Introducing the WiFlyer
There are some other small wireless base stations around, like the Asus WL-530g and the Apple Airport Express, both of which do a good job of turning an available broadband connection wireless, but to my knowledge no others which pack a modem into such a small base station. (The larger Apple Airports do have a modem, as have some devices from Lucent and others, but they're much bulkier.) Each of these tiny base station has its pros and cons -- the Airport Express adds in audio transport, for instance, and like the WL-530g it's a full-fledged 802.11g device -- so your use will determine which makes the most sense. For me, though, the WiFlyer basically hits the sweet spot: it's light, extensible, works as advertised (with one exception, below), and let me connect both my laptops via friends' DSL and cable modems, and over Plain Old Telephone Service.
Physically, the WiFlyer is a slightly rounded grey box that looks it should double as a radar detector. The case is small -- at roughly 1x3x5", about the size of my (old) Handspring Visor, and only 6.5 ounces including the AC power supply. That makes it a good candidate for tossing in a laptop case; at that weight, it's not exactly hefty, but seems solid enough to take travel without complaint. Helpfully, it comes with a wall-wart that's forgivable for not being a line-lump, because the transformer end is small enough -- tiny! -- to stick in one AC socket without obstructing the outlet's other plug. The rear of the device holds the various ins and outs: two ethernet ports (one in from a broadband connection, one out to a local machine), an RJ-11 jack for a telephone line, and the DC power jack.
My only complaint about the WiFlyer's physical design is that it lacks a built-in means (perhaps in the form of a plastic case like the expansion sleeve of the Compaq iPaq) for mounting it under or next to a desk, or high on a cubicle wall to provide better reception.
I recently used the device at several stops along an (ongoing) 6,000-plus mile road trip around the U.S., and found it an indispensable jack of all (networking) trades, with only a touch of "master of none." It neatly replaces everything in the Frankenmodem I assembled a few years ago and have relied on for temporary wireless-by-modem since. It just took a few more years for such a device to appear than I expected it to.
My testbed laptops: a Toshiba Satellite with a 1GHz Celeron chip (saddled with Windows XP), and a 500MHz iBook running Ubuntu Linux 5.0.4.The iBook wireless connection is an internal Airport card (Ubuntu supports the original Airport, though not yet the Airport Extreme), and the Toshiba is getting its wireless access from a USB dongle, a Netgear MA111. (And though the nature of the device means it shouldn't much matter, it's nice to see that Linux support is mentioned explicitly on the package.) In both cases, I used a recent build of Firefox to reach the device's admin page, and (except for better reception in the iBook) there is no difference in behavior, since the WiFlyer requires no client-side software.
Set-up is simple: plug the device in (there's no power switch) and connect it to either an active phone line or an ethernet cable leading to active Internet service. Upon starting a browser and entering the WiFlyer's default IP address (192.168.7.77), the user finds a configuration screen. By default, the WiFlyer is set up for dialup use, and here's one of the best features: stored in memory, the box has local access numbers for "most" major ISPs; a partial list includes Earthlink (the one I use), SBC/Yahoo, MSN, ATT Worldnet and NetZero. The handy thing about ISPs sharing modem pools is that chances are good any ISP with a national presence is reachable through the WiFlyer's list. Just select your location and ISP, supply your username and password, and the WiFlyer dials out. (A small dial on the side controls the modem's volume; it's reassuring to hear those banshees wail sometimes.) This feature worked flawlessly for me from several places around the country; I chose Earthlink's numbers from various locations, and got through without incident. Since Ubuntu Linux can't yet control the modem in my iBook, it's nice to have an external modem like this.
If you can scrounge an ethernet cable with active service upstream to the Internet, though, things are even easier (at least if you are happy with DHCP -- otherwise you'll have to punch in the right numbers in the configuration page). After clicking a button on the config page to switch to broadband, a firmware swap takes place (it requires around a minute; Always On says this was a necessary compromise in the cost of the device), and Shazam! -- miniature broadband wireless router. It seems to take the WiFlyer 60-90 seconds to establish the connection, though; this takes more patience than do my other wireless routers. If you're borrowing a friend's cable-modem line between the cable modem and his PC, connect the other ethernet port to the computer, so everyone's happy.
I didn't use the built-in security features (too far from interested eavesdroppers), but the WiFlyer includes the usual semi-secure means of securing a wireless network from the base-station end; 40/64 bit and 128-bit WEP and MAC address authentication.
The WiFlyer isn't perfect; it has a few drawbacks to take note of, and they could be deal-killers if you need what it doesn't offer.
Most importantly, the range of the WiFlyer is limited; that's what I expected, since it has no external antenna, but the working range is even shorter than I anticipated, and my reception was spotty outside anything more than 20 feet from the box, even with a perfect line of sight. (This is partly to blame on my wireless dongle, but not entirely -- with both the WiFlyer and a common Netgear 802.11b base station active in the same house, I received a much stronger signal from the Netgear even with the WiFlyer within three feet of my 802.11 USB key, while the Netgear was more than 30 feet away and blocked by two thick plaster walls.) That means that an out-of-the-box WiFlyer won't let me browse the web over waffles across the street from a motel. The only way I could get a connection which my Toshiba would call "excellent" was to lay the USB wireless dongle within a foot or two of the WiFlyer. Within a hotel room or small office, the reception is perfectly adequate, though, and if you choose to view the glass as half-full, no wireless moocher is likely to download naughty pictures (or upload naughty email) over your connection.
However, the designers have at least deflected my low opinion of the built-in antenna by including a jack for an MCX antenna, which -- thanks to the proliferation of wireless generally -- are widely available and cheap. The local computer superstore in El Paso (my location at the moment) has a vide variety of these available, starting around $40. So for a permanent installation, the range ought not be a huge concern, but don't expect to cover the footprint of a music festival or even much of a multi-room office without an antenna.
Another limitation is that the DHCP server supports only 5 users at a time. For situations where the WiFlyer is likely to be used, it doesn't seem worth carping too much about this low number -- sharing dialup with more than 5 users seems like a stretch anyhow. But as an emergency backup DHCP server (something it seems perfect for, though clearly not the intended application), this limits its utility. It can't take too much more expensive a chip to bump that number a bit higher. As a wireless Swiss Army Knife, it would also be handy if the WiFlyer featured a bridging mode, so it could be used to extend service from the edge of an existing hotspot. Since it's roughly the size of some USB wireless devices anyhow, this would make it a useful tool to receive as well as provide wireless access.
If you're used to 802.11g, another disappointment: the WiFlyer is 802.11b only. Since even 802.11b vastly outstrips the carrying capacity of American broadband connections generally, the distinction is probably less important than the makers of 802.11g equipment would have you believe; but be warned, the WiFlyer isn't built to facilitate ultra-high-speed intranetwork data transfers.
The only major disappointment I had with the WiFlyer is the short range; that factor aside, it's been a lifesaver. Now if the makers designed in a duck antenna for greater range, added a bridging mode, and removed the slight hassle of a firmware swap to move between broadband and dialup, it would be even snazzier. Hopefully the next generation WiFlyer will add some of those things, but don't get me wrong: if you travel where modem access is your link to the Internet, or you ever need to share a broadband connection temporarily, the WiFlyer is well worth buying and keeping in your hit-the-road bag.