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WiFi on a netBook - Part 1 - Choosing Equipment


(Originally written for publication on FoxPop in October 2003)

Once you’ve decided that you’re going to explore the possibilities of WiFi with your netBook, the most important thing you can do is research the topic! There’s a lot of information on the web giving people’s experiences of what works and what doesn’t. Sites and links I’d recommend for reading are:-
Ian Sylvester’s ‘EPOC FAQ (ish)’ web site is both understated and gives itself a self-effacing title. In truth, it’s probably the most comprehensively useful repository of EPOC info. on the web. This particular section covers Ethernet connectivity in general and various other associated topics - including a list of netBook-compatible wireless LAN cards.
Well-known freeware author, Kevin Millican, describes his netBook WiFi experiences here.
Brian Dushaw’s ‘Notes on a Psion Notebook’ is a fascinating collection of his experiences of some of the more interesting things you can do with a netBook - and covers some WiFi in this list too.
An interesting account of new netBook experiences and the setup used for his WiFi connection.
PDAStreet has become the default forum for all things EPOC these days (although of course it has Palm and PocketPC sections too). This particular forum is dedicated to WiFi and Ethernet on the netBook/S7 and contains lots of useful info., tips, etc.

A PCMCIA WiFi card for the netBook:

As reading some of the above linked articles will explain, there are a number of things to consider when choosing a WiFi card that you can slot into your Psion:-

PCMCIA / CardBus?
Nowadays, PC Cards come in two varieties; PCMCIA and CardBus. Simply put, PCMCIA is the original type and uses a 16-bit bus. CardBus is newer and uses a 32-bit bus. Be aware that physically both types look identical to each other. Your Psion will only support PCMCIA however - so don’t buy a CardBus card!

Chipset used
By this I mean the make/name of the set of chips used inside the WiFi card. The netBook is capable of supporting 5 basic chipsets: Lucent Hermes, Intersil Prism II/Atmel, Cisco, CombineIT, and Dacom (Olitech/SMC). To complicate matters, some of these have re-branded e.g. the Lucent Hermes chipset as Orinoco, Agere, Proxim, and Avaya.

Some of these are preferable over others however for the following reasons:

Power consumption
The power consumption of the card is important for two reasons. Firstly because the netBook can only support up to a certain maximum current (the Series 7 even less than the netBook). Secondly simply because you want to maximise your battery time if you’re planning using your Psion truly wirelessly!

A PCMCIA card is a PCMCIA card right? Wrong. All the cards have to protrude from the machine they’re inserted into so that the card’s built-in antenna isn’t covered up by the machine. Fair enough. However, quite a few of the earlier cards have ‘bulging’ protuberances (!) in other words, the bit that sticks out isn’t flat like the rest of the card. Why is this a big deal? Well, on a netBook/S7 that ‘bulge’ effectively prevents access to the stylus’s silo. Not a big deal in itself but worth remembering... Heck, it’s just plain ugly too! ;¬)

Program compatibility
Some of the software in the netBook’s OS will only work with certain chipsets too. Specifically I’m thinking of the NetStatRF program that reports information such as signal strength, signal-noise levels, connection information, etc. I believe that it will only work with cards based on the Lucent Hermes chipset.

So, given all the above, I went hunting. And the solution I came up with is a card from a company called Buffalo (actually a trading name for a division of Mitsubishi). They’re fairly well know and have been around a while. More importantly, the card I found fulfilled all my criteria: PCMCIA bus, Lucent Hermes chipset, v. low power consumption, ‘flat’ form factor, and last but not least cheap as chips!

Buffalo 802.11b card

In fact, the equipment I ended up buying (both for the netBook and my PC) is effectively cloned versions of the Lucent/Proxim/Orinoco equipment - but at a rather lower price I suspect! ;¬)

The cheapest source I was able to find was and the above card came to a grand total of £34.60 inc. VAT

Okay, so the WiFi card will let you use your netBook to surf using WiFi in a hot-spot at an airport, certain coffee emporiums, etc. (I’ll explain the various configurations in the next article). But if you want to use it at home too then you’ll need something to plug into your home PC, right…?

A USB WiFi ‘card’ for your PC:

Right, one of the first things to mention is that you don’t necessarily need one of the fabled ‘Access Points’ in order to use WiFi at home. To explain: an Access Point is a box which can plug into your internet connection directly (usually ADSL) and provide WiFi access without any other equipment being switched on. This is great if you’ve got more than one machine at home that you all want to connect over WiFi (PC, netBook, other PDA, etc.). Currently however, I suffer from an affliction commonly being described as the ‘rural divide’. Despite being located some 35 or so miles from the centre of London as the crow flies, I am determined by British Telecom to be un-ADSL-able because my house is located more than the 4 or 5 miles distance to the exchange that they require. Of course, the technology already exists to get around this minor problem but explaining something like that to BT is completely pointless… Anyway, the upshot is that I’m still using a dial-up connection at home. Whilst it’s possible to get dial-up Access Points/routers, the last time I checked they were over £200 each not exactly in line with my cheap’n’cheerful plans! (Update: BT has finally realised (or rather, admittted) that ADSL can reach further than this and I'm pleased to say that I've now been able to get a broadband connection. See the new article/section for a description of this...)

The good news however is that the netBook OS also supports peer-to-peer WiFi (aka. ‘ad-hoc’ WiFi). Essentially this means that you can connect directly to any other computer with WiFi without the need for an Access Point. Of course, you’re not strictly making a ‘network’ here (since it’s just a point to point connection) and the ‘host’ PC obviously needs to be switched on the whole time that you want to access its internet connection but at least Windows XP will let you share the connection!

So hence all you need to set up a WiFi link at home is another WiFi ‘card’. Now, if your main PC at home is a laptop then a 2nd PCMCIA card like the one I just described might be ideal. My home machine however is a desktop and doesn’t have any PCMCIA slots. However, you can buy USB ‘cards’ almost as cheaply (I say ‘card’ because that’s what they call them. Made me think of something like a slot-in PCI card and you need to be a little careful that that’s not what you buy! In fact, it’s a stand-alone add-on.). I plumped for a Buffalo unit (to ensure WEP compatibility - more about that in later articles).

Buffalo 802.11b USB 'card'

Note the similarity between more expensive Orinoco equipment and this unit which I also sourced from for all of £37.60 (heh, heh…).

And that’s it. These two pieces of equipment (plus my netBook running built 158 and my PC running Windows XP) were all I needed to invest in order to get a WiFi link running at home. Considering that I’d just got a dial-up connection at home, I do think it’s rather cool to fire the PC up in the spare bedroom and then retire to bed and do all my email, FTP-ing, surfing, etc. from the comfort of the matrimonial boudoir on my netBook… Well, sometimes you have to take your thrills where you can find them!! ;¬)


It’s worth noting that the CardBus and/or 802.11g (54Mb/s) variants of the PC-Cards are rapidly gaining over their 802.11b (11Mb/s) siblings. If you’re in the market for a PC-Card for your netBook, I wouldn’t leave it too long - since the netBook only supports PCMCIA.

Part 2 - Configuring your equipment

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Saturday, 1 April 2006