Saturday, July 31, 2021

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Send them to Pete at: ReleaseNotes@
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Going Wireless (a sort-of-review)

First off, I want to thank everyone who sent in advice about EV-DO and using wireless broadband cards in general (and at Moscone Center in particular). A special “Thanks!” goes out to Keith Stattenfield and the folks from the Smart Friends list, who did much to set me on the path toward enlightenment.

For everyone who had no idea what I was talking about with this whole EV-DO thing, here’s what I’ve discovered over the past week. It’s a bit long, but I hope it’ll be helpful for anyone looking into getting wireless broadband for themselves.

Lesson 1: There are finally wireless cards that don’t suck

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of having “high speed everywhere” access to the internet, but the combination of outrageous access charges and flaky wireless cards that never deliver anything like their promised speeds had me buying and immediately returning four (count-em: four!) different wireless cards over the past few years:

Cingular’s Crummy Network, Take 1

My most disastrous experience was five years ago with a Cingular card meant to give wireless service with a laptop. I got it in an attempt to be able to process sales at Comic-Con, rather than just collecting credit card imprints and either calling them in from the hotel or running them when we returned home. With the manual system, we ’d always run into a few folks who’d lived it up a little too much in San Diego and had maxed out their cards. This lead to days or weeks of uncomfortable phone calls as we’d have to get in touch with them and get them to pay up for software we’d already handed them. We always got things straightened out in the end, but it was never a process I looked forward to. At the same time, it would actually have been cheaper for us to get stiffed a few times rather than pay the outrageous phone or internet charges to get either a computer or credit card terminal working on the show floor.

So, with promises of high speed access in hand (and as much local testing as we could do from San Jose), we took our wireless-enabled card with us to San Diego. Immediately things went wrong: we couldn’t get a connection using the first of the two connection methods the card offered, and had to cross our fingers and use the other. Cingular’s advanced tech support was on permanent lunch break (PC cards are technically considered “advanced technical support” and handled by a more specialized team than answers phone support calls, so we were essentially on our own). The second connection method resulted in a slow, rocky connection that would drop every few minutes, but it was enough to get us through the show.

Then we got the bill.

Somehow, our “unlimited internet” service was discovered to only apply to the first of the two connection methods on the card (the one that didn’t work). The one we had to go with was apparently on some sort of alternate network not mentioned anywhere in the contract, online documentation, or user manual. And it billed at something like 50 cents a minute. For the equivalent of 14.4Kbs dial-up access. I spent weeks arguing about that bill with Cingular, and still wound up paying hundreds in the end. That was enough to put me off Cingular’s wireless service for years.

Cingular’s Crummy Network, Take 2

Then, the Christmas before last, I read about a new “3G” network they had just rolled out, offering—yes—much higher speed access and connectivity in our big convention cities, as well as San Jose (where I live) and Las Vegas (where my folks lived, and where I’d be vacationing at Christmas).

So, thoroughly chastened by my previous experience with Cingular’s wireless service, I gave it a shot, being very careful to get all promises in writing, as well as discussing the return process in great detail with the sales folks at Cingular. I then immediately road-tested the card both at home and in San Francisco. Sadly, the connections were sketchy, dropped after minutes, and made me have to do tricks like holding my laptop near my office window in order to get connected. San Francisco was not much better, and the show floor of Moscone center during Macworld was a complete dead zone. Las Vegas actually lit up the “3G” sign in the card’s connection window when it connected, but the connection dropped so frequently that it was essentially unusable from the hotel. In desperation, we tried a different type of card, hoping its antenna setup might help out, but in days I had to admit defeat and return everything to Cingular (who, of course, continued to bill me for one of the cards until I spent a few more hours on the phone confirming that the account had been cancelled and the card returned months earlier).

Sprint and EVDO

With a fair amount of trepidation, I recently decided to check out Sprint’s EV-DO Rev A service, which had been rolled out in all the important cities we travel to each year. (It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment: it’s just that I’ve got a several thousand dollar per year incentive to find something that works in the form of the convention telecom charges I’ll pay otherwise).

Nowadays, we do a lot more with the internet at conventions than just process sales. We also need to demonstrate both ComicBase’s internet features, as well as preview Atomic Avenue, our soon-to-be-released online comic marketplace. I figured that we could limp along with a 300 Kbs connection, but 600 Kbs would get us truly into the “adequate for show use” zone. (By comparison: at the office, we have a T1 line which delivers the equivalent of 1500 Kbs).

Sprint’s EV-DO Rev A network promised download speeds in the 450-800 Kbs range—a claim I was inclined to treat with great skepticism given my past experience. During the ordering process, I was lucky to find reviews of the different PC cards they offer. Despite what their phone sales rep told me, PC Magazine at least found large differences in the speeds each of the cards offered produced. In particular, the “free with plan” Pantech PX500 I almost ordered seems to be a real clunker. If you’re thinking of going down this path, I’d encourage you to check out the reviews for yourself.

In the end, I ordered the Sierra Aircard 595. The card arrived earlier this week, and after some hours on the phone with Sprint technical support to try to get it activated, I finally got the card registered with their network and clicked the “Go” button to connect to the internet.

