D-Link AirPlus Enhanced 2.4GHz Wireless CardBus Adapter and PCI Adapter

By Ronald Pacchiano

October 28, 2002

Once again the Texas Instruments Wi-Fi chip distinguishes itself: D-Link's 22Mbps adapters have some the best 802.11b-based performance we've seen.

Model Number: DWL-650+ ($79.99) and DWL-520+ ($89)

D-Link's latest access point, the AirPlus DWL-900AP+, with its versatility, 256-bit encryption, low price and backwards compatibility with older 802.11b products is simply remarkable. Of course the coolest thing about the 900AP+ is its ability to move data at speeds approaching 22Mbps. This increase in speed, however, can only be achieved when the 900+ is used in conjunction with another AirPlus family product. D-Link Systems recently sent us its set of AirPlus adapters, the DWL-650+ and the DWL-520+ PCI adapter.

On its own the cards proved to be moderately faster then standard 802.11b products, but when paired with the 900AP+, they are real fire breathers. Speed isn't the only thing the AirPlus line has going for it: easy of use, security, and useful configuration and monitoring tools make it one of the best values on the market today.

Pros:

  • 256-bit WEP Encryption
  • Easy set up and 24 hour Support
  • High Data Transfer Rates

Cons:

  • Didn't auto detect a 22Mbps connection

BASIC FEATURES

The AirPlus DWL-650+ is a 32-bit CardBus adapter designed for use with your notebook or laptop computer. The DWL-650+ is based on the same Texas Instruments (TI) wireless chipset, the ACX100, employed by the DWL-900AP+. This chipset uses a modulation technique called Packet Binary Convolution Coding (PBCC) and operates in the 2.4GHz frequency band.

As with other AirPlus products, the 650+ maintains backwards compatibility with older 11Mbps 802.11b products and works in both Infrastructure and Ad Hoc modes. It can support transmission rates from 1Mbps, all the way up to a theoretical 22Mbps. 256-bit WEP encryption, the industries highest, is used to prevent those high speed data transmissions from being intercepted from unauthorized eyes. If you use the 650+ with another vendor's hardware you'll have to settle for either 64 or 128-bit encryption.

Packed with the 650+ driver is a useful diagnostic and configuration utility that not only searches for available wireless networks, but also monitors link quality, signal strength and the amount of data being transferred. Wireless network configuration profiles can be created and stored, making it easy to travel between different networks.

SETUP/INSTALLATION

Everything should work as smoothly as the AirPlus DWL-650+ installation did. The installation performed exactly the way it was outlined in the documentation. First you install the driver and utility software, shutdown the computer, insert the AirPlus 650+ PC Card into you system and boot up. Upon login the Hardware Detection Wizard will start, identify the existence of a new network adapter and load the appropriate drivers.

When we first began our test we were getting performance results that were on par with standard 802.11b products. The 650+ had been set by default to 11Mbps. To get the higher speeds, you need to set the transmission speed setting in the configuration manager. I reset the transmission speed to automatic, figuring that it would be best for the system to detect the best speed available. I was wrong. The test numbers did not improve. I manually set it to the unit's highest speed setting of 22Mbps PBCC. This generated the results we were looking for.

PERFORMANCE

According to our QCheck diagnostic utility, our standard ZoomAir PC Card had a maximum throughput rate of 4.667Mbps at 11Mbps. Our AirPlus DWL-650+ using the same 11Mbps setting scored a 5.137Mbps -- about a 10% increase in performance. When we reset the 650+ to 22Mbps PBCC, the test numbers jumped up to a very impressive 6.747Mbps, approximately 48% over a standard 802.11b adapter and one of the highest we've recorded. This makes the AirPlus line of products very attractive to the performance oriented, yet budget minded shopper.

The range of our test unit was also always good. The DWL-650+ signal strength and link quality almost always hovered in the mid to high 90s. By comparison, our ZoomAir PC Card in the same location was only able to register about a 43% signal.

SECURITY

Encryption can be notorious for crippling performance, but not with the AirPlus line. Regardless of whether we implemented 64-, 128- or 256-bit encryption, data transfer rates where barely effected. Unlike most of the products we test, enabling the 650+ encryption was painfully simple. Open the configuration tool, move to the encryption section, set the encryption level, enter the PassPhrase and enable it. Perform the same exercise on the access point and you will be online and protected, all in a matter of a few minutes.

D-Link's PCI DWL-520+ version, at $89, is slightly more expensive than its PC Card relative. This is a self contained rather than a modular card; it doesn't obtain its functionality by slipping a PC Card NIC through the faceplate. In my tests, the installation of the DWL-520+ (which has a detachable and adjustable antenna), was uneventful.

In our ad-hoc mode performance tests, data transfer between the two NICs was on par with that between the 650+ and an access point. In my tests, I obtained throughput of between 6.6 and 6.9Mbps in both TCP and UDP throughput. As the distance increased though (and a concrete wall intervened) the performance dropped precipitously, down to about 1.5Mbps. This is likely owing to the weak antennas (relative to an access point) found within the cards.

SUMMARY

The AirPlus DWL-650+ and its PCI sibling are a quality products. For a price of around $70 you get an easy installation, good configuration utilities and most importantly; fantastic performance. It has one of the best performances per dollar ratios on the market today.



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