Connecting to the Internet on the Go
By DAVID POGUE
I can't believe we're not yet in the age of ubiquitous wireless. Someday, we'll tell our flabbergasted grandchildren: "When I was your age, when we wanted to check our e-mail we had to drive around town looking for a coffee shop!"
For a while there, I was looking forward to the era of citywide Wi-Fi, the type that was sprouting up in Philadelphia and St. Louis. Unfortunately, most of those projects have stalled or been shut down.
So for now, if you don't want to spend your life hunting down (and paying for) little Wi-Fi hot spots everywhere you go, the closest thing you can get to online everywhere is to buy a cellular modem — and pay through the nose for the service ($60 a month).
Cellular modems take the form either of metal cards that slide into laptop slots (PC Card or ExpressCard), or as stubby U.S.B. doodads that look just like flash drives. At that point, your computer can get onto the Internet at DSL-like speeds in the country's 100 or so biggest cities, or at dial-up speeds anywhere else that you can make a cellphone call. Verizon, Sprint and AT&T offer them.
Last July, I reviewed what was billed as the world’s smallest U.S.B. cell modem, the Novatel/Verizon USB727 (http://tinyurl.com/2bpz8q). It’s great for two reasons: first, it uses Verizon’s network, meaning that you will have fast Internet signal almost anywhere you go; second, it doubles as a flash drive for carrying around files. You can slip a tiny microSD memory card into the thing (up to 4 gigabytes) to expand its storage.
Now there's something better: The Sierra/Sprint Wireless Compass 597, the new reigning champion in the competition for the smallest cellular modem in the country. It's really, really small (1.2 x 2.4 x 0.4 inches), and costs $50 (with rebate and two-year contract), which is a great deal.
Better yet, it doesn't require you to flip up a little antenna, as the Novatel does. Yet the Sierra, too, doubles as a flash drive, thanks to a microSD memory-card slot (up to 32 gigs).
As I was walking out the door for a trip last week, I grabbed the Sierra and threw it in my bag. "Dang," I thought, noticing that it didn't come with an installation CD. "They're gonna make me download the software from the Internet. I'll have to pay for Wi-Fi just to get my cellular modem going!"
Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down at the airport and slipped the thing into my laptop's U.S.B. jack: the software installer is right on the modem! It shows up on your screen as a disk (it's a flash drive, remember?), whether you're using a Mac or a Windows machine. What's cool about that is that you'll be able to use this modem on somebody else's computer in a pinch, since the software is all self-contained.
Not only that, but this connection software is gorgeous. It's simple, clean and, best of all, fast. Click Connect, and you're ready to start downloading e-mail or surfing the Web in about five seconds. (The Novatel/Verizon modem takes a lot longer.) Disconnecting takes only about three seconds.
As a result, you wind up feeling comfortable enough to duck onto the Internet and off again for quick checks, without a lot of hassle or waiting. It's a joy.
There's also an intriguing control panel in the software labeled G.P.S., with digital readouts showing your speed and heading, along with buttons like Find Nearest Bank, Find Nearest Gas, and so on. My review modem easily displayed numbers for Heading, Speed, Latitude, and so on, but I never could get those buttons to work. And you can't see your position on a map without installing separate street-finder software.
The Internet access is complete heaven, and I can't recommend it highly enough to people who've been dropping $7 here, $13 there for Wi-Fi access on the road. But I'm deeply conflicted about the service price.
Sprint's service is $40 a month if you can limit yourself to 40 megabytes of downloaded data (and how on earth would you know?). That's for e-mail checkers only.
It's $90 a month (gulp) for unlimited use, or $60 if you agree to a two-year commitment. Those prices are pretty much in line with Verizon and AT&T.
I used to think that this pricing was outrageous, designed to milk the business travelers on expense accounts and gouge everybody else.
Several readers of my previous column, though, pointed out that $60 a month isn't appreciably more than what people pay for high-speed Internet at home. "Admittedly, $60 is a lot every month," wrote one, "but it somehow grates less than paying $40 for a connection that sits at home and still costs me money while I am on the road paying for Internet in some hotel."
Or, as one reader wrote: "So who says it's just for traveling? Use it at home, too, and kill the cable modem and the TV!"
I don't know. I do a ton of traveling, but I've still never signed up for one of these services because of the price. But I have to tell you, the speed, size and simplicity of this Sprint doohickey makes it harder to resist every day.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company