When I found out SanDisk was close to releasing a Wi-Fi SD card for a Palm OS model, I called up my local weatherman to find out if Hell had frozen over. SanDisk’s original release date for this product was well over a year ago. However, the long wait is finally over… at least for users of the palmOne Zire 71. Other Palm OS users will have to keep waiting for Wi-Fi cards that are compatible with their devices.
Before I get to the meat of this review, I want to point out that SanDisk hasn’t been the only company to blame for its long delay. PalmSource didn’t write an operating system that it is terribly easy to add Wi-Fi to. The reason this device doesn’t support the Tungsten T3 and Zire 72 is these models need to have a system patch applied before their SD slots can use this card. According to SanDisk, palmOne won’t publicly release this. Instead, the patch will be built into the driver that palmOne will release with its Wi-Fi SD card, which is expected to be available soon. This patch isn’t something SanDisk can develop itself, which means that the only option for Wi-Fi SD cards for the Zire 72 and Tungsten T3 is the one palmOne itself will sell.
Although it looks almost exactly the same, this isn’t the same card that SanDisk introduced last year for Pocket PCs. According to SanDisk, this one uses less power and offers faster data throughput. We’ll have to take their word for it, as I can’t compare the performance of the two cards on the Zire 71, as the new one is the only version that is compatible with this model.
This card has roughly the same width and thickness of a typical SD card, but it is much longer. The downside of this is it projects significantly from the SD slot, so you won’t be able to carry your Zire 71 around with the card inserted. However, this external part is absolutely required because it’s the card’s antenna. Without it, the range of this device would be just a few feet unless you were pointing your handheld directly at your access point.
The Wi-Fi utility bundled with this card allows you to scan for available access points. This feature also shows you the signal strength of each and whether WEP is turned on or off. This is necessary as you will probably often find yourself in areas with multiple access points, and you’ll need to pick the one you want to connect to.
Once you have found an access point, you need to add it to your list of approved ones, then tell your Zire to connect to it. This is slightly cumbersome, but the assumption is that you’ll frequently be returning to just a few access points, not constantly adding new ones.
Because you don’t want just anyone connecting to your access point, you probably have WEP encryption turned on. Naturally, the SanDisk Wi-Fi SD card supports this, too. It offers up to 128-bit encryption, but WEP still isn’t terribly secure. Still, it’s better than nothing, and I suggest you use it. Unfortunately, the Palm OS driver doesn’t support Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).
If you are in range of one of your approved points when you open this utility, you’ll automatically be logged on. This also happens when you insert the card but not if the card is already in the slot when you activate your handheld.
Web Browser One of the main uses for this card will be to surf the Web. As the Zire 71 doesn’t come with a browser, SanDisk has been kind enough to supply one called nWeb. This was developed by Novarra, the company that makes the browser that is in the Tungsten T3 and Zire 72, and nWeb has a lot in common with those.
What sometimes makes web surfing difficult on a handheld is that web pages aren’t formatted for the small screen. nWeb reformats web pages so that they fit neatly on the handheld’s screen. It does this by making every page into one long column. A lot of sites — like Brighthand — use multiple columns. This is fine on a wide desktop or laptop screen, but means you sometimes have to keep scrolling back and forth to read articles. nWeb can display these pages so that all of the first column is displayed, then all of the second, then all of the third, and so on. Not ideal, but it eliminates the need to scroll left and right.
It also includes a full-screen mode, which hides everything but the page you are looking at. This helps compensate for the Zire 71’s small screen.
This is basically a full-featured browser for your handheld. It lets you bookmark pages, supports cookies, keeps track of your history, and just about everything you’d expect an application of this type to do.
While this card comes with a web browser, it doesn’t come with an email application, so you’ll have to get a third-party one. I’d suggest you check out SnapperMail.
This card can connect to a Wi-Fi access point from a respectable distance. It certainly can get a good connection from anywhere inside my house. Outside, though, it drops off pretty quickly. Performance is fine on my porch, but once I get near the edge of my property it drops off pretty quickly.
That brings up an important point. The speed of all Wi-Fi equipment depends on how far away you are from the access point. While I can still get a connection when I’m way out at my mailbox, the data transfer speed is unusably low.
nWeb gives you a nice option for increasing your surfing speed. You can control the quality of the images that are displayed on pages. Naturally, the lower quality the images, the faster they are downloaded. Even low-quality images look fine to me, and this has a definite positive effect on the speed at which pages load.
In order to be able to do this, you have to use a proxy service. When you request a web page, there’s a computer at Novarra that actually downloads it, changes the image quality, then gives the smaller files to you. The advantage of this is your web surfing is faster. The disadvantage is using a proxy server is less secure and many companies won’t let you access their proprietary web sites over a proxy server.
You can turn the proxy server off, but your web surfing will be much slower. Without the proxy server you can slightly reduce image quality, but not as much. Browsing slows down noticeably.
For the fastest browsing of all, you can just turn the images off.
To give you an idea of real-world performance, I connected to my access point from the other side of my house and set nWeb to display low-quality images. I then opened an article on CNN.com. The text appeared and I was able to begin reading after 15 seconds, though all the images didn’t finish loading until almost a minute had passed.
Battery Life Wi-Fi takes a lot of power. There has been some progress in this area, but extensive use of wireless networking can drain your battery surprisingly quickly, especially when your handheld wasn’t designed for it.
palmOne’s Tungsten C got a lot of criticism for being bulky, but a big chunk of that bulk is a hefty battery. The Zire 71’s battery is significantly smaller, and you can drain it in just a couple of hours of web surfing. However, this is generally sufficient to get me through a typical day, though I have to remember to recharge the Zire 71 every night.
I’m not going to cover this in-depth in this review, but I should point out that this card works just fine with Pocket PCs. The disk that comes with it has drivers for both operating systems.
I tested this card with my iPAQ h1940 and found its performance to be quite similar to the first version of this card, which came out last summer. The major change is the addition of WPA.
SanDisk assures me this card uses less power than the original, but there wasn’t a difference I could detect. Wi-Fi can still drain my Pocket PC in a couple of hours of use.
Wi-Fi can totally change the way you use your handheld. Instead of having only the information that was current the last time you did a HotSync, you can have access to all the latest information all the time.
Of course, this requires you to be near a Wi-Fi access point. You can get one of these for your home for a low price and there might also be one at your office. In addition, numerous coffee shops and bookstores have them.
Thanks to this card, you can give your Zire 71 a new lease on life. If you want Wi-Fi you don’t have to go get a new handheld; instead you can add it to your current one for a very competitive price.
The SanDisk Wi-Fi SD card for the Zire 71 will be available later this month for between $90 and $100.