Bottom line: Promising approach to ultra-portability needs further refinement
In a nutshell: Compact wireless adapter with surprisingly big battery adds 3G Internet access to Web and mail servers from PDA's and laptops with CF or PC card slots
- Versatile CF/PC card can be used with Pocket PC 2002/2003 and Win32 laptops
- Supports familiar PDA/laptop applications (Internet Explorer, Outlook) and access to enterprise mail (Exchange, Notes, IMAP) via optional Business Connection service
- Wireless data or voice for mobile users within PCS Vision service areas
- Cannot use data and voice concurrently; not a great mobile phone
- E-mail retrieval reasonably quick, but Web browsing slower than expected
- Bulky for CF solution, because card can't be used without included 3.5 x 1.5 x 0.5" battery or half-size replacement
Mobile professionals seeking ultra-portable wireless Internet often face this choice: upgrade to a new handheld with integrated wireless (like BlackBerry) or add a bulky PC card (and sleeve) to an existing PDA. Growell's CF2031, used with Sprint's CDMA2000 PCS Vision service, seemed like a promising alternative. I was hoping to turn my PDA into a phone with high-speed wireless data by adding just a 1 5/8" CF card, but the CF2031 only partly met my expectations.
The CF2031 itself is small, fitting into a Type II CF card slot or (using the included adapter) a Type II PC card slot. It can easily be used in PDA, laptops, or (as I did) either, depending upon what you're carrying today. The catch: instructions emphatically warn that the card must be attached to its battery at all times to avoid fatal power drain on PDA. That battery triples total weight from 0.9 to 3.2 ounces, hanging from the CF card's top and making your PDA less convenient to carry or hold. A replacement battery it now available at half the size and weight, but until the CF2031 can stand on its own, it won't meet the full potential of this form factor.
Of course, you can still use the CF2031 as a PC card in your laptop (sans battery), or in your PDA as a bulky CF card. I had no trouble accessing my POP mail using the CF2031 and Pocket Outlook on my PDA. Techniques like getting headers and limiting message length help get the most from wireless, and using the same application over wireless LAN and WAN is very nice. Those who need to reach corporate mail servers will pay for Sprint's Business Connection services. For example, the agent software that Business Connection Personal Edition installed on my Win32 desktop provided Web-based access from my PDA to Exchange or Notes or IMAP servers, contact lists, and calendars. Desktop files from a designated folder can also be attached to mail sent this way, but not viewed/edited from the PDA.
Business Connection mail and contacts are accessed through PDA or laptop browsers (usually Internet Explorer). I was able to access this Sprint Web site and every other Web site I tried, with only an occasional hiccup. I wasn't limited to wireless-enhanced Web sites, even though Sprint's 3G gateways do crop images and reformat pages for microbrowser display. On the other hand, I expected CDMA2000 to be faster. I was therefore surprised to see throughputs in the 10-20 Kbps range from speed test sites I visited with my PDA. But informal Web tests can be affected factors like Internet congestion and the PDA's CPU/RAM, so your results could be very different.
Supporting wireless data is the CF2031's primary goal. It also supports voice, but it did not turn my PDA into a good mobile phone. Data and voice can't be used concurrently; if a call arrives when you're on-line, it goes directly to voicemail. Pop-ups and a message reader indicate when voicemail or numeric pages arrive, but only when the voice application is running. Your contact list can be used to dial stored numbers, but I could not redial the last number called. Even if your PDA has a microphone, speaker, or headset jack, you must plug an earbud directly into the CF2031 for voice calls.
According to Sprint's Web site, voice calls through the CF2031 cost $0.20 per minute. That's in addition to a PCS Vision plan for PCS Connection Cards, providing data services from $40 for 20 MB per month ($0.002 per kilobyte thereafter). Check Sprint's Web site for PCS Vision coverage, keeping in mind that you need to be within a CDMA2000 service area to use the CF2031.
About the author: Lisa Phifer is vice president of Core Competence, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in network security and management technology. She is also a site expert to SearchMobileComputing.com and SearchNetworking.com.