Actiontec's new 802.11g-based PC Card adapter lets you connect your notebook to both 802.11g and 802.11b hot spots. The adapter is reasonably priced, and it demonstrated fast throughput and good range in our tests. Wireless networking is still new for most people, however, so good manuals and solid support are important--and that's where this product falls short. More experienced users may take this all in stride, but we can't recommend this adapter to novices.
Like many 802.11g PC Cards now on the market, the Actiontec adapter practically installs itself. Just insert the adapter into an available Type II or Type III PC Card slot on your computer and follow a series of onscreen prompts for installing the driver and configuring the adapter. The routine varies somewhat depending on which version of Windows you're using; the software supports Windows 98 and later but not Linux or Mac. After the installation, an icon for the Prism Wireless Settings utility appears in Windows' system tray. The utility cycles through the 11 channels in the 2.4GHz radio band (used by 802.11b/g networking devices) and latches onto the first access point it finds. In many cases, that's all there is to it.
But if, as in our test scenario, there are multiple or protected networks, you'll need to configure the adapter to work with the appropriate one. The well-organized, tabbed interface of the Prism Wireless Settings utility lets you set variables such as SSID, channel, and encryption key. You could certainly use it instead of the Zero Configuration utility built into XP--or use both together. If you go with the latter approach, however, note that when Zero Configuration is active, certain settings in the Prism software become unavailable. Unfortunately, the user manual does not include clear instructions about how to turn off Zero Configuration. We were also disappointed by the screenshots of the Prism Utility in the electronic user manual; they were blotchy and barely legible.
CNET Labs tested the adapter with an Actiontec 54Mbps wireless access point. Its maximum throughput rate of 23Mbps was the fastest we've seen among PC Card-based adapters. Even at a distance of 100 feet from the access point, the card's throughput topped the rest at 7.3Mbps; beyond that distance, however, the Buffalo AirStation prevailed.
CNET Labs throughput tests (in megabits per second)
Actiontec covers its PC Card with a one-year warranty. The company's Web site offers downloadable driver updates and online documentation. The company also offers 24/7 toll-free phone support. In our tests, we reached an Actiontec support staffer within 10 minutes, and he offered helpful advice.
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