Until recently, if you wanted to add a desktop computer to an 802.11b wireless network, you had to pop open your computer and slip a wireless networking card into a PCI slot. Now Agere Systems offers an external desktop solution, the Orinoco USB Client, for less computer-savvy users. However, Agere Systems will have to make its software and manual more user-friendly before this product appeals to the home market. Until recently, if you wanted to add a desktop computer to an 802.11b wireless network, you had to pop open your computer and slip a wireless networking card into a PCI slot. Now Agere Systems offers an external desktop solution, the Orinoco USB Client, for less computer-savvy users. However, Agere Systems will have to make its software and manual more user-friendly before this product appeals to the home market.
Two levels of security
Installing the Orinoco USB Client, which looks like a stylized PC speaker and comes in gold (128-bit encryption, $169) or silver (64-bit encryption, $149), is a fairly simple procedure. Simply plug the unit into an open USB port on your desktop computer and install the drivers from the included CD-ROM. Next, the Add/Edit Configuration Profile window automatically appears and lets you create up to four network profiles based on three configurations: peer-to-peer group, residential gateway, and access point. For example, if you're connecting to a home network via a residential gateway, you can create a profile and set basic parameters such as the network name and the encryption key. When you're finished, click OK, and Windows will prompt you to restart your computer. For more advanced options, you can also install the Orinoco Client Manager program. Although not required, the program lets you view and modify network settings and monitor your network connection.
The Orinoco USB Client is similar to other home-networking products we've looked at. It communicates with other wireless devices, such as access points and residential gateways, over radio waves within a theoretical 492-foot range at speeds up to 11mbps. Since it supports the 802.11b standard and is Wi-Fi certified, it is compatible with other Wi-Fi-certified products, regardless of brand. (For a list of Wi-Fi-certified devices and adapters, check out the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance Web site.)
At first, we set up a peer-to-peer network between two desktop computers. However, when we tried to link two Orinoco USB Clients sitting on opposite ends of a New York apartment (about 60 feet apart), the Orinoco Client Manager warned that we had a marginal connection. Agere Systems says you can expect up to a 200-foot range in a home or office environment, but it depends what kind of materials the walls are made out of (metal supports or chicken wire can drastically reduce range). For connections over long distances, the Orinoco USB Client has three automatic fall-back rates (5.5mbps, 2mbps, and 1mbps) for more stable connection speeds. Remember, as with all 802.11b devices, 11mbps is the network's maximum theoretical bandwidth.
Once we added the Orinoco RG-1000 Residential Gateway to the network, we had better luck; the Orinoco Client Manager said our connection was excellent. In reality, however, Agere Systems says you'll get 4.5mbps to 5mbps of true bandwidth using the residential gateway, which lets you share a single Internet connection (dial-up, cable, DSL, or LAN) among several computers. To test bandwidth, we copied a 100MB folder from one PC to another. Six and half minutes later, the transfer was complete.
Our only gripes with the USB client had to do with the user manual and the software installation. While savvy computer users won't have a problem, novices and intermediate users may be intimidated by all the tech jargon. Agere Systems hopes to remedy this with its upcoming summer software release, which has a new install wizard, support for more profiles, multilanguage support, and a few other tweaks.
Agere Systems backs the Orinoco USB Client with a one-year warranty. However, when it comes to technical support, you must contact an authorized reseller, so the quality of the support will vary. The company Web site offers some help in the form of a user guide and a FAQ page.
In the final analysis, the Orinoco USB Client is certainly a welcome addition to Agere Systems' family of wireless products. While we wish its list price were a little closer to $100 and its software a little more user friendly, we have no problem recommending this product to semisavvy tech users interested in setting up a wireless network in a home or small-office environment.
Editor's note: We will update this review when Agere Systems releases its new software.