Given a choice of a root canal or attempting to connect to the Internet from a hotel room, most business travelers would opt for the dental procedure. The good news is that you can have your e-mail and travel too, without the hassle or exorbitant phone bill. The answer lies in wireless communication.
Two wireless PCMCIA units (a.k.a. PC cards) that can make it all happen are the Sierra Wireless AirCard 300 and the Novatel Merlin. As long as you're in an area with CDPD (Cellular Digital Packet Data) coverage (which is most of the country), you can use the cards to either to log onto a corporate network to check e-mail, or just browse the Web. The speeds will be slow, at 19.2Kbps. But unless you're downloading large e-mail attachments, it's a small price to pay for the luxury of instant access.
Both Type II PC cards are easy to install and provide software for configuring the card and monitoring connections. The Merlin software installation was slightly more user friendly. They work with Windows 95/98, and some Windows CE handhelds (version 2.0 and higher). They provide a unique IP address, as well as data encryption for over-the-air security. And once you log on, performance is identical.
There are, however, important differences between the two units. While the AirCard 300 is referred to as a "wireless modem," it's actually a wide-area network interface card (NIC) pop it in, and you're instantly on line no muss, no fuss. The Merlin however, functions as a conventional modem and relies on built-in protocols (TCP/IP, PPP, and SLIP). To log on to the net with the Merlin you need to launch a dialer, as you would with a conventional dialup modem. But, for the convenience of AirCard's instant connection, you will pay up to 50 percent more than the Merlin.
The AirCard 300 sports a removable telescoping antenna (about 2 inches long when collapsed) that easily slips on and off. This also means that it can easily be lost. Be prepared to shell out another $49 if you need a replacement. In contrast, the Merlin sports an ultra-thin built-in, folding antenna, which slides and locks into five different positions. The antenna looks flimsy, but it's made of nickel titanium, which means you can bend it 180 degrees and it will spring back into position.
In addition to the purchase price of either unit, there's the added cost for a service plan from a wireless provider such as Bell Atlantic Mobile, AT&T, or GoAmerica. Each offers a gaggle of plans. In general, the options include signing up for a lower monthly fee and paying by the volume of data that's sent and received, or paying a flat monthly rate ($39 to $59) for unlimited use.
Be aware that both cards feed on power from the laptop and can have voracious appetites when sending or receiving data. For quick e-mail checks, it won't use up too much juice. But for doing extended surfing from a hotel room or an airport lounge, it's better to find an AC connection first.
With either card you'll be the envy of your fellow travelers as they painfully search for analog lines to get e-mail or browse the Web. For a price, the AirCard can get users on line faster than the Merlin. But if all that's needed is an easy to use modem with a friendly design, the Merlin makes a great choice.