To my great shock and surprise, in a few seconds I was connected to the internet with a slightly poky, but stable connection in the 200 Kbs range. I then had the software check for updates it found a 40 MB updater it slowly downloaded. I figured it’d be just some sort of driver or connection software update, but when I ran it, I found that it also contained a program to update the card’s firmware to support the new EV-DO Rev A networks. (I’ll admit I wondered why the new card I’d bought, marketed as supporting EV-DO Rev A needed such an update, but hey, that’s life on the cutting edge). Unfortunately, the firmware updater conked out numerous times under Windows Vista in mid-update (a situation which I half suspected would leave the card utterly unusable—it’s normally very bad mojo when a firmware updater doesn’t finish). Anyway, I kept trying, and, for reasons that remain a mystery to me, the seventh attempt to run the firmware updater actually worked.

I restarted the laptop, launched the connection software and clicked the “Go” button. In moments I had a connection—and a noticeably faster one at that. I was immediately in the 630 Kbs zone, and simply rotating the laptop a bit gave me speeds in excess of 900 Kbs. Upload speeds were less, but otherwise, the situation was not much different than being plugged in at my network here at the office. Best yet, the connection was instantaneous, and stable. Victory at last!

Lesson 2: You can now use a wireless card to set up your own network

On the recommendation of one of Keith’s “Smart friends” (a mailing list for geeks in the Bay Area), I also picked up this EV-DO wireless router from Linksys that lets you plug in one of the EV-DO laptop cards and in turn creates both a four-port wired network and a Wireless G wireless network:

Linksys Router

I haven’t had a chance to road-test this device in person yet, but I don’t really anticipate much difficulty. If it works properly, I should be able to network all our show computers using just one PC card.

Lesson 3: Connectivity’s better these days, but still not perfect

Our next show is Wondercon in San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Last year, the show was in Moscone West, a ground-level venue. This year, however, it’s in Moscone South, a huge, underground concrete structure. With an $1100 incentive to avoid using the show’s internet service, I drove up to San Francisco to road-test the connectivity at the actual venue.

With my Human Computing ID dangling on a lanyard around my neck (a thoroughly irrelevant credential to the International Gift Fair show currently setting up in the hall), I strode into the South hall and positioned myself as near to where our booth would be as possible. I’d gotten a 200 Kbs-range connection upstairs, but after descending the huge escalator into the bowels of the actual convention floor, the thousands of tons of concrete overhead proved an effective shield against decent connectivity. I did manage a connection, but at 30 Kbs or so, it was far too slow to demo the graphic-heavy pages of Atomic Avenue.

As a quick test before I headed for home, I managed to convention-crash my way into another convention setting up in Moscone West, site of last year’s Wondercon. Standing right where our booth was last year, I got a stable connection of almost 900 Kbs.

Sigh.

Ah well, at least it bodes well for the San Diego Convention Center, and I may even be in a position to run a live demo at my talk at Moscone, since most of the conference rooms are actually upstairs.

The Bottom Line

I think I’ll be keeping the new card. Sprint seems to have finally delivered on the promise of a usable, high-speed network, and I, for one, am looking forward to being able to stay connected wherever I go. Heck, if the upload speeds were just a touch better, I’d be inclined to ditch my cable modem at home—the speed is really that good.

Nice job, Sprint!

…But if you can manage it, a cell relay onto the convention floor of Moscone would really make my day. Just a thought… ;-)


Help Wanted: Anyone Know Much About EV-DO/WLAN?

Whenever we do a trade show, like the upcoming Wondercon or San Diego Comic-Con, the hit for internet access is generally well north of a grand for two or three day’s access. Unfortunately, in the past I’ve had no luck getting stable connectivity using Cingular’s EDGE/HDSPA solution, otherwise I’d be inclined to simply use that with a laptop and some sort of wireless card to act as a hub and network our show machines to it. We don’t need the speed to be blazing: 300-400 Kbs downstream would probably work just fine.

Has anyone had any experience getting any sort of wireless access using Sprint’s EV-DO or WLAN networks? If so, what are our chances of getting a stable, workable solution going in the concrete-lined halls of Moscone or the San Diego Convention center (where, admittedly, cell service is usually quite good)? Finally, what sort of connectivity and speeds would you see on your service in normal use? (The Cingular cards I road-tested last year were atrocious in both San Jose and Las Vegas, and I’d typically have to do things like propping the laptop against the window of the hotel in order to get a signal).

 


The Best of the Harveyville Fun Times

Harveyville Fun Times

I wanted to give a hand to ComicBase writer Mark Arnold, whose “The Best of the Harveyville Fun Times” is now in print and currently #119 on lulu.com’s best-sellers list. Help him crack the top 100 by picking up a copy at your local comic store (Diamond Comics just picked the book up) or ordering a copy direct from the publisher at http://www.lulu.com/content/281328

Mark’s been editing the Harveyville Fun Times for the past sixteen years, and labored to squeeze the best material into this rather substantial tome. It’s a huge, sprawling look at this much-loved publisher of characters such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, Li’l Dot, and Wendy the Good Little Witch. If you’re a Harvey fan, or just like getting the inside story on a huge part of comics history, I think you’ll find it well worth looking into.