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{mospagebreak toctitle= The Pitch}

The Pitch

Sandisk SD Wi-Fi card w/ Zire 71 support
Summary First 802.11b adapter in SD format. For Pocket PCs with SDIO slots only!
New version available August 2004 supports Palm Zire 71
Update 6/27/2004 - Corrected information on DHCP lease problem and obtaining DNS information
Pros • The only 802.11b SDIO card available for palmOne Zire 71
Cons • Sub 0.5Mbps throughput
• Supported only on (discontinued) Zire 71
• Poor OS integration

Sandisk SD Wi-Fi card w/ Zire 71 support

SanDisk has - at least according to their story - overcame almost insurmountable obstacles to bring the first SD Wi-Fi card that can be used with a PalmOS device to market. That's the good news.

The disappointing news is that the updated version of the SD WiFi card that should be in stores sometime next month (July 2004) supports only the discontinued Palm Zire 71.

This sole-device support will certainly limit the new card's appeal. But unfortunately, that's not the only thing that may make you want to take a pass on the product...


The Product

I covered the internal details of the SD Wi-Fi card's design in the original review, so won't waste space with them here. The new card will be readily identifiable by new packaging which has a checkbox for the Zire 71 right on the front (Figure 1). By the way, the new card's drivers also support devices running Windows Mobile 2003.

SanDisk Zire SD WiFi - The new package

Figure 1: The new package
(click on the image for a larger view)

The new SD Wi-Fi is still based on SyChip's WLAN SD6060 reference design, but has hardware tweaks that SanDisk says make it different enough from the original SD Wi-Fi card that the original cards can't be used with the new card's drivers.

Being the curious kinda guy that I am, I popped the original hardware version 1.0 card (this is marked on the sticker on the back of the card - the new card SanDisk sent me was marked H/W: 2.1) into the Zire 71 and ran the same FTP test that I used to test the new card (more later). To my surprise, the card came right up, worked with the new utilities and had essentially the same performance as the newer card.

When I reported this to SanDisk, they said they were aware that the older card would work, but that it will connect to only about half the APs that the new card will. So if SanDisk makes the new drivers available for download, I guess you'll be able to give the old card a try for yourself.


The Product, Continued

Since SanDisk says they received no help or support from PalmOne in bringing the updated SD Wi-Fi to market, the resulting product doesn't provide the same user experience as Palm's sole WLAN-enabled device to date - the Tungsten C. Readers of the NeedToKnow: WiFi PDAs' Dirty Little Secret know that the Tungsten C beat all the other PocketPC-based devices that I tested.

But what's not clear from that article is the smooth user experience provided by that device. I had no problem using either the web browser to cruise the web or a third-party FTP utility to easily upload and download files to test wireless speed. The Zire 71, however, was an entirely different experience.

Things actually didn't start out that badly. The WiFi Utility bundled with the card (Figures 2 - 5) was serviceable enough and automatically connected to my test AP each time the card was inserted or an application was launched that requested web access. The Utility also showed in-range APs and their security status (Figure 2) and allowed storing multiple connection profiles.

SanDisk Zire SD WiFi - WLAN Configuration

Figure 2: WLAN Configuration

SanDisk Zire SD WiFi - Connection Status
Figure 3: Connection Status

SanDisk Zire SD WiFi - Connection profile
Figure 4: Connection profile

SanDisk Zire SD WiFi - Encryption settings

Figure 5: Encryption settings

But the Utility also had a few interesting quirks. It seemed to lease a different IP address from my LAN's DHCP server each time it connected. Since the card will probably be on and off a network frequently due to the nature of PDA use, this trait could quickly exhaust the available number of leasable addresses on a busy LAN.

You also have no way of seeing the Gateway and DNS server information for a DHCP connection, with the latter omission being a source of frustration when I tried out the bundled trial version of Novarra's nWeb browser - which kept telling me it was having DNS connection problems. You can, of course, enter all required information if you give the device a static IP.

