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Introducing the Xircom 802.11 Module for the Visor

by Derrick Story

The SpringPort Wireless Ethernet Module by Xircom is one of the most exciting Springboards since the EyeModule 2. But at USD$299, it's also one of the most expensive. How much technology does your money buy? Actually, quite a bit.

In essence, the Xircom module allows you to connect any Handspring Visor to a standard 802.11 wireless network for Internet connectivity and peer-to-peer file-sharing. You can also configure the Xircom to hot-synch your Visor with its host computer -- a very nice touch.

I've put the module through its paces in three different 802.11 environments -- two "open" networks and one encrypted. Because the computers I currently use depend on 802.11 for my network connection, I have a pretty good feel for how a device should respond in this environment. I'm happy to report that the Xircom module behaved as I expected, with just a few minor complaints.

Physical design

No doubt about it: This is a handsome and well-designed module. It looks terrific in both my standard graphite Visor as well as the Platinum.

The construction is solid, and I don't feel like I have to worry about its durability. And because of the excellent Springboard design concept, the Xircom doesn't add nearly the bulk that competitive wireless Ethernet configurations do on other PDAs.

The device contains a lithium-ion rechargeable battery that the specs claim can perform for two hours of continuous transmission. During usage, it seemed to have at least that much power, maybe more.

If you have a Visor Prism, you can recharge the Xircom module while the Visor itself is charging. If you have a non-rechargeable Visor, Xircom provides you with a power cord that connects to the HotSync port. You always have to charge the unit when it's in the Visor.

It's times like these you'll pat yourself on the back for keeping your old 2-Mbyte Visor because it can serve as a charging unit for the Xircom, or be a dedicated web browser or e-mail client.

At the top of the unit are two LED indicators that show network activity and charging status.

Wireless specifications

The Xircom module adheres to the IEEE 802.11b high-rate standard for wireless LANs. It supports data rates of 1, 2, 5.5, and 11 Mbps using Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum (DSSS).

For security, the Xircom uses 0-, 40-, and 128-bit WEP encryption. The range in most office environments is 100 feet (30 m) at 11 Mbps and 300 feet (90 m) at 1 Mbps. It operates in the 2400-2483.5 MHz frequency band.

SpringPort Wireless Ethernet module inserted into Handspring Visor.
SpringPort Wireless Ethernet module inserted into Handspring Visor.

Related articles:

New Wireless Standards Challenge 802.11b

802.11b Tips, Tricks, and Facts

Performance Test: 802.11b Takes a Lickin' and Keeps on Tickin'

Check out visorcental's first impressions of the Xircom module.

Comment on this articleIt seems like the 802.11 networking protocol is really establishing itself as a popular standard. What do you think about this in general, and the Xircom module in particular?
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Initial setup

As with all Springboard modules, you can slide the Xircom into your Visor and it's instantly recognized. After a brief appearance of the acknowledgement screen, you are taken directly to a configuration screen with links to five areas:

Before you can connect your Visor to a 802.11 network, you need to enter some information. At this point I'll mention that it is much easier to configure and connect to nonencrypted networks. If you have access to such a network, such as AirPort at home, I suggest you start there so you can experience the thrill of wireless browsing on the Visor as quickly as possible. The walk-through I'll be covering first is for such a network.

Let's start with the top button, Client Settings. There are four options on this screen: Client Name, Profile, Network ID (SSID), and Encryption Enable or Disable.

For the client name, I use my standard handle for my Visor and all of my networks. For Profile, I have three different profiles I can establish. I use Profile #1 for my unencrypted network settings.

The Network ID (SSID) is the one field that might seem confusing at first. Here's where you enter the name of the network you want to connect to. Make sure you enter the letters exactly as provided to you by your network administrator. If you're connected to the network already through a laptop, you can copy the name from the network control panel.

Finally, for Encryption, you can leave the Disable button highlighted for this connection. Then click OK. You'll be greeted with a screen that reads, "The changes will take effect the next time the module is used." Click OK again.

Now click the Network Settings button and read the handy instructions that pop up on your screen. They tell you exactly how to add the Xircom configuration to your Visor's network preferences. Once everything is configured properly, go back to the main window and hit the Status window. Within 15 seconds or so, you should have a clean connection to your 802.11b network.

Right away you can go to work because the module has both MultiMail SE and Handspring Blazer installed on it. You'll need to configure both the e-mail client and the browser, but this is a simple task you've probably done dozens of times before. If you get lost, the Quick Reference Guide that comes with the Xircom module has clear instructions for all of these operations.

