U132: USB to PCMCIA adapter hands on review

U132_4One of the largest and glaring gaps of the first generation UMPC devices is a lack of 3G data connectivity options. To date, none of the Origami-spec UMPCs available have any integrated wireless WAN options; the only exception is the Sony UX series (with its EDGE integration option), which isn’t an Origami device, but can certainly be classified as an Ultra-Mobile computing device.

Folks who use a UMPC out and about then, have to hope for WiFi hotspots or unlikely LAN ports on open networks. Most 3G cellular options today work through 32-bit PCMCIA cards, yet none of today’s UMPCs have a PC card slot that supports these cards. Some mobile computing users like me get around this by using a 3G enabled cellular phone that can be tethered to a UMPC via USB or even a slower Bluetooth connection. Are we limited to just these options? Perhaps not…John Hill over at Allegiance Technology Partners was kind enough to loan me the U132: a 32-bit USB to PCMCIA adapter made by Elan Digital Systems for a spin…

Right out of the box, I was slightly surprised by the size of the U132. Obviously it has to be larger than the PC card that it supports, but it reminded me of a portable floppy drive. The device has a slot for the PC card, an eject button to remove the card, a large USB port interface on the back and an input for power by an AC adapter. The U132 will run directly on USB power, so there’s not likely a need for the AC adapter, however, if your PC card is a high current card, the adapter may be needed according to Elan.

To illustrate the size, here are some comparison pics with the PC card, an iPod nano and my XV6700 Windows Mobile 5.0 phone. I included the XV6700 phone because that’s my primary 3G connectivity option with my Samsung Q1 UMPC.

U132_1_2

U132_2_1

U132_3_1

Size aside, how does the U132 work? After installing the drivers from Elan as well as the Verizon software, connectivity was simple to initiate. If you’ve ever used the Verizon Broadband Access service, the user experience is no different than if you had a 3G PC card in a slot on your notebook computer. The only difference here is that you have the PC card tethered to your device via the USB adapter.

I ran two speed tests from my home: one was via the PC card and the U132, while the other was my traditional method of using my XV6700’s EV-DO capability over a USB cable. There was no way for me to replicate the scenarios exactly, mainly because each method uses a different USB cable. My thought is that one could have more shielding than the other. Still, speeds were generally comparable as shown below.

Here is a speed test via Speakeasy.net using the U132, USB cable and a Verizon EV-DO card:

Speed_pcmcia

Here is a speed test via Speakeasy.net using my XV6700 over a USB cable:

Speed_phone

For whatever reason (again, it could be the cable, if not the radios themselves) the XV6700 produced a better speed test. In my experience however, EV-DO signals and speed can vary minute by minute, so it would be unfair to judge the U132 and PC card combo as a slower EV-DO solution. If you can get over the slightly large size of the adapter, this package from Elan can definitely provide a great and speedy option if you have a 3G data card and plan to go with it.

A few vendors have been selling the U132, although I’ve seen backorders for some time. Prices are around $190, which doesn’t include the 3G card and data plan through your cellular carrier. I have to thank John at Allegiance Technology Partners as he not only provided the U132 review unit, but even loaned me his own EV-DO card for the review. Thanks John!

For more information on the U132 as well as a list of supported 3G cards, take a look at the product page on Elan’s site.

-kct

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