The last Orinoco client card we looked at, the World PC Card, is something of a legend. Its long range and tenacious connections still earn it a 90 percent-plus recommendation from CNET readers, even though the card was first released way back in 2000 and it lacks full support for XP. The Proxim Orinoco 11/a/b/g ComboCard reviewed here is just as solid, but it is also XP friendly, of course, with easy XP setup and a useful, if not particularly intuitive, XP-compatible client utility.
A single-page quick-start guide in six languages outlines all of the steps for installing the utility and getting the card running. The last step notes that if the wireless network is free of any security requirements, you're ready to roll. But if, say, WEP has been turned on, you need to create a profile with the appropriate network and security settings. Profile creation begins when you click the Available Networks button, which runs a routine that detects nearby access points and lists their network type (a, b, or g), security mode, and SSID. Selecting an available connection and clicking the Activate button creates an instant profile, which you can modify as needed. By default, profiles go by their SSID name; when you build a list of them, you can switch among them easily, making setup about as easy as it gets.
The Proxim Client Utility includes a profile-management feature.
The ComboCard's manual is a whopping 52 pages long. About a third of it is devoted to the feature-rich configuration utility, while the rest provides a good general discussion of wireless networking, an extensive troubleshooting section, and a glossary. The ComboCard may not come with the most consumer-friendly package around, but it's certainly one of the most comprehensive.
The Proxim Orinoco 11/a/b/g ComboCard really delivers on features. Starting with the simple but good stuff, a quick menu choice under the Action menu in the top left-hand corner of the Proxim Client Utility lets you turn the card off if there's no access point and you want to save power. Orinoco's system tray icon, which appears after you install the Client Utility, indicates four levels of signal strength ranging from poor to excellent. Plus, the Proxim Client Utility's opening page neatly summarizes all you need to know about your current connection.
Thereafter, things get a little complicated--mainly because Orinoco spreads the utility's options across more than a dozen small pages. Most of those options are quite useful and pertain to managing multiple profiles, but some of the advanced diagnostics details will seem like overkill--unless you're dying to know, for example, the number of unicast frames you're transmitting or receiving. The Gold version of the card (reviewed here) lets you store an unlimited number of profiles--so that you can easily switch among any number of access points and not have to fiddle with connection settings--and allows you to adjust the transmit-power level to extend laptop battery life. If you can live without those features (and don't mind a limit of two profiles), save $15 and get the Silver version.
The security tab offers different ways to lock down your connection.
In keeping with the one-size-fits-all nature of the ComboCard, you also get plenty of security choices, all of them on the Profile Management page. There, you can create preshared keys for WEP or LEAP security, and even 802.1x authentication (used primarily in business networking). Proxim also claims that the card is "hardware ready" for a firmware upgrade to the emerging Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard.
The Proxim Orinoco 11/a/b/g ComboCard seems determined to preserve the Orinoco reputation for distance. In CNET Labs' tests in 802.11g mode, the ComboCard kept operating all the way to 200 feet, further than any other card tested to date. It also reached 175 feet operating in the 802.11a band, tying the previous record set by the Linksys WPC55AG.
CNET Labs throughput tests (Longer bars indicate better performance)
This card's throughput was also impressive--more than 20Mbps in 802.11g mode and nearly 24Mbps in 802.11a mode. Particularly impressive was the smooth performance falloff as distance was increased in 802.11g mode. In 802.11a mode, there's a quick drop of 11Mbps between 50 and 75 feet, but the slope is very gentle after that. The only fly in the ointment was the 802.11g performance in mixed mode (when an 802.11g card is also connected to the access point). Here, performance fell to an unimpressive 6Mbps.