Understanding Internal 802.11 Card Form Factors

By Jim Geier

February 04, 2003

Wireless LAN vendors offer 802.11 NICs that literally come in all shapes and sizes that go inside your computer. Learn which client card size and shape is best for your needs.

The form factor of an internal wireless radio network interface card (NIC) defines a physical and electrical bus interface that enables the radio card to communicate with a computing device. The barrage of form factors -- a fancy way of saying the physical size and shape of a device -- demands that you be careful when purchasing a card that matches your specific user device. Let's take a closer look at the various forms available for desktop PCs, laptops and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

Industry Standard Architecture (ISA)

The ISA bus is the most common bus interface in the desktop PC world. ISA has been around since the early 80's for use in the IBM PC/XT and PC/AT. Because of this, the proliferation of the ISA has been significant.

Despite its lack of speed (2MBps), nearly all PC's manufactured up until a short time ago had at least one ISA bus. The ISA bus has failed, however, to advance at the pace of the rest of the computer world, and other higher speed alternatives are now available. ISA doesn't impose too much of a performance impact on 802.11b wireless LANs, but it's not advisable to purchase new ISA cards because of the possibility of them becoming obsolete.

Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI)

The PCI bus is the most popular bus interface for PCs today and boasts a throughput rate of 264Mbps. Intel originally developed and released PCI in 1993, and it satisfies the needs of most recent generations of PCs for multimedia, graphics and networking cards.

PCI cards were the first to popularize Plug and Play (PnP)<DEFINE: PnP> technology. PCI circuitry can recognize compatible PCI cards and then works with the computer's operating system to set the resource allocations for each card. This helps save time and prevents installation headaches.

Most wireless LAN vendors offer PCI-based radio cards instead of ISA... if you must use an internal card, they're the only way to go when equipping a desktop PC with wireless LAN capability. In order to ensure good connectivity with an access point, think about purchasing PCI cards having an external antenna connector to allow the placement of the antenna on top of a desk. Permanently attached antennas on PCI cards generally remain hidden behind PCs and low to the floor where there are large obstructions, such as desks, that offer significant signal attenuation.

PC Card

Developed in the early 90's by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA), the PC Card is a credit card sized peripheral device that can provide extended memory, modems, connectivity to external devices, and, of course, wireless LAN capabilities to laptops. They are the most widely available WLAN cards available. In fact, they are much more popular than ISA or PCI cards because of use in a growing number of laptops.

If you want to share a PC Card with your desktop PC, consider using an adaptor that converts a PC Card into a PCI card. This allows purchasing one card for use in both types of computers. Take the PC Card along with you a business trip or home from work and utilize the same card when back in your office using a PC.

Antennas are generally integrated into the wireless PC Card, with a stub that extends outside the PC Card slot and provides omni-directional RF propagation patterns. In most cases, these integrated antennas provide very good performance. Some PC Cards, though, come with optional removable antennas in case you have a need to utilize alternative, possibly more directive antennas.

In order to use a PC Card with a PDA, you'll probably need a sled device that accommodates the PC Card and mounts underneath the PDA. This is the only way to add wireless LAN capability to some older PDAs. The combination of the sled, PC Card and PDA, however, adds a lot of bulk and weight that depletes the usability.

You'll find that many access points incorporate PC Card radio NICs and are easily replaceable, accommodating newer technologies (e.g., 802.11a or 802.11g) as they become available. In most cases, end users can swap the radio NICs along with relatively simple firmware upgrades. This extends the life of the access point hardware, which of course saves money in the long run.

You'll sometimes see PC Card NICs referred to as "CardBus" -- that's a 32-bit implementation of a PC Card. Which means, basically, it's faster -- so it's much more likely to be found for use with the faster 802.11a or g.

Mini-PCI

A Mini-PCI card is a small version of a standard desktop PCI card. It has all the same features and functionality of a normal PCI card, but is about one quarter the size. Mini-PCI cards are integrated within laptops as an option to buyers, with antennas that are often integrated out of view within the monitor's case or even up next to the LCD screen. A strong advantage of this form of radio NIC is that it frees up the PC Card slot for other devices. In addition, manufacturers can provide Mini-PCI based wireless connectivity at lower costs.

The Mini-PCI card is not without disadvantages, however. If you want to replace a Mini-PCI card yourself, you may have to disassemble most of the laptop. The problem is that this could void the manufacturer's warranty. Mini-PCI cards may also lead to lower performance, because they require the computer to do some, if not all of the processing. Despite these drawbacks, the Mini-PCI card has revolutionized the wireless laptop world.

CompactFlash (CF)

SanDisk Corporation first introduced CF in 1994, but wireless LAN radio cards were not available in CF form factors until recently. A CF card is very small, weighing half an ounce and less than half the thickness and one quarter the volume of PC Card radio card. The CF cards also draw very little power, which enables batteries to last longer than devices using PC Cards. Some PDAs come with direct CF interfaces, which results in a very lightweight and compact wireless PDA.

A CF radio card is definitely the way to go, especially for compact computing devices. Consider using a CF-to-PC Card adapter to operate the CF card in a laptop via PC Card slot. This enables you to take advantage of the miniature-sized radio card in the PDA and not have to purchase another card for your laptop.

This just covers the internal forms a wireless NIC can take -- and doesn't cover the newest type of products, Secure Digital Input/Output or SD Cards that will soon be the smallest Wi-Fi NICs in existence. There are also externals wireless adapters that connect through the USB port and even the existing Ethernet network port. We'll cover them in the near future.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs and offers computer-based training (CBT) courses on wireless LANs.

Join Jim for discussions as he answers questions in the 802.11 Planet Forums.



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