6/27/2004 - Acting on a tip from Sychip, I verified that the DHCP lease problem reported above was due to the DHCP server in the OvisLink WMU-9000VPN wireless router that I was using for my testing.

Sychip also told me - and I verified - that DNS and Gateway information is available from the Zire's Network Log screen (Prefs > Network > Preferences menu > Options > View Log). They said they would be adding this information to the next generation of their driver utility.

Wireless security is limited to 64 / 128 bit WEP encryption - at least you can enter Hex or ASCII keys - with no support for either WPA or 802.1x authentication. Note, however, that the new Windows drivers support WPA and 802.1x in addition to WEP. Note also that only Infrastructure (AP-based) connection is supported - no AdHoc connections allowed.

But once I had the card installed and connected to my access point, I quickly found that there wasn't a lot that I could do with my new wireless connection. After tracking down the problem causing the DNS messages (my access point had lost contact with my LAN) I gave the Novarra browser a quick try. I didn't spend long with it, though, since page loads took quite a while and the browser doesn't provide any way of scaling pages.


The Test

As I had with the Tungsten C, I installed VFSTP as an FTP client in order to test wireless throughput ( IXIA doesn't have a Qcheck / Chariot endpoint for the PalmOS). I quickly ran into a problem, however, when I found the Zire wouldn't allow VFSTP to show files in its PDA Files View.

But thanks to Google, which led me to Laurent Thaler's free LFtp client, I was finally able to upload files that I finagled onto the Zire via HotSync to the 3Com 3CDaemon Version 2.0 Revision 10 FTP server running on my PC. So I cobbled together a few scripts using LFtp's scripting feature and used it to run my wireless throughput testing.

I ran my throughput test using an upload of five files of mixed sizes, which I ran twice. I ended up discarding the results from two of the five transfers because they were too short to provide an accurate measurement, given that the timings that I used from the 3CDaemon's log had only 1 second resolution. I then took an average of all six of the remaining timings to get an average speed of 259kbps. This is actually slower than the 320kbps that I got in my original testing.

When I communicated these results to SanDisk and Sychip, they didn't refute the results, but explained that the low speed is due to an SDIO driver limitation of reading only 2 Bytes at a time. They also pointed out that the Zire 71's Texas Instruments OMAP CPU is only running at 130MHz.

I didn't perform range testing, since I expected it to be the same as my original testing, given that the RF characteristics of the card haven't changed. I did try to connect via both 64 and 128 bit WEP to the OvisLink WMU-9000VPN wireless router (using a Conexant PRISM-based 11g radio) that had worked fine when running the card unencrypted, but had no luck connecting in either WEP mode.

And, of course, the card chews through the Zire 71's battery pretty quick, running it down in about an hour or so of the pretty much constant wireless use I gave it during my speed testing.


The Verdict

So there you have it. Sorta makes you wonder if it was all worth it, at least for SanDisk. To their credit, they did persevere and deliver on their (downsized) promise to support PalmOS 5.X devices. And the resulting product is about the same in performance and features as the PocketPC-only product that has been available for the past eight months or so.

But consider the following statement that I received from palmOne's Director of Public Relations Jim Christensen when I asked for their side of the story as to why only the Zire71 is supported in SanDisk's product:

Following market and development-cost analysis, palmOne plans to introduce a Wi-Fi card later in the year that will be applicable to its Zire 72 and Tungsten T3 handhelds, but no other current products.

This decision reflects the fact that these solutions require very tight integration between hardware, firmware and custom software, as well as access to propriety technologies for the level of tight integration necessary to give the customer an excellent experience.

The availability of a Wi-Fi card from SanDisk for the Zire 71 is a good example of a third-party developer innovating to meet additional customer requests.

So you heard it here first, folks: the ability to add Wi-Fi to Zire 72's and Tungsten T3's is coming later this year from the palmOne itself. Something tells me that the folks at SanDisk would have preferred something else as a holiday gift from palmOne this year.