Despite the long name, 3Com’s 11Mbps Wireless LAN OfficeConnect PC Card is actually a small and, in many respects, unremarkable product. Like a host of other Wi-Fi certified cards it conforms to the 802.11b Wireless Ethernet specification, which means it can be used to connect to any similarly specified wireless LAN. And it’s a PC Card (think of a credit card, only thicker) which means it will work in any PC equipped with a Type II PC Card slot – in other words, notebooks.
An accompanying CD-ROM contains the software needed to setup and use the 3Com card and installation is straightforward. Any version of Windows from 98 to XP can be used, the Plug-and-Play support in the operating system detecting the card and loading suitable drivers from the CD-ROM automatically.
It’s then just a matter of matching the setup of the wireless LAN you want to connect to. And here there’s the usual management utility to specify whether or not an access point is involved, and the level of encryption to apply, with a choice of 40-bit and 128-bit WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy) on offer.
The advertised bandwidth is 11Mbps, but as with all wireless cards you won’t get anything like that. Expect around 5Mbps at best on most office networks. Moreover, beyond about 20-30m, throughput is likely to be pegged back even further, the card stepping down in speed as the signal weakens and bounces off walls and furniture.
All of which is much like any other Wi-Fi adapter, begging the question as to why you would consider the 3Com card over cheaper alternatives.
Brand name, of course, is one reason, 3Com being one of the longest established adapter vendors, offering a lifetime warranty on all its products. Another is the unique pop-out XJACK aerial, which can be tucked out of harm’s way when not in use. In practice, however, we found we had to push this hard several times for the catch to hold and the antennae itself looks a little flimsy. In fact, we’d recommend the alternative fixed version which is also about a fiver cheaper.
One last justification is that, when used in conjunction with other 3Com products (like the Access Point 6000 and 8000), the OfficeConnect card supports a much higher level of security than is possible with WEP alone. Things like dynamic changing of encryption keys, port-based access control and external user authentication can be used.
Options such as these aren’t available on most of the competition’s products and, although of little interest to home users, they will be important to companies with large wireless networks to manage.
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