3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card with XJACK antenna review: 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card with XJACK antenna

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The Good Comes with special security and peer-to-peer features; antenna retracts for zero power consumption; five-year warranty.

The Bad Expensive; below-average performance; confusing software; lackluster online tech support.

The Bottom Line For companies that buy 3Com equipment, this 802.11b card's proprietary features could be worth the price. Others should look elsewhere.

6.8 Overall
  • Setup 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 6
  • Support 8

The 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card targets enterprise users, offering proprietary security features; an energy-saving, pop-out antenna; and 3Com's 3Link software for wireless peer-to-peer sharing of network applications. But with its sketchy documentation, high price, and unexceptional performance, this card is viable only for companies that need added security and have already invested in 3Com equipment. When you insert the 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card into your laptop, Windows detects the hardware automatically and pops up a request to insert the included setup disk. After you install the card's driver, you must go through a separate routine to install the 3Com Wireless LAN Manager software. The utility features a wizard that walks you through creating a connection, offering security and VPN options along the way. The wireless LAN PC Card works with notebooks running Windows 98 SE, Me, 2000, and XP.

3Com Wireless LAN Manager.
Unfortunately, the documentation on the card's accompanying CD-ROM is among the worst we've seen. It tells you how to insert the card and install the software, but aside from a brief troubleshooting section, that's about all the help you get--no security instructions, discussions of networking options, and so on. Fortunately, the 3Com Wireless LAN Manager's online help section is quite complete, although it's geared more toward network professionals than novices.

The 3Com Wireless LAN Manager duplicates the functionality of Windows XP's wireless utility. To activate the software, click the 3Com system tray icon, which brings up a small Launcher studded with icons to help you manage your connection. The icons aren't intuitive, however, and the organization of menus and options is quirky. Aside from the extensive online help and access to the card's special features, there's little improvement over standard Windows' functionality.

3Link screen.
Chief among the 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card's special features is 3Link, which enables a peer-to-peer connection with other 3Link users via NetMeeting (you can also share 3Link user profiles and play multiplayer games that support DirectX 8.1). If another user with 3Link comes within range, a little icon on the Windows system tray comes to life. For example, a large company with many 3Com cards and employees that tend to change locations frequently may find this sort of functionality useful.

Another feature that one-ups the default Windows software is the 3Com Profile Manager. Basically, you use the Profile Manager to create multiple groups of network settings, then switch among them as you move from one location to another, enabling you to log in easily. This is a definite improvement over Windows, which supports only one alternate network configuration.

Profile Manager window.

The most visible of the wireless LAN PC Card's features is its pop-out XJACK antenna. When the antenna is retracted, the card draws no power whatsoever from your computer's battery and stays flush with the side of the laptop case. The only drawback to this design is that the antenna is relatively easy to push in by mistake, which shuts down the card and breaks the connection--and the card takes a few seconds to reconnect. A single LED on the antenna serves as a power and link activity indicator.

3Com XJACK antenna.

When it comes to security, the wireless LAN PC Card shines. In addition to 128-bit WEP, which presents itself as an option when you set up a new connection, the card supports 3Com's Dynamic Security Link and Serial Authentication. The Dynamic Security Link offers a 128-bit encryption format more secure than WEP because it generates a unique encryption key for each wireless session. Of course, this setting requires a 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN access point 6000 or 8000 to work. Likewise, Serial Authentication, which puts a proprietary spin on the extensible authentication protocol included with Windows XP, requires a connection with a 3Com access point 8000.

The 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card's special retractable XJACK antenna may help conserve power, but it does little for performance or range. In CNET Labs' tests, the card netted 4.6Mbps, roughly 6 percent less than the mean. The 3Com card demonstrated adequate range in informal tests but came in last when compared with four major competitors.

Throughput tests
Measured in Mbps (longer bars indicate better performance)
802.11b Turbo   
Netgear WAB501 dual-band wireless adapter
Linksys WPC11 Instant wireless network adapter
Proxim Orinoco World PC Card (Gold)
3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card with XJACK antenna
Chariot 802.11b response time
Measured in milliseconds (shorter bars indicate better performance)
Netgear WAB501 dual-band wireless adapter
Linksys WPC11 Instant wireless network adapter
Proxim Orinoco World PC Card (Gold)
3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card with XJACK antenna
Range test
Relative performance in typical office setting
0.0 to 1.0 = Poor   1.1 to 2.0 = Fair   2.1 to 3.0 = Good   3.1 and higher = Excellent
Proxim Orinoco World PC Card (Gold)
Netgear WAB501 dual-band wireless adapter
Linksys WPC11 Instant wireless network adapter
3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card with XJACK antenna
For practical throughput tests, CNET Labs uses NetIQ's Chariot 4.3 software as its benchmark. For wireless testing, the clients and the routers are set up to transmit at short ranges and at maximum signal strength. CNET Labs' response-time tests are also run with Chariot software using the TCP protocol. Response time measures how long it takes to send a request and receive a response over a network connection. Throughput and response time are probably the two most important indicators of user experience over a network.

The 3Com 11Mbps wireless LAN PC Card comes with a long five-year warranty--among the best in the business. The included installation instructions encourages you to get tech support from your dealer, but unlimited phone support is available Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT. Unfortuantely, CNET users have reported difficulty in getting quick, accurate responses from 3Com tech support for the company's other wireless cards, and online tech support is awkward, requiring user registration at every turn to download drivers, documentation, or the Connection Assistant (a troubleshooting wizard).

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