The Portable Office

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The Portable Office: The best way to get online

The Hardware

All three carriers offer USB, ExpressCard, and PC Card hardware options, all with Mac OS X support. Comparable hardware options cost roughly the same, regardless of the carrier (see “Cell Data Hardware”). Though the hardware offerings change constantly, AT&T currently offers three cards, Sprint six, and Verizon eight. The main differences between them are card format, battery consumption, and size, but not performance. Typically, the least expensive USB adapter burns more power and is bulkier than its more expensive counterparts. Speed is a function of the network, not the card.

Your choice of cards will depend largely on the Mac laptop model you have. Most PowerBooks have PC Card slots; so far, only the MacBook Pro has an ExpressCard slot. Every current Mac laptop—including the MacBook and the MacBook Air—has a USB slot, and each carrier offers one or more USB adapters.

AT&T Sierra Wireless AirCard 881
AT&T Sierra Wireless AirCard 881
Some USB modems may require a cable or an extender to plug in alongside other USB adapters; newer and more-expensive USB adapters tend to be smaller and sleeker than older units. Because it’s so thin, the MacBook Air almost certainly needs a USB cable extender—which may come with the modem—to make a good connection.

The cost of the hardware will vary by carrier and whatever deals it’s offering when you sign up for service. Signing a two-year service contract gets you the best deal. Most carriers also offer discounts if you buy online, and some offer instant online or mail-in rebates.

Sprint Novatel U727 Ovation
Sprint Novatel U727 Ovation
In addition to those brass-tacks concerns, you should also consider these other points when you buy 3G hardware: Both of Sprint’s USB modems and Verizon’s most expensive USB modem (the USB727) include micro-SD slots; that means they can double as USB flash drives. If your laptop has just one USB port or the ports’ positioning makes it hard to insert a USB drive, this feature might make it worthwhile to choose Sprint or spend a little extra with Verizon.

All but one of Sprint’s modems (the AirCard 595 PC Card) include GPS technology. If you’re using one of those modems, the SprintView software will show your current GPS coordinates and can connect you to Web lists of nearby amenities.

Verizon 595U
Verizon 595U
Some USB modems—such as the Verizon 595U—have internal batteries and can be charged separately from the laptop; this can extend your laptop’s battery life by more than an hour.

All of Verizon’s and all but one of Sprint’s modems sport external antenna jacks that allow you to attach higher-gain (in other words, farther-reaching) external antennas. That can be handy if you frequent remote areas or use the adapter in your car (the frame can block reception). You can buy external antennas from the carriers or through third parties. If you go with a third party, just make sure the antenna you buy is designed to work with your carrier’s 3G frequency ranges.

Overall, I recommend USB modems for most users. They work with pretty much any Mac, and they’re easily exchanged between systems: if you buy an ExpressCard for your MacBook Pro but then need to borrow someone’s MacBook or MacBook Air, or if your home broadband goes on the fritz and you want to plug your 3G modem into your desktop, you’ll be out of luck. A USB modem can connect pretty much any Mac (or PC, for that matter). The only downside? USB modems stick out, so you can easily damage them if you don’t take care.

Cell Data Hardware

Carrier Item Price ¹ Cell Data Standards Interface OS X Compatibility
AT&T AT&T USBConnect 881 $0 3G, EDGE, quad band USB 10.4+
Option GT Ultra Express $50 7.2 HSPA, EDGE, quad band ExpressCard 10.4+
Sierra Wireless AirCard 881 $50 3.6 HSPA, EDGE, quad band PC Card, Type II 10.4+
Sprint Sierra Wireless Compass 597 $50 EVDO Rev. A USB² ³ 10.4+
Novatel Wireless Merlin EX720 $100 EVDO Rev. A ExpressCard ³ 10.4+
Novatel Wireless Ovation U727 $100 EVDO Rev. A USB² ³ 10.4+
Novatel Wireless Merlin S720 $120 EVDO Rev. A PC Card, Type II³ 10.4+
Sierra Wireless AirCard 595 $120 EVDO Rev. A PC Card, Type II 10.4+
Sierra Wireless AirCard 597E ExpressCard $130 EVDO Rev. A ExpressCard³ 10.4+
T-Mobile Sony Ericsson GC89 $150 EDGE/Wi-Fi PC Card, Type II none
Verizon VW UM150 USB Modem $0 EVDO Rev. A USB 10.3.9+
VW KPC680 ExpressCard $50 EVDO Rev. A ExpressCard 10.4.8+
VW PC5750 PC Card $50 EVDO Rev. A PC Card, Type II 10.3.9+
VW USB720 Modem $50 EVDO Rev. A USB 10.3.9+
VW AirCard 595 $100 EVDO Rev. A PC Card, Type II 10.3.9+
VW AirCard 595U USB Modem $130 EVDO Rev. A USB 10.3.9+
VW V740 ExpressCard $130 EVDO Rev. A ExpressCard 10.4.8+
VW USB727 Modem $150 EVDO Rev. A USBB 10.3.9+

¹ With a two-year service contract. All prices are online only; in-store prices tend to be $50 to $100 higher. Mail-in and online rebates are included in the price. ² Includes micro-SD slot. ³ Includes GPS chip.

The Software

In addition to a 3G service plan and the hardware, you’ll also need some software to help OS X work with your cell data adapter. This software recognizes when you insert or connect the adapter, lets you connect to the network, and shows you the signal strength and the current rates of upstream and downstream bandwidth.

Verizon offers VZAccess Manager. It works with all Verizon cell data cards. Sprint’s Mac compatible Sprint SmartView works with all current and most older mobile broadband hardware. AT&T still relies on customized versions of the software designed by its hardware manufacturers.

Unless you purchase a modem from a cellular reseller who agrees to activate the service for you, you’ll use the carrier’s software to register the modem on the network and make it ready for use. VZAccess Manager can also manage Wi-Fi connections for you; Sprint’s software can’t.

Leopard itself includes minimal support for several cell data modems. OS X will recognize the adapter when you insert or connect it, and will then give you a menu-bar menu you can use to connect to or disconnect from the network, eject the card, and see how long you’ve been online. But OS X’s software can’t help you activate the adapter or take advantage of extra features, such as the GPS built into some Sprint hardware.

In addition to the vendors’ software and OS X, there are a couple of third-party software options. Smith Micro Software (which makes VZAccess Manager for Verizon) offers the $30 QuickLink Mobile. QuickLink supports the cell data modems sold by nearly every major (and minor) U.S. carrier, as well as dozens of handsets that can be used as cell data modems. Nova media offers the $75 launch2net, which works with hundreds of phones, cards, and USB adapters worldwide.

My advice: The software from the carriers works perfectly fine. I’d only use OS X’s built-in tools if for some reason you can’t use the vendor’s. And unless you need a particular extra feature in Smith Micro’s or nova media’s software—such as launch2net’s support for multiple profiles based on GSM authentication modules—there’s no reason to spend any more money.

The Final Word

No matter which carrier you choose, 3G cellular data service will be a huge step up from relying on Wi-Fi hotspots to get online from the road. You may, in fact, decide that it’s the only online access you need and cut the cable or DSL cords at home or at work. The coverage, the pricing, and—most of all—the Mac compatibility are all good enough that 3G service could be the only broadband you need.

[Glenn Fleishman is the editor ofWi-Fi Networking News (wifinetnews.com) and the author of Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Extreme Network (Take Control Books, 2008).]

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