Hot and Bothered at Starbucks
Cruising for hotspots on a Linux Laptop can be a royal pain. It's not that we don't have good Wi-Fi support—we do—it's more that a lot of places offer free Wi-Fi with strings and dongles. My favorite coffee shop for working in, for example, offers free Wi-Fi to customers, and they control access by means of PCMCIA cards with the router set to allow only those MAC addresses. Leaving aside the fact that I have no way to install their Windows-only drivers, my laptop sports only an ExpressCard slot, so I'm pretty much screwed no matter what.
Of course, if I could find a way to get my paws on a device that gives me Wi-Fi wherever I go, this wouldn't be a problem. Imagine writing a shipwreck story on the beach where it takes place while still having access to all the glorious resources of the Internet to help make sure you have the details of tall ship rigging, local wildlife life cycles and edible plants at your fingertips. Or, if you're not a half-mad fiction writer, you still could use such a device to blog about a movie you're watching from the back row of the theater or about a protest from a park bench nearby and get the drop on other bloggers who will have to wait in line for a table at Starbucks.
I recently discovered, much to my delight, that such a device does exist. The Cradlepoint PHS300—PHS standing for Personal HotSpot—is a compact little router that, once turned on, establishes a solid wireless cloud suitable for use by anyone with a properly equipped laptop or other Wi-Fi-enabled device (www.cradlepoint.com/phs300/phs300.php).
Technically speaking, the PHS is a wireless router/firewall designed to work with 3G phones and EVDO devices. You plug said device in to the PHS's USB port and turn them both on, and (after a bit of tinkering) you have a wireless access point to the Internet.
Opening up the box, you'll find only the router itself, a small pamphlet, a battery and a power adapter. The package doesn't contain the extras that usually come with USB devices or computer parts. There isn't, for example, a driver disc or a manual, nor is there a USB cable for connecting the PHS to your 3G phone. In both cases, you're on your own.
Don't worry though; the small pamphlet actually contains all the information you're going to need. It's not terribly well organized (for example, you don't find out what the default router password is until several steps after you're told you need it), but it gives you the leg up you're looking for.
The router itself is small and light—not much bigger or heavier than a double-thick checkbook. It has three indicator lights: one tracks battery status, one lights up when a Wi-Fi cloud is established, and the final one indicates connectivity with the phone and/or EVDO modem when plugged in to the single USB port.
From there, the rest of the setup falls like a string of dominoes. Once the unit is powered up, use Wi-Fi Radar or GNOME Network to grab an IP address and log in to 192.168.0.1 to configure the router. Configuration is quite self-explanatory—about the only difference between this and setting up a normal SOHO router is the screen for configuring login information for your ISP, should it be necessary. All the current encryption standards, from WEP through WPA2, are supported.
The PHS300 is advertised as a universally compatible, secure, simple solution for emergency response, vacation broadband and mobile business. Both the box and the promotional materials give the impression that it's a product that “just works”.
I'm pleased to say that it performs as advertised.
It's not easy to imagine what they could have done better. The PHS300 is battery-powered, with about a two-hour battery life, and it recharges either over USB or via the power adapter. Because it operates like any other router appliance, it's not just useful for connecting to the Internet on the go. It also works well for setting up a proper network between your laptop and your colleague's, a little feature I've found useful recently while out on a film shoot. It handily supports full 802.11g speeds behind the Net gateway, and it has easy-to-administer traffic management to keep your cellular bandwidth usage well within the limits of your service plan.
I have only three gripes with this little marvel box, and two of them are pretty minor. The lack of an included USB cable is irritating—mostly because including such things is de rigueur in the current marketplace. The other minor quibble has to do with the battery light—namely, there isn't one. In fact, there's no way to know how much battery life you have left until the power light flashes red, which loosely translates to “this router will commit suicide in two minutes unless you plug it in to something from which it can draw power”. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it's a minor problem.
The major irritant is an oversight that keeps the PHS300 from completely knocking my socks off. The thing doesn't have an Ethernet port, and not having one limits its utility when in the presence of a wired uplink. It also makes it useless as an independent Net segment for diagnostic techs on a wired network. Alas, despite its otherwise brilliant potential as a WAP, the lack of one port pooches the deal, which is particularly disappointing since its little brother, the CTR350, has one. Paying more for less isn't exactly my idea of a good time; however, the PHS300 makes up for it with the firmware's bandwidth management and load-balancing abilities, which maximize the speed you get over your 3G device. Used as a 3G router, its transfer speeds outperform both the CTR350 and using a 3G phone or modem directly from your laptop.
Despite this, it's an excellent little appliance, quite reasonably priced, and (at this point) it's one of only two battery-powered travel routers on the market (the other being Cradlepoint's CTR350). If you have a use for one, it's worth picking up and supporting a company that's advertising is Linux compatibility—and living up to it!
Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars filmmaking community (www.blenderwars.com). He currently is the host of “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast, and “Sculpting God”, a science-fiction anthology podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.