The Sierra Wireless AirCard 860 is to Internet addicts what Scharffen Berger is to chocoholics. This wireless WAN (WWAN) PC Card works over Cingular's new HSDPA network (the company's answer to Verizon's high-speed EV-DO network), which enables data exchanges at a whopping theoretical maximum of 1.8Mbps (with an average throughput of 400Kbps to 700Kbps). No WWAN card can sustain that max speed, but the AirCard 860 did provide plenty of power for most of the basic Web-based activities we threw at it. In addition, it offers a smart design, an extremely easy setup process, unlimited tech support, and compatibility with three other widely available networks: UMTS, EDGE, and GPRS (for more information on all of the network types we've listed here, check out CNET News.com's wireless glossary). Though it comes with a couple of drawbacks--the HSDPA network (called BroadbandConnect) is currently available in only a handful of U.S. metropolitan areas, and the costs of the card with corresponding service aren't cheap--those who can't bear to be away from the Web should consider the $199 AirCard 860 (see more on the cost below).
Sierra Wireless designed the AirCard 860 to accommodate the needs of avid travelers. The Type II PC Card features a tiny LED status light that flashes orange and green to show when you're off- and online. A detachable orange antenna plugs into the end of the card. The antenna bends and rotates a respective 180 and 360 degrees, facilitating your ability to point it in the direction of the strongest signal. When you're done using the card, you can simply leave it in your laptop's PC Card slot and remove the delicate antenna for safekeeping. While we wish the device shipped with a protective case for just the antenna, you can use the card's own plastic case for antenna storage.
The AirCard 860's setup procedure couldn't be easier. The card, the installation CD, and the printed quick-install guide are all neatly contained within the same DVD-size jewel case. The guide warns in bold print to begin by reading all of its steps, which start with installing the drivers and the Communication Manager configuration utility and inserting the tiny SIM card into the end of the AirCard 860. After you reboot, an instructive configuration wizard helps you through the rest of the process. Though a printed user guide is not included, a helpful electronic guide is.
With the setup process under your belt, you can proceed with connecting to a cellular network via the Communication Manager. Click the Manager's Connect button, and the card begins searching for an HSDPA network in the 850MHz and 1,900MHz bands. If it doesn't find one, it conducts a default search for slower UMTS, EDGE, and GPRS networks within these same bands, as well as the 900MHz and 1,800MHz bands. This comprehensive approach lets you stay connected pretty much wherever you are (including Europe and Asia), though the fact that the HSDPA network currently exists in only 16 U.S. metro areas (covering about 52 cities) means your connection will rarely be superfast. For a limited time, through June 30, 2006, Cingular is offering a data plan with unlimited connectivity for $59.99 per month. This rate requires a two-year contract and a corresponding Cingular voice plan of $39.99 or higher. The regular unlimited data plan rate is $79.99 per month. The card itself costs $199, but Cingular provides a $100 rebate to those who sign up for a two-year service contract. These prices aren't insignificant (Verizon's unlimited EV-DO plan is
$59.99 per month), but they'll be worth it to road warriors, especially employees whose businesses will foot the bills.
The Communication Manager window displays other pertinent info about your connection, such as signal strength, time online, and amount of data transferred and received. If you work through a VPN, you can click the utility's VPN button to access your presets. Another button takes you to text messaging, where you can compose a message to send as either text or e-mail. The utility will also manage your Wi-Fi card on a separate tab, showing the same salient information while supporting important wireless features such as WPA security.
In our anecdotal tests using CNET's Bandwidth Meter, the AirCard 860 exhibited fast speeds of about 400Kbps in San Francisco--one of the 16 areas in which HSDPA is currently available--and slower performance of around 100Kbps outside the city. We experienced overall consistent connectivity, even when we took a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles down the lonesome Interstate 5.
The AirCard 860 ships with a good warranty for a wireless device: one year of service accompanied by toll-free, 24/7 tech support for the life of the product. In a refreshing departure from the practices of most tech companies, which discourage pricey tech-support calls by burying toll-free numbers where they're hard to find, Cingular plasters its number all over the card's install guide and CD. If the wireless service provider can't fix your issue, it will refer you to customer service at Sierra Wireless.