Is the Netgear FA311 a Winmodem?

    For many years now, the network cards installed in my computers has been a no brainer:  3Com 3c905.  I have Boomerangs, Cyclones, and probably a few Tornados.  Until recently, if it wasn't a 3Com 3c905, it wasn't in my computers.

    Its not that I think the 3Com cards are the best things going.  I think they have some issues.  First, I've had several of these cards just give up the ghost one day.  Usually, they just stopped working altogether.  Recently, one started dropping packets and had to be replaced.  I've also had to deal with post-installation configuration.  I use Netgear switches and the 3Com must be set to "Auto select" in Windows in order to function properly with this equipment.  No big deal if you remember (and know) to change this, but it can be a pain in the neck.  I'm sure other equipment requires different settings.  After swapping the 3Com out of the machine I am working on right now, I put it back to write this review and forgot to change it back!  Also, building a Linux based router (Bering/Leaf, highly recommended) I discovered the internal card, a 3Com Boomerang, was dropping packets when pinging.  I found I had to set some options in order to resolve this (see http://www.scyld.com/network/vortex.html.)  While Linux users, on average, might know to find something like this, how many Windows users will even realize they are getting substandard network performance because the card needs to be tweaked.

    Because I rely heavily on excellent network performance, I was looking for an alternative to the 3Coms that are:

1.  Easily obtainable
2.  Provide excellent performance.
3.  Support both Windows and Linux machines.

I've liked Netgear equipment for the reasons listed above (I use Netgear workgroup switches) and based on the recommendation of someone I trust, bought a FA311 card to replace a failing card.  I'll be honest and say I didn't do any other research.  

    The Netgear comes in a small box with a simple manual and drivers on floppy.  First problem was I didn't have a floppy disk drive in that particular machine, but that wasn't a huge issue.  I prefer drivers on CDROM, but I understand why they put them on floppy.  I resolved that issue quickly very quickly by temporarily installing a floppy in that machine.  The card itself is very appealing to me.  It is bluish in color (like a lot of Netgear's equipment) and a very simple card.  Simple to me means less likely to fail.  One big chip, the transceiver (I think!), and a few other electronic whatzits are all that are on the card.  Compared to a 3Com Cyclone, the FA311 is very similar but has a lot less little tiny electronic doodads on it, but does have 5 of the barrel shaped deals and one of those round things with two legs, which the 3Com lacks.  No, I don't have a degree in electronics!  

    After solving the floppy drive problem, the card came up and it worked with no issues.  This was a W2k machine directly connected to a cable modem (yes I understand the risks blah blah.)   I started having thoughts of a buying a bunch of these cards to install as needed, since they could be had for around ten dollars.  I thought that before I did that, I should check around and see what people thought of them.  Not that I was concerned about the investment of money, but rather my time installing and using equipment that I wouldn't be happy with.  Almost the first thing I ran into during my Google search was a post from a guy saying that the FA311 (and FA312 which is very similar) are like Winmodems.  For those of you who don't know what that means, its not good.  Winmodems are very simple looking cards that replace a lot of normal modem hardware with software routines.  Some of the downside to this is that these cards put additional load on your system resources, and generally can only be used in a Windows environment.  If you buy a low end Windows system with an integrated internal modem, it is almost certainly packing a Winmodem.  Anyway, the long and short of it, is that if you know what you are doing, you avoid Winmodems.

    The basic appearance of the FA311 lends credence to the "Winmodem" charge.  Its simple design looks very much like a Winmodem.  Also, the same guy also said something along the lines of saving yourself the hassle and get a hardware based card, even mentioning the 3Com by name.  Whether Netgear offloaded normal network card functionality to software, I don't know, and not being able to find the answer on the net anywhere, I thought I would try to find out for myself.

    Before looking at the test results below, keep the following in mind.

1.  All tests used FTP over a 100MB LAN using a Netgear workgroup switch.
2.  Test client is an Abit BP6, test server is Athlon 1.2 with a 3Com 3C905.
3.  CPU loads were eyeballed using task manager during the final transfer of each type, so subject to error.
4.  Big File was a 588 ISO, small files were 54 MP3s totaling 224MB.
5.  This is not at all scientific.  Just my observations.

Run 1 Run 2 Run 3 Total CPU%  
3C905 Boomerang            
Big File Put (588MB) 50 51 51 152 40  
Big File Get (588MB) 56 56 56 168 65  
           
Small Files Put (224MB) 22 21 21 64 36  
Small Files Get (224MB) 28 26 26 80 55  
        Total Time 464
        Avg CPU 49
NetGear FA311            
Big File Put 52 52 51 155 42  
Big File Get 52 53 53 158 62  
           
Small Files Put 22 21 21 64 36  
Small Files Get 26 25 24 75 58  
        Total Time 452
        Avg CPU 50

    So there you have it.  The cards are very similar, although there is a slight edge to Netgear in downloading large files.  CPU difference is well within the margin of error, which I'll go out on a limb and say was +/- 3%.  Based on this, I don't think the charge of Winmodem sticks.  But I'd like to hear if anyone knows otherwise.