In many parts of the U.S., the most pressing needs of wireless users have been better coverage and more available bandwidth for voice calls. High-speed data capability, although more highly touted, has been in less demand. But the new Sprint PCS Connection Card CF2031 ($230 street plus monthly service fee), with the slight dimensions of a Compact Flash (CF) card and the ability to provide both high data throughput and voice, may lead more people to appreciate the data side of high-speed wireless wide area networks.
The CF2031, which weighs only 1 ounce, comes with a battery pack (so it wont drain PDA batteries), a charger, a PC Card adapter for use with notebooks that take standard Type II PC Cards, and a disc with installation software. A tiny antenna retracts into the body of the CF2031 when not in use.
The previous generation of wireless data cards consisted of data-only devices, but newer networks can support voice and data on the same device. You may not want to use your notebook as a telephone (and the Sprint PCS Vision rate structure doesnt encourage it), but the capability is available and works well as a backup for a normal cell phone. Monthly service runs $40 for 20MB of data, $60 for 40MB, $80 for 70MB, and $100 for unlimited access. Voice calls cost a flat 20 cents per minute (ouch).
For its PCS Vision CDMA 1XRTT 3G (more correctly 2.5G) digital cellular service, Sprint claims a maximum throughput of 144 Kbps, about 10 times as fast as the 14.4-Kbps data transfer rate of 2G, the previous CDMA technology. According to providers of CDMA service, performance will most often be in the 40 to 60 Kbps range, roughly the speed of a 56K dial-up modem connection. Sprint uses data compression techniques that work automatically with some types of content (most notably Web content) to further raise the data rate. In our Web-surfing tests using the CF2031 in an IBM ThinkPad notebook, our transfer rate consistently hovered at about 230 Kbps. Numbers aside, the experience is quite satisfactory: Web pages dont pop up as quickly as with a DSL or cable modem, but the few delays we experienced were brief.
Voice quality was excellent on calls, but we had to provide our own ear set since the CF2031 doesnt come with one. A pull-down menu in the main application interface opens a dial pad for making calls. Theres no facility for integrating with Microsoft Outlook, and at 20 cents per minute, you wouldnt want to make this your primary device for voice calls, but the feature does work very well.
Once you start using a wireless card for fast Internet access with a mobile computer, youll have difficulty giving it up. The cost for heavy use is comparatively high but is expected to come down as usage increases and competition mounts. The platform flexibility of the Sprint PCS Connection Card CF2031 compared with regular PC Card devices is especially appealing to individuals and companies with a variety of mobile devices. The card is a terrific piece of hardware, but the lack of bundled earphones and a microphone, along with the high talk-time rates, keep it from earning a perfect score.