Review – Compex Wireless Infrared Access Point

by Reads (8,526)

With an increasing number of devices on the market that lack other options for
network connectivity, the built-in infrared ports sported by virtually all mobile
computing devices can be an attractive and inexpensive alternative to bulky
and costly sleeves, cradles, or sleds.

Enter the Compex irdaNet iRE201, an infrared-to-Ethernet bridge designed to let
IrDA-equipped handhelds, palmtops, and notebooks connect to a wired
network or the internet without addons.

Included in the package (top row, from left) we have the iRE201 main unit, the
optional second IR transceiver, and AC adapter. In the bottom row (from left) is
the software CD, serial crossover cable, and optional stand. Not pictured is the
Quick Install Guide and a tiny piece of stick-on Velcro for mounting the second
transceiver.

Conspicuous by it’s absence is the RJ-45 network cable needed to hook the
iRE201 to a LAN or router. This isn’t a big issue for more accomplished users,
since anyone who has a local network is likely to have a spare cable or two,
but some people are going to need to make a trip to RadioShack. For the price,
it would have been nice if Compex had included a cheap cable in the box.

Back to the hardware. For first impressions, let us start in an unusual place–the
AC adapter.

Normally, I wouldn’t pay much heed to a wall wart, but this one is special. The
iRE’s AC adapter is designed to avoid that problem of taking up two or three
spaces on a power strip. The adapter is only 1 1/4 inches thick at the widest
spot, and the prongs are crosswise to the bulk, meaning the whole adapter
takes only a single outlet without using a two-piece cable. I tested it on a
generic power strip, and while it edged up against the grounding hole on the
outlet above it, it left it open to two-prong cords. The outlet below it was
unencumbered. The adapter also features a power LED on the outward-facing
side. The cord is six feet long.

The iRE itself is made of silver plastic, with a black IR-tranparent panel. It
comes with a plastic covering over the panel to prevent scratches, which must
be removed before use. It’s quite a bit smaller than I had expected–in the online
photos, there are no points of reference. In reality, the main unit is 4″ x 4″ x 1″
with a rounded side, and can be used either flat to maximize coverage, or on
one side to minimize space used. It feels fairly durable, with no feel of fragility,
and only a little flexing when squeezed. It is also fairly light, as is the AC
adapter–you could easily drop this into a laptop case or gear bag. Of the two
flat sides, one is featureless save for stickers telling you the serial number and
MAC address of the device, and four holes that connect to the included stand
to further stablize it when vertical. The stand doesn t connect over-tightly to the
iRE, but should be fine for desk use.

The other side of the unit is where things get interesting. With the iRE set
horizontal, from left to right there is a serial port, DC jack, 6-pin Mini-DIN plug,
and the RJ-45 port. When the box is vertical, the RJ-45 is at the top.

Also included in the box is the optional second IR transceiver. This is basically
a six-foot cable with a 6-pin Mini-DIN connector on one end for the main unit,
and IR hardware in a tiny cylinder on the other end. The purpose of this is to
provide additional coverage.

The RJ-45 plug connects to your network cable. Be warned however that the
iRE will not connect with two-wire cable–the installation instructions state
category 3 or 5 network cable, and it won t connect to the network with less.
The serial port allows you to configure the iRE with a serial console, or to hook
up an external modem and use the iRE to access it. It s a nice touch, nice
enough that I wish I had an external modem to test it with.

Installation is much like any access point–change your PC to a specific IP
address, and configure via web-page interface. The included electronic manual
is quite clear and concise. My only complaint with it is that it doesn’t include
enough troubleshooting information, so that if things don’t work as expected,
you have to call tech support. The configuration includes options for
connecting the iRE to a local network, 56k modem, or broadband line. You can
even use an ethernet crossover cable to attach it directly to your ethernet-equipped
desktop without a hub or switch.

Configuration was a breeze–the default settings work fine unless your network
demands something specific. Likewise, setting up a Palm for network access
was very swift and easy: five minutes and I was browsing with EudoraWeb.
Speed was quite satisfactory–even large pages loaded reasonably fast. The IR
link on most handheld devices is limited to 115Kbits/second of the Serial
InfraRed (SIR) standard, leaving you at roughly the maximum speed of a good
modem, but otherwise the connection was quite workable. Both the on-board
and external IR ports support the 4 Mbit per second Fast InfraRed (FIR)
standard, so laptops can connect at much higher speed. Zayo PocketPC users
rejoyce: the Zayo A600 supports FIR as well as the slower SIR, providing you a
better connection.

Neither my IBM Thinkpad laptop nor my Dell Axim PPC went so quietly as my
Palm. I went through the specified steps, and could get each of them to
‘connect’ to the iRE, but no network access was present. Having followed the
instructions, and tried the PocketPC 2002 patch on my Axim, I was stumped. I
emailed tech support. Two days later, I was still without a response, so I called
them. The good news is that I didn’t have to stay on hold–you leave a name
and number and they call you back. The bad news is that’s if they call you
back. About 4 hours after I’d left my message, still no response. With my Palm
no longer working through the iRE, I ended up calling the PR coordinator that
had arranged bPDA’s review unit, and had him connect me to technical
support. It may be hard to contact them, but they seem capable, and within 5
minutes the fellow I talked to decided I needed a new unit, and would call me
back in 10 to 15 minutes. True enough, 15 minutes later I got my callback. Only
problem is, the iRE had inexplicably returned to normal working order right after
I d hung up with the technician, without any further prodding. Maybe it didn t
want to be taken back to the RMA center and dissected.

Following the mysterious failure and even more mysterious healing of the iRE,
my Axim worked flawlessly with it. Setup was almost as easy as the Palm. A
word of warning though–since Pocket Internet Explorer does not have support
for proxies, you will need either a router or NetFront to get web browsing on
your PocketPC. My Thinkpad still wouldn’t play nice, but given that the two
handhelds do, I suspect it’s a conflict with the drivers for my usual Ethernet
card.

The iRE isn t going to cover you all the way across the office, but for IrDA it’s
range is quite respectable. Gradually increasing the distance between them, my
Thinkpad’s connection started wavering at 5 feet 8 inches, and dropped at 6
feet. My Palm m505 got slightly better range, finally letting go at about 6 feet 4
inches. My Axim performed worst of the three, barely making 4 feet, though I
think this is the result of the Axim’s small IR port. The Thinkpad and Palm both
had about 120 degrees range of signal close in, tapering to about 110 degrees
at a distance. The Axim–again, due to it’s small IR port–was very difficult and
demanded direct line of sight. The performance of the Palm and the Thinkpad
are both about at the normal limit of a two-way IrDA link.

With a street price around $70-$80, the iRE can be cheaper than setting up a
wireless network with even one device. For those who don’t need large
coverage, don’t have the option of WiFi or Bluetooth, or don’t want to upgrade,
the iRE is a pretty good deal. It offers essential networking functions with a
minimum of hassle. The quality is good, the device is small and efficient, and
while tech support is somewhat lacking, it isn’t much needed. Though it won’t
meet the needs of everyone, the iRE201 will doubtless make some users very
happy.

TheWraith

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