This guest article was submitted by Chris King.
As our computing devices become more mobile and pocketable and our daily usage increasingly involves a web browser, we find ourselves almost constantly craving connectivity.
WiFi is available on even the lowest-priced devices, but it can’t be depended upon to be readily available wherever we may be. 3G broadband cards provide us with net access everywhere, but they usually come with a two-year commitment that hinges upon a high price-to-usage ratio. Now that more devices are being made available with built-in broadband cards, we can identify problems with the carriers’ pricing structures and incompatibilities.
Is spending $60 or more per month for just 5GB of data that can only be used on a partially subsidized computer really worth it? Sure, there are ways to swap out SIM cards between different devices if you're using either of the two GSM providers here in the U.S. (AT&T or T-Mobile), but customers of Sprint and Verizon do not have this luxury.
Luckily, there are a number of solutions out there that can provide more flexibility for 3G broadband users. I’ll go over some of the alternatives below, some of them obvious, some maybe not quite so.
I do own two devices with built-in 3G modems, but I regularly utilize the following alternate methods.
This first alternative to integrated 3G has been around the longest and is generally the least expensive way to get on-the-go access to Internet. What I'm talking about, of course, is tethering, which can be accomplished using either a USB cable, Bluetooth DUN, or Bluetooth PAN. These methods are tried and true and have been used by many people for many years. But since many good things don’t last, carriers have tried to shift people away from this, or at the very least charge an extra fee for the capability.
In moderation, tethering can be a quick and easy solution, limited only by the slower throughput of Bluetooth.
I still tether my Sprint Treo 800 every once in a while, but usually only when I don’t have access to my other options, which I'll explain below. Since I normally use an iPhone 3G on AT&T as my main phone, tethering won't be a non-jailbroken option until Apple unlocks the feature in the upcoming iPhone OS 3.0 software this summer.
USB broadband modems are probably the most widely used broadband devices, and they can be used in most devices with a standard USB port. Many of the newer models from Novatel and Sierra Wireless even have the communication software preloaded on the modem so it automatically installs on the host computer running Windows or OS X. Yes, there are also ExpressCard/34 versions of these modems, but these don’t work on most devices that are covered here on Pocketables (netbooks like the Lenovo S10 and Asus N1 have these card slots, as do some of the Kohjinsha UMPCs).
I currently have a Sprint Compass 597 USB modem on a grandfathered data plan, so fortunately I'm not subject to the 5GB data cap imposed on newer accounts. I have the Sprint Communications Manager installed on my Fujitsu U810 for when I need extended connectivity away from WiFi, but the USB modem really shines when combined with the next device below.
Mobile WiFi Routers
Until the Novatel MiFi becomes available this summer, CradlePoint pretty much has this market to themselves. They do a great job with their products and since they're now owned by Sierra Wireless, you're almost guaranteed that any of their modems will work with these routers. Not only that, most current smartphones can be connected via USB to the router for tethering.
CradlePoint has a full line of mobile routers, from the PHS300 that can be operated by li-ion battery for over 3 hours to the slightly more robust CTR500 that has not only a USB port, but also an ExpressCard/34 slot. Two data modems can even be used simultaneously, providing a failsafe connection and combined throughput known as load balancing.
I use a PHS300 in my automobile along with the Compass 597 modem or the Treo 800. The router stays in there most of the time, powered by a 12V cord, and it lets me access any of my online music services, such as Rhapsody, Slacker, and Pandora, while I'm driving.
The one feature that makes the mobile WiFi router the most flexible means of connecting to the Internet is that multiple devices can be connected at the same time, just like a router at home or work. So devices like the Nokia Internet Tablets and iPod touch can have true 3G access on the go.
Though it may seem that I'm opposed to integrated 3G, that is definitely not the case. As mentioned earlier, I have two devices with integrated 3G. One is a Sony Vaio Z520 with integrated Sprint modem, which I have no intention of ever activating. Why? Because the notebook isn't my main device and I prefer the flexibility of the USB modem and mobile router combo. In fact, if I had been given the option, I would have saved some money and skipped the Sprint option altogether since I already have my Compas 597.
But my Fujitsu U820 with integrated AT&T? That's the one I wouldn't purchase without integrated 3G. And it all boils down to being able to freely use my iPhone SIM in there. I've actually done some pretty interesting things with those two devices; stay tuned for an upcoming article about how I utilize the SIM in the Fujitsu, yet keep the phone functionality of the iPhone at the same time. I’ll give you a hint: it involves Skype and some call forwarding options.
In the meantime, keep in mind that sometimes integrated 3G, while definitely handy, isn't always the easiest or most flexible way to get your Internet fix on the go. And it probably shouldn't always be the deciding factor when buying a new UMPC, MID, or netbook. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, with either WiMax or LTE, we will finally be able to have fast, affordable mobile broadband that can work across multiple devices.
Chris King (orbitalcomp) is a long-time handheld tech user, dating back to the original Newton MessagePad and then moving on to dozens of different devices over the years. Currently, he finds himself surrounded by a multitude of touchscreen devices, including a pair of Fujitsu U-series, a Nokia N800, and an iPhone 3G.