Need a sure fire Wi-Fi connection? The Wi-Fire is your answer

By Rob Dunn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

For those of you who use Wi-Fi on the road, you probably know how frustrating it is to find a good access point. Many companies claim to solve this problem by manufacturing extra sensitive wireless adapters that can connect to access points over a very long range, but do these cards live to the hype? A few weeks ago, we received the hField Wi-Fire card for review and gave it the “road-warrior” test (sorry to disappoint, but this review does not involve speeding through the Australian Outback wearing a leather outfit and a feather mohawk – although that, *ahem* would have been cool… maybe for the next review!)

Just to make this article more enticing, we are offering a free Wi-Fire to two lucky [GAS] readers – details at the end of the article!

The What

The Wi-Fire, unpackagedAccording to the hField Technologies Web site, “The Wi-Fire is a compact, range-extending USB device that enables you to access a wireless Internet connection from up to 1,000 feet away–three times the range of your internal wireless adapter.”

So, in essence, this is a super-duty wireless adapter that you can plug into your laptop and increase your chances of picking up a wireless signal. This is the adapter to have if you are traveling or always seem to be just short of a establishing a decent Wi-Fi connection.

Intended Audience

Mobile business or frequent recreational travelers: People who are on the move constantly and want to make sure they have the equipment they need to get to their data and e-mail any time, anywhere.

Enterprise: Useful for personnel who have moved to a new wing or are using renovated office space where only a few access points have been installed, and the coverage is spotty.

Security: IT staffers could use the Wi-Fire to find out where potential hackers can camp or park while attempting to infiltrate their network.

Municipal access: Some municipalities provide wireless access from centralized locations , like when it wouldn’t be appropriate to wire the infrastructure, or when the signal can be impeded by trees, buildings or other large objects. Use the Wi-Fire to compensate for these scenarios.

College Students: If a student lives outside of college-supplied housing, they can use the Wi-Fire to access the wireless service they already pay for via tuition!

And of course, as with any high-performance network adapter, you just can’t exclude people who might use devices like this for nefarious purposes, such as war-driving or hopping on an unsuspecting neighbor’s access point. (At [GAS], we do NOT condone this!).

Specs

 
  • IEEE 802.11 b/g protocols
  • Frequency Range: 2.421 Ghz – 2.4835 Ghz
  • Channels: US – 11 channels
  • Transmit Power: +14dBm
  • Antenna Gain: +10.4 dBi
  • Minimum Receive Power: -98 dBm

System Requirements

  • Windows XP/Vista
  • Mac OS X (10.3/10.4 on Intel or PPC)

Security

  • 64/128/256 bit WEP
  • 128 bit WPA (256 bit AES)

Physical Specification

  • 4 ounces
  • 4 in(L), 0.375 in(W), 3.25 in(D)
  • USB 2.0

Media Access Control

  • CSMA/CA with ACK
  • Data Rate
  • 802.11g: 6, 9, 12, 18, 24, 36, 48, 54 Mbps
  • 802.11b: 1, 2, 5.5, 11 Mbps

First impressions

OK, this adapter will not win any beauty pageants. This slate-gray unit is clunky and just plain odd-looking. Sporting a non-intuitive hinge/clamp/latchy-thingy, the actual adapter (80% of it being antenna) sits atop the clamp and pivots 360 degrees. The adapter plugs into your PC via an attached spring-loaded retractable USB extension cable, which I have to say, is probably the biggest thing I can complain about, as it can get tangled if you don’t extend it properly.

However, let’s put appearances aside. After all, a true geek would not be concerned with such things. It is more important to connect to a Wi-Fi network rather than to impress the neighbors – unless your neighbors were true geeks. In any case, they would be impressed, since you are able to establish a Wi-Fi connection in places where they could not (using their underpowered built-in wireless adapters!).

Installation

My home setup is a D-Link WBR-2310 wireless router and a Gateway MA3 laptop (1.8Ghz AMD 64 Turion with 1Gb RAM), running Microsoft Windows Vista Business Edition. OK, it’s my only laptop, don’t make fun.

Setup was extremely easy. I installed the software using the supplied driver disc, making sure the Wi-Fire was unplugged from the computer. After the installation routine finished, I plugged the adapter into my USB port.

After the driver installation, the operating system identified the adapter without any trouble.