Lots of goodies in the Status window

The Status window -- use the fourth button down on the Xircom main screen to access it -- provides a gold mine of information. Once your connection is established, you'll see a signal strength indicator, plus readouts for both your Visor's battery strength and the battery inside the Xircom module.

But wait, there's more! In the lower third of the screen, there's another innocent-looking line of text that reads "Advanced Status." Click on this and you're greeted with two more drop-down options, IP Information and Software Information.

If you select "IP information," you'll be presented with a screen of readouts including your current IP address, subnet mask, DNS, DHCP, and even the MAC address. Extremely cool and very handy.

The Software Information window isn't nearly as exciting, but it does give you the software versions of everything related to the Xircom module.

Tips for connecting to encrypted networks

OK, now that you have your feet wet and have done a little browsing, you're ready to connect to a secure network -- probably the kind you have at work. I successfully connected the Xircom module to my corporate network that is encrypted and MAC-filtered. Here's what I learned along the way.

The first thing you'll need to do is find out from the network administrator the level of encryption your network is using. Most likely it will be either 40-bit (often referred to as Silver Card) or 128-bit (also known as Gold Card).

If it's 40-bit encryption, then you'll need the 10-digit hexidecimal access code. If it's 128-bit, then you'll need the 26-digit hex code. You can't use the ACSI version of your network access code, only the hex version for this device. Your network administrator can provide this information for you.

While you're talking to your network admin, be sure to ask if the 802.11b network is MAC-filtered. What does that mean? Every Ethernet card has a MAC address on it. The Xircom has one printed on the module itself, plus provides a readout of it in the IP window of the Advanced Status screen.

Networks that are MAC-filtered won't allow access unless the device card has been registered with the server via its MAC address. So even if you have the network access code, you can't log on to the network until your device has been cleared.

The other tip I have to offer has to do with what I consider a hidden menu in the Client Settings window. In Client Settings, look for the link labeled "Advanced" and click on it. In the next screen, you'll see the word "Properties." This is actually a drop-down menu that displays the following options.

For most 802.11 networks, you'll probably use the dynamic IP, infrastructure network type, and 40-bit encryption settings (because it's a true standard; 128-bit encryption is not a 802.11 standard.) If you're having problems connecting, and you have the right hex code and have been cleared for MAC filtering, then the problem is likely somewhere in this drop-down menu.

Once you have everything set up for an encrypted connection, click the Enable button in the Client Settings screen. If your selection doesn't "stick" and jumps back to Disable, then go back to your Advanced settings and check your setup. Once you get it right, you can enable encryption.

Now all you have to do is go back and click the Status button, and your Visor will establish a connection with the encrypted network. For some reason, it always asks me to enter my network hex code during this process, even though I have already entered it in the Advanced Settings. So keep that hex code handy; you're gonna need it.

Once again, within seconds, you should be connected to your encrypted network.

Final thoughts

I didn't have time to test the HotSync functionality, but the setup looked very clean. If you get a chance to experiment with this, please post your comments in the Talk Back area at the end of the article. I'd like to hear your feedback.

Overall, my experience with the Xircom wireless Ethernet module was very positive. The construction is solid, the looks are outstanding, and the performance is what I'd expect from a top-notch wireless Ethernet card.

It's true, you do have to jump through a few hoops to connect to encrypted networks, but that's not so much a module design flaw as it is the nature of 802.11b networks. With a little help from your friendly network administrator, you should be up and running in no time.

The unit has a quirk that did annoy me at times. That is, when I sent a request to load a web page, and if the Visor had difficulty loading the page, I was held hostage until the Xircom/Visor tandem could sort out the situation. Hitting the "stop loading button" on the browser, or any other Visor command for that matter, was ignored. There were times when I had to just pull the module out of the Visor and start over.

Another tip that I'd like to offer is that if you're a registered user of Browse-it, it's a terrific setup that works very well with the Xircom module. I actually prefer it to Blazer.

An oddity that I couldn't figure out had to do with setting a static IP address instead of a dynamic one. When I chose "static" in the IP address window, I could only find fields to enter the default gateway and the subnet mask, but not a field to enter the actual IP address. Very strange ...

Back to the list of positives: The bundled applications and beefy rechargeable battery indicate that Xircom decided to go first class all the way with this product. When you insert the module into your Visor, you have access to all the module's software, including the browser and an e-mail client. The best part is, all this software resides on the module's flash memory, not on your Visor.

Is the Xircom Wireless Ethernet Module worth USD$299? If you have the money to invest and want the ultimate in network portability, then I'd say you'll probably be happy with the purchase. The drivers still feel a little "green," but my guess is that we will see improvement and updates in the near future. This is a quality piece of equipment that opens a whole new world of functionality for the Visor.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.

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