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Good Laptop Gains Little From Built-In Cell Receiver

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Sci/Tech

WiFi wireless networking has spoiled a lot of laptop users. The experience of getting instant broadband Internet access from the nearest wireless hot spot has programmed many people into thinking that they need only flip open a laptop to jump online -- and usually for free.

But in the overwhelming majority of the world, WiFi isn't there for the taking, even if you're willing to pay for it.

There's always dial-up access, but that means tying the laptop down to a fixed point and putting up with slow connect times and slow downloads.

Cellular data services, meanwhile, didn't acquire any sort of acceptable speed until a few years back and, with one exception, still trail far behind cable and DSL broadband. Their costs vary between excessive and extortionate. Finally, they demand that you pay extra for a special receiver card that will plug up your laptop's PC Card slot (if it has one) and require that you install its own peculiar software drivers.

Sony's new Vaio T350 laptop addresses one of those problems. It doesn't make wireless data access any faster or cheaper than before. But in addition to its WiFi capability, it includes a built-in cellular data receiver that works out of the box and leaves the PC Card slot open for other uses.

This seems like something that should have been done a long time ago. But there are some good reasons not to build in a cellular data receiver just yet, as the T350 winds up demonstrating.
As with any other type of cell phone, the T350's receiver can talk to only one type of wireless network, GSM (Global System for Mobile communication), and is set up to work with only one wireless carrier, Cingular.

Cingular's data service runs on a version of GSM called EDGE (enhanced data rates for GSM evolution), with advertised download speeds ranging from 70 to 135 kilobits per second (kbps).

Logging onto Cingular's EDGE service requires simply selecting that option from Sony's jargon-laden wireless-networking software, then waiting for the laptop to connect. A 30-day free trial is included in both available service plans: $50 for 50 megabytes of data use or $80 for unlimited use.

With a clear signal -- four or five bars of indicated strength, out of five total -- things proceeded pleasantly. When the test Vaio T350P, a pre-production unit lent by Sony, had just booted up, it took about 30 seconds to detect the wireless receiver and log on. Afterward (except for one time when the laptop couldn't find the receiver after waking up from standby mode), connections took less than 10 seconds.

As long as the signal remained strong enough, connection speeds averaged just below twice those of dial-up: around 90 kbps for downloads and 50 kbps for uploads.

That's awful compared with WiFi but far superior to the alternative of dial-up or nothing at all. Looking up information online required minimal patience, and I could download reasonably small files (for instance, updates to the antivirus software) without aggravation.

Unfortunately, when the wireless signal dropped to three or fewer bars of coverage, a different personality emerged in this laptop. Downloads slowed down precipitously, and sites loaded haltingly or not at all. I'd get the header graphic of a page, then have the connection time out on me. Browsing the Web under these conditions was a relentlessly miserable experience.

Sony designed this compact machine for extended use away from any sort of outlet, for power or data. The review model weighed under 3.1 pounds, with the power adapter adding almost 0.9 pounds. Battery life while on Cingular's network (but with WiFi switched off) ran to about 4 hours and 40 minutes in two tests.

Aside from the high cost -- $2,299 for the tested configuration -- the T350 is a good portable computer in general. Despite its compact dimensions (the wide-format screen measures just 10.6 inches diagonally) its keyboard was comfortable to use.

With a 50-gigabyte hard drive, combination CD-DVD drive that burns both types of discs, two USB and one four-pin FireWire (labeled "i.Link" by Sony) expansion ports, Bluetooth wireless and an open PC Card slot, it offers more utility and expandability than some far heftier laptops.

But I'd still rather add cellular data access to a laptop in the old-fashioned way, by popping in a PC Card receiver.

Cingular's EDGE service may cover more territory than any other carrier's data offering, as the company says in its marketing materials, but in many major cities it's far slower than the evolution data only wireless service (known as EvDO) sold by Verizon and, soon, Sprint.

Instead of merely doubling dial-up's speeds, EvDO offers downloads of 600 kbps or more, almost as fast as basic DSL service. Verizon's EvDO service, called BroadbandAccess, costs no more than Cingular's EDGE connection, even though it's about five times as fast. (It's a real accomplishment to make Verizon's data charges look like a bargain.)

But the EDGE receiver in the T350 can't ever tap into an EvDO connection.

Then again, a laptop with EvDO built in would simply put me in a different set of handcuffs; EvDO will itself eventually fall behind other wireless technologies.

What I want is a technology that companies such as Intel are working on -- "software-defined radio," in which a computer-driven receiver can adapt itself to different frequencies and systems as needed.

When that becomes a commercial reality, you'll be able to buy a laptop that can get on anybody's network.

Better yet, a software-defined radio will be something that, unlike current cell phones, wireless carriers can't own or control. It will let customers switch from one connection to another as they wish, taking their hardware as they go. That's going to drive these companies nuts. I can't wait.

By Rob Pegoraro
The Washington Post

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