- Straightforward to install and set up
- Works well under GPRS
- No EDGE support available from UK networks yet
- no Mac support
- detachable antenna is easily lost or damaged
Mobile professionals requiring an always-on data connection when out on the road now have a number of choices of PC Card to use in their notebooks. At the slower end of the spectrum are GPRS and GPRS/HSCSD cards like Vodafone's Mobile Connect Card and Sony Ericsson's GC79, which will manage download speeds of up to 56Kbps (that is, dial-up modem speed). The fastest available mobile data cards are the recent crop of 3G products, which claim broadband-like speeds of up to 384Kbps. In the middle is a GPRS/EDGE card such as Sony Ericsson's GC85, reviewed here, which -- on mobile networks that support EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) -- can achieve near-3G speeds of 247Kbps. As with 3G, the EDGE card drops back to GPRS speed where the faster coverage is not available.
Setup & interface
We found the CG85 straightforward to install and set up in our testbed IBM ThinkPad X40 notebook. After installing the Wireless Manager software from the supplied CD, we assembled the GC85 card by inserting a (Vodafone) SIM card and attaching the external antenna; then we stuck it in the ThinkPad X40's PC Card slot. The hardware was recognised and drivers installed automatically, and on starting up Wireless Manager we found Vodafone on the proffered drop-down list, which removed the need to discover and enter the required connection settings manually. After naming the connection and setting a few preferences, we were done. Wireless Manager can be set to launch automatically on startup, and establish a connection right away. Unlike the GC79, the GC85 card has an external antenna, which is something of a mixed blessing. If you remove it when it's not in use, there's nothing protruding from your notebook to get in the way. However, it's then likely to get lost unless you're careful. And if you leave it inserted when you stow away your notebook, it could snag on something -- ours became increasingly loose during the test period for this reason. On balance, we'd rather have a fixed, slightly protruding antenna.
The GC85 card and Wireless Manager run under Windows 98SE, ME, 2000 (SP4) and XP -- no Mac support here. It does not support voice calls, but handles data via tri-band GSM (900, 1800, 1900MHz) at 9.6 and 14.4Kbps, GPRS at 53.6Kbps down and 26.8Kbps up, and EDGE 247.4Kbps down and 123.7Kbps up. Of course, quoted data rates are rarely achieved in practice, as factors like the coding schemes and timeslots offered by the network operator, network traffic loading and the distance to the nearest base station must be taken into account. The Wireless Manager's default status screen shows the network to which you're connected, the type and strength of the connection, the duration of your connection and the amount of data sent and received. Icons at the top give access to detailed telephony settings, the phonebook (SIM and saved), SMS messaging and the Connection Wizard. The latter walks you through the creation of a new connection -- following a change of network operator, for example. This is a business-orientated product, so VPN connections to corporate networks are supported, and fripperies like EMS and MMS are not. The GC85 bundle includes the PC Card and antenna in an aluminium case, a printed Quick Start guide and a CD-ROM containing applications, a user manual and an AT command manual.
None of the UK's mobile network operators currently provide EDGE support, although Orange is reportedly planning to. However, EDGE is available in continental Europe, Asia and the US (check here for details). As a result, we were unable to test the CG85's maximum throughput. It worked well enough with our GPRS-enabled Vodafone SIM, though, with speeds of up to 48.2Kbps reported under ZDNet's Bandwidth Speed Test. This is sufficient for basic Web browsing, instant messaging and email access on the move, although you won't want to indulge in too much file transfer. Although we successfully connected to our corporate network via a VPN, DNS settings were lost in the process, leaving us unable to access any Web sites or use our email client. This is no fault of Sony Ericsson's GC85 hardware, however, but is down to the way our Vodafone GPRS connection was set up. At the time of writing, we had not managed to solve this problem.
Until UK network operators provide EDGE support, the GC85 is only really going to interest regular international travellers. Even then, you'll have to make sure that coverage is available in your chosen destination(s), and check roaming agreements and tariffs with your network operator.