3Com – Air Connect Wireless LAN review

11Mbps wireless networking
Photo of 3Com – Air Connect Wireless LAN
£1,090 + VAT

In the last couple of years we’ve seen several attempts at wireless connection between computers and peripherals. Infra-red promised to give a cable-free desktop, but stick a cup of coffee in the wrong place and your keyboard is likely to stop working; even laptops need line of sight to printers in order to work properly.

Early in 1999 a new RF technology appeared under the name of Bluetooth, and is now gathering momentum. This is a considerable improvement over infra-red, and uses low power, low cost, radio frequency components to enable connectivity of a wide range of mobile devices in a new concept called personal area networking or PAN. This will enable users to log into, and exchange data with, others as they come into close proximity. As you walk through the door of the office your personal palmtop computer could log into the local intranet, pick up any mail and update your appointments without you having to do anything. Which is either a blessing or a nightmare, depending on your perspective.

Wireless networking has been around for longer than that, though, and the latest 802.11b standard, which shares some features with Bluetooth, supports Ethernet protocols at up to 11Mbps. Why 11 and not 10? We’ve no idea, but the extra 10 percent is always welcome. 3Com has included this technology in its latest Air Connect and we had a chance to look at its ‘Starter Kit’. This is made up of a base unit, or access point, that connects to a PC on your office network, plus three wireless LAN PC Cards for notebooks.

Installation is relatively simple but you’ll need a bit of networking experience. First the base unit has to be set up. This is connected to your network as an external TCP/IP device. It connects to an existing hub with a standard Ethernet cable. To set it up you have to use a terminal with a serial connection to the base unit (a PC with HyperTerminal and the serial cable that comes with the unit is all that’s actually needed). You’ll need to know the default gateway and subnet mask that your system uses, and then choose a unique name for this access point.

Once that’s done, the next step is to place the access point as high as you can to give better range for mobile devices. Power can be supplied via the network cable if you haven’t got any outlets at the chosen location. Installation of the LAN cards is simpler but you’ll need to have taken a note of that ‘unique name’ you gave the base unit so that each LAN card knows what it’s looking for. Run the TCP/IP software off the drivers disk and the next time you boot up the system you should be connected. And it worked.

Company: 3Com

Contact: 01189 278 300

We managed to reach a distance of about 50 metres from the base unit before the connection faded. This could probably have been greater had we mounted the base unit a bit higher. Performance was certainly adequate for a roaming network connection. This would be an ideal system for a campus or extended office environment, although still on the expensive side for the smaller company.