Networking to your notebook is easy with a PC Card adapter, and a dual-band unit makes sense--connecting you to the installed base of 802.11a products, as well as to the newer 802.11g's. The SMC EZ Connect universal 2.4GHz/5GHz 802.11a/g wireless cardbus adapter (SMC2336W-AG) gives you dual-band versatility for a low price. It also delivers wicked-fast throughput, with an exceptionally long 200-foot range in 802.11g mode. Before you rush out to buy dual band, though, remember these tips: Like all dual-band cards, the SMC2336W-AG can operate at either 2.4GHz or 5GHz but not both simultaneously. It can function in a mixed 802.11b/g network, but if another card connects in 802.11b mode, the SMC2336W-AG's 802.11g throughput plunges to 802.11b levels. Add to that the product's tricky warranty and insufficient documentation, and the SMC2336W-AG fails to challenge our Editors' Choice, the Linksys WPC55AG.
A basic test of any card's installation is whether it provides complete instructions for Windows 98 and up. The SMC2336W-AG's 45-page hard-copy manual covers this ably, spending nearly 20 pages on driver and utility installation. As helpful as this is, all you really need to do is plug in the card and follow the Windows prompts.
Though the manual's setup instructions are thorough, its description of the adapter's configuration utility is rather skimpy. For example, the utility offers 802.11b Extended and Normal range settings, but the manual offers no explanation of the feature, nor is there a discussion of the adapter's Active and Passive scan modes.
The configuration utility includes some distinctive extras. There's a helpful status screen that gives you a snapshot of everything you need to know about your current connection. And its graphical display of signal strength, with a handy percentage readout, is lacking in many other configuration utilities.
Like most configuration utilities for dual-band cards, the SMC2336W-AG's settings are profile specific. The parameters that you include in a profile, such as SSID and security settings, can apply to a single access point or, if you leave the SSID field blank, multiple ones. You also get two nice options that most other cards lack. One is the ability to adjust the transmit power and the power-saving mode for each profile. More interesting is the quality-of-service (QoS) setting, which lets you give priority to video and voice data to increase the likelihood of uninterrupted streaming. For this to work, however, the access point must also support SMC's QoS scheme.
You get a little extra in the security department, as well. Along with the usual WEP encryption, the adapter claims to support the much stronger Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), due to be ratified by year's end. SMC2336W-AG also supports Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption, but you will need to use XP's configuration utility to enable it.
The SMC2336W-AG's 802.11g throughput is superb--both its peak of 21Mbps, and its exceptionally smooth falloff as distance increases, all the way to an amazing 200 feet. The 802.11a performance is great, too, with a peak of 23Mbps. This is the only dual-band adapter we've seen that performed equally well at both bands (though not at the same time). At a little past 50 feet, the 802.11a's throughput slipped below that of the card's 802.11g mode. The card also supports an even faster proprietary turbo mode that requires an all-SMC network.
For a card with such high scores, it's a shame to see the SMC2336W-AG dip to around 5Mbps in 802.11g mode when 802.11b devices are also connected, making it at least a third slower than most 802.11g cards arriving on the market today. It's common for 802.11g cards to offer reduced throughput when operating in tandem with 802.11b devices, but the SMC took the biggest performance hit of any card we've tested.
|CNET Labs throughput tests (Longer bars indicate better performance)|
SMC's support for the SMC2336W-AG is spartan. The sparse documentation gets little backup from the Web site, which offers mostly downloads and an e-mail form. The company's toll-free, 24/7 tech support is nice, but make sure you register the product within 30 days of purchase; otherwise, your warranty and support last a mere 90 days. If you register in time, your warranty lasts for a year past the date that SMC discontinues the product, which is as good as a warranty gets for networking gear and is comparable to the limited lifetime warranty that Belkin offers for many of its products.