- Review Price: £79.00
Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m a big fan of wireless networking. In fact I believe that it will be the catalyst for the eventual convergence of consumer electronics and IT products.
I’m therefore very glad to see Wi-Fi appearing as standard in a number of products, most notably Intel Centrino based notebook computers. However, there are still a great deal of notebooks that are not Centrino based, not to mention all the non Wi-Fi notebook computers that are already in the field and not due for replacement for a couple of years.
The most obvious solution for a notebook that doesn’t support Wi-Fi as standard has been a PC Card Wi-Fi adapter. This is a perfectly acceptable solution until the moment comes when you want to plug your Wi-Fi adapter into another notebook and find that you haven’t got the driver disc with you, or for that matter if you ever want to get a desktop PC attached to your wireless network quickly and easily.
This is where the Torspoal PenDragon comes in and on paper it looks like the ultimate plug-in Wi-Fi solution. The PenDragon combines a USB Wi-Fi adapter with a 128MB flash memory module. The beauty of this configuration is that you can store the drivers for the Wi-Fi adapter on the flash memory, so you’ll never have to worry about carrying a driver disc around with you. So no matter where you are and no matter what PC you need to get attached to a wireless network, you can carry everything you need in your pocket.
Considering that having the drivers integrated into the unit is such a strong unique selling point for the PenDragon, I was very disappointed to find that the drivers aren’t loaded into the flash memory at purchase. Instead you have to copy them from the supplied CD-ROM, which will be particularly annoying for those users who don’t have an integrated optical drive in their notebook. That said, once you’ve copied the drivers to the PenDragon it’s done and you won’t have to worry about it again no matter how many machines you plug it into.
Installation is pretty simple, especially if the drivers are on the PenDragon. Simply plug the PenDragon into a USB port and run the setup utility. After being prompted for a reboot Windows will then load the device drivers and your computer will have wireless connectivity.
The PenDragon is quite large for a USB flash memory module, but pretty small when you take the Wi-Fi functionality into account. There’s a clear plastic cover that protects the integrated USB connector. This cover slides backwards to allow the USB connector to be inserted into a USB port on your PC/notebook. There’s a single indicator light that flashes when Wi-Fi is active.
Although the PenDragon can be plugged directly into a USB port, Torspoal suggests that you should use the supplied USB cable and hanger for optimal signal strength. This allows you to position the PenDragon at the top of your notebook lid, or anywhere that may offer you a better signal.
Unfortunately, despite the PenDragon’s undoubtedly innovative design and clever functionality, its performance doesn’t live up to the rest of the package. I tested the PenDragon in my flat using a Netgear wireless router. I plugged the PenDragon into a notebook in my living room, with the router in the bedroom which is one room away via a small hallway.
Although the PenDragon located and connected to the wireless network immediately, the signal was rated as “very low”. While attempting to brows the Internet and access the other computers on my network, the signal was constantly being dropped and rediscovered, but always with a very low signal strength. Picking up my notebook and wandering around my flat I found that the only way I could manage an “excellent” signal strength was to actually stand next to the router.
By contrast, back in the living room my HP iPAQ 5450 was managing a signal between 45 and 50%, without any connection drops. For further comparison I plugged my Xircom PC Card Wi-Fi adapter into the notebook and was instantly greeted with a signal strength hovering around “good”, again without a single drop of connection.
Using the supplied USB cable and hanger made no difference whatsoever, even when I held the PenDragon up in the air.
There’s no denying that the PenDragon is innovative, and having flash memory storage on a USB Wi-Fi adapter is a great idea. But the important part of the equation is the Wi-Fi, and the transceiver simply isn’t strong enough to make the PenDragon a viable wireless solution.
As a USB flash memory module the PenDragon works flawlessly, but you can buy far smaller 128MB USB memory key for around £25, that will happily sit unnoticed in your pocket every day. Considering that the PenDragon costs £79, that leaves you a fair bit of change to invest in a more powerful plug-in Wi-Fi adapter.
The PenDragon is definitely a good idea, and Torspoal has got the design and functionality pretty much spot on. Unfortunately the Wi-Fi performance just isn’t good enough to make the PenDragon worthwhile purchase for a wireless user.
Concerned with the poor performance of the PenDragon I requested a second unit from Torspoal to test. The second device did prove to be marginally better, maintaining a “low” signal strength in my living room as opposed to the “very low” strength managed by its sibling. I also managed to maintain an “excellent” signal strength standing just outside the bedroom where the wireless router lives, whereas I had to be physically next to the router to maintain an “excellent” signal with the previous device. Thankfully the second PenDragon didn’t completely drop the connection to the router when in my living room which was a definite improvement.
All this said, even with the second PenDragon the signal strength dropped to “very low” intermittently, and I have to say that I still would expect better performance. If anything it shows that the PenDragon will work very well in open spaces without many thick walls, so if you’re planning on using it in an open plan office environment you should be fine. However, if you’re trying to get a strong signal in an 1850s period property like I was you may have some problems.