SanDisk SD Wi-Fi Card

By Gerry Blackwell

August 07, 2003

SanDisk introduces the first mobile Wi-Fi card based on the Secure Digital (SD) form factor found in many PDAs. The initial release is limited to PocketPCs and has even more limited performance, but it is still a step in the right direction.

Several manufacturers already offer CompactFlash-based 802.11b cards that can Wi-Fi-enable some PDAs and smart phones, but SanDisk is the first out with an SD (Secure Digital) Wi-Fi card. The SanDisk Connect Wi-Fi product was due in stores August 1. The unit lists for $129.

Eventually, many more PDAs and smart phones will come with slots for the postage-stamp-size SD format cards. For now, though, SanDisk is only supporting Pocket PC devices, and because the card only works in slots enabled for SDIO (SD Input/Output), an extension of the standard, there are only 14 devices that can use the SanDisk card.

SanDisk will add support for Palm OS 4.1 in October and Palm 5.x in November, the company says. It expect to see 25 to 30 SDIO-capable devices on the market by December.

The compatible Pocket PC devices: HP iPaq 3950/3955, 3970/3975, h2210/2200, h1920/1930/1940 PDAs, ViewSonic V37 and 36 PDAs, Samsung i700, i600 and M400 PDA phones, the NEC MIO PDA, NTT DoCoMo Sigmarion smart phone, JTEL smart phone, Dell X3 PDA and Mitac Mio 8210 and 339 PDAs.

Some of these have only just come to market or are scheduled for launch later this month or September, some may also not be available yet (or ever) in the U.S.

We used an iPaq 3950 to review an early production unit of the SanDisk SD Wi-Fi card. The first challenge was to upgrade the Pocket PC's firmware (from 1.0 to 1.11) to enable SDIO. This is a somewhat complex process that requires a decent knowledge of iPaq and Pocket PC basics.

Installing the SanDisk Wi-Fi card drivers from the CD provided was a simple process using the standard Microsoft ActiveSync software for synchronizing between a host PC and PDA.

Once both these processes were complete -- and after a "normal reset" of the PDA -- the Wi-Fi card worked right away on my home office WLAN, which uses a WGR614 Cable/DSL Wireless Router 54 Mbps/2.4 GHz from Netgear.

I tested signal strength by a somewhat unscientific method --using a Web-based Internet connection speed tester from McAfee, the PC security software company. McAfee claims the tester measures connection speed, but since it uses an ftp download test, it may also be partly testing throughput of the receiving device. It was the best we could find for testing a PocketPC unit on short notice. The Internet connection is a cable-modem service from Rogers Communications Inc., a Canadian cable TV company, with top speeds of 1.5Mbps download.

I tested four devices: the iPaq with the SanDisk card; my main PC, a Dell Dimension 4300, which is wired to the Netgear router; a Toshiba laptop with a two-year-old Actiontec 802.11b card; and a 600MHz HP desktop PC located one floor away and connected via an ActionTec Wi-Fi PCI card.

The results were all over the map, but there were some interesting patterns. The wired Dell PC scored highest, naturally, with speeds from 678 to 980Kbps. The wireless Toshiba laptop and the downstairs HP desktop scored slightly less -- 370 to 428Kbps.

In each case, I tested the iPaq with the SanDisk card at the same time as the other devices and at the same distance from the router. It always scored significantly lower than the other Wi-Fi devices -- from about 170Kbps in the downstairs location to a high of 240Kbps upstairs.

Although I could not do a similarly comparative test of the SD card's range, I did test it by moving progressively away from the router. At about 30 feet through a door and one wall, it measured 200Kbps on the McAfee connection test. At 45 feet it was down to 109Kbps, and at 60 feet 63Kbps.

While the SanDisk SD card clearly offered slower download speeds than the desktops or notebook computers tested, the SanDisk SD card isn't necessarily the culpable party in this scenario.

In a PDA environment, slow download speeds (relative to a conventional desktop or notebook) can be expected, for several reasons. First, CPU speeds are an order of magnitude slower, which will limit network performance. Moreover, PDAs also employ power management methods which reduce performance for the sake of maximizing battery life. This not only affects the speed of the PDA itself, but can affect strength of the antenna as well.

I have one other concern about the SanDisk card. It sticks up above the top of the iPaq unit by almost an inch. The light plastic casing is not a problem with SD flash memory cards that insert all the way into the slot, but with this extension for the antenna, I would be concerned about damage even in normal-use environments.

Plus, the iPaq won't fit in any standard protective case with the card installed.

That said, the SanDisk product appears to be the only game in town at this point for those with just an SD slot (and pity the poor Sony CLIE owners that have only a Memory Stick). SanDisk is also promising an even more attractive version some time in late 2003-- a Wi-Fi card with 256MB of flash memory in the same form factor. No price yet on that product.

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