other than being designed for each of the different types of cell phone networks.

They are :

  • Model 750 for GSM/GPRS service (this is the unit tested here), compatible with T-Mobile, AT&T and Cingular

  • Model 555 for CDMA service, compatible with Verizon, Cellular One, US Cellular and Alltel

  • Model 550 for CDMA service, compatible with Sprint

It is fair to note that soon these models will be obsolete, when all wireless networks move to much faster '3G' type data services.  Buying a $300 item for a very short period of usage is something you should think carefully about, especially with the alternative being to simply get a free cellphone instead.

Purchase Cost

The Model 750 has a list price of $429 if bought directly from Sierra Wireless.

T-Mobile sells it for $350 regular price and $250 rebated price, if you also sign up a service plan from them.  AT&T sell them for $300.

I've sometimes noticed advertisers in the advertising bar on the right of this column offering the card for between $50-130, which makes it much more affordable and a more tempting purchase.  But, even at this low price, you also need to sign up for an extra line of wireless service - you're paying both to buy the card and then to use it (compared to using the inbuilt capabilities of a data capable phone).

Monthly/Usage Costs

AT&T have plans ranging from $30/month up to $80 a month.  The $80/month plan includes unlimited data transfer, the other plans have very limited amounts of included data transfer (10 - 60 MB) and charge between $1.30 and $3 per extra MB; plus extra charges if you're roaming (even on the unlimited plan).  Voice is extra, with no free minutes; all calls are charged at 40c/minute and extra if roaming outside your 'home area'.

T-Mobile have an unlimited/anywhere service for $30/month, making it by far the better value.

Note that GSM/GPRS Sierra cards can be locked, the same as phones, tying them to only one network provider, so if you buy a card from, eg, AT&T, you may not be able to subsequently use it with a T-Mobile SIM.

One more comment about monthly fees.  T-Mobile will charge only $20 a month to add unlimited data transfer to an existing cell phone account.  This lower cost is another reason to consider using a cell phone for data access, rather than buying an additional expensive

Summary

If you're an ultimate road warrior, then possibly you might get some benefit from the easy connectivity and convenient that these cards offer.

But for most of us, answerable to someone else for how we spend our travel and technology budgets, it will be hard to justify the investment in this costly card and extra for the monthly connectivity.

And, quite ignoring the cost issues, using GPRS or similar service to access the internet is the slowest of all seven options discussed on our Connecting to the Internet page.  That is okay when it is a more or less free 'bonus' feature of a regular cell phone, but not so satisfactory when it requires an expensive extra piece of equipment and extra monthly service fees.

Not recommended.

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Originally published 23 January 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
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