The Software

The interface software that comes with the Wi-Fire is very easy to understand. Running primarily from the Systray, the main window shows you four tabs (well, really there are three pertinent tabs) which allow you to perform various tasks against the Wi-Fire: Main, Advanced, Profiles, and About.

Wi-Fire interfaceThe Main tab shows you which Wi-Fi signals you are picking up, their signal strengths, the network type (access point, ad-hoc, etc.) and whether or not it is secured. Even if a signal is detected without a broadcasted SSID, you will see that it is there (but you will not see the SSID itself), but you still need to know what that ID is in order to connect. You can easily connect to one of the detected networks by clicking on the desired connection and then clicking “Connect”. The built-in connection manager will help you through the needed steps in order to establish the link.

The Advanced tab really accomplishes pretty much what the main tab does, which is to show you the overall status of detected wireless networks, but will also give you a bit more TCP/IP information once you have established a connection.

The profiles tab is part of the ‘Connection Manager’ features of the Wi-Fire software, and it allow you to set up connection-specific things like your security key or passphrase.

Connection

I first tested out my default WiFi connection with my built-in card, a “Broadcom 802.11g Network Adapter,” which is part of my super-bland Gateway laptop. The test spot was a McDonald’s resturaunt located in a pretty busy section of Rockford, IL.

Batter up!

List of available connection with the Broadcom built-in wireless adapterFirst up, my default Broadcom wireless adapter. I immediately found two networks, one called “ATTWiFi,” and another called “Wayport_Access,” both being McDonald-run hotspots, and both not freely accessible.

A bit frustrating, considering how much McDonalds makes in a year. They can’t offer free Wi-Fi?

The pinch hitter…

List of available access points with the Wi-Fire wireless adapterNext, I plugged in the Wi-Fire adapter and ran the included utility. I was immediately surprised (and pleased!) to see six access points listed. Included in this list was an access point from another local establishment with free Wi-Fi access. I connected to their access point and was on the Internet in a matter of seconds. Nice. Rotating the antenna caused even more to show up in the listing.

On my way home, I left my laptop turned on in the car (on the passenger seat) while I held the antenna by my steering wheel. During the drive down the main thoroughfare here in Rockford, I saw a huge number of access points pop in and out of my hField connection manager. One of them I recognized from another local eatery, and I know I was at least 1000 feet away – I was impressed.

On the last leg of my excursion, I drove through a few side streets in my neighborhood, and the number of wireless networks showing up in my connection manager at any one time was around eight (on average). I would say that out of all the access points I found, nearly a quarter of them were not secured by any type of encryption, which surprised me a little – I was thinking that this number would have been much higher. Finally, I was able to see my own network from four houses down (approximately 100 yards away), which really impressed me – you see, we own a brick house, and in the past when I sit on our porch and try to connect to my network, I am hardly able to get a signal from my built-in card! This thing is incredible!

Summary

The Wi-Fire, mounted on my laptop...mostlyOk, I have to talk about the hardware design… If it were up to me, I would route the connection cable through the pivot axis so you can rotate the antenna a full 360 degrees without the cable impeding your view of the laptop display. Also, the latch/base/clamp thingy is just strange. It doesn’t quite hold onto the laptop display very well, and if you have one of the newer laptops with the super-smooth displays, you won’t be able to latch it onto anything. You could set it on the table, but again, the base doesn’t quite sit the way you would expect it to. How about a base that could fold down and slide into the PCMCIA slot, and allow you to pivot the antenna from there? Just a thought…

Even though I disliked the clunky base, I can honestly say that I love this adapter in regard to its functionality. As far as what hField claims, the Wi-Fire lives up to the hype. It is the perfect accessory to bring along with you if you plan on traveling and must have a wireless connection wherever you go… even if it is a little ugly.

Likes:

  • Ease of setup/usability
  • Price ($79.00)

Dislikes:

  • Base
  • Clunky design

Get your own Wi-Fire from hField Technologies: http://www.hfield.com/or, win one from us!

Giveaway!

hField Technologies has been good enough to provide [GAS] with two Wi-Fire adapters to give away to our readers! All you have to do is submit a comment on this article and we’ll randomly pick two people from the responses. That’s it! The winners will be contacted on Friday, so be sure to leave a correct email address when you comment.