Cruising along the EVDO superhighway

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For the past two months, my MacBook Pro and I have been happily—and seamlessly—connected to the Web 24/7, no matter where we’ve been—be it Boston, San Francisco, Syracuse, Portland or Seattle; up Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Seattle or on Interstate 84 alongside the Columbia River in Oregon. I have been connected, not by hopping on and off available wireless hotspots, but via Novatel’s V640 EVDO card and Verizon’s BroadbandAccess Connect EVDO service.

EVDO (Evolution-Data Optimized) is a 3G (third-generation) cellular standard currently supported by Verizon and Sprint in the US, and a number of other mobile carriers throughout the world (T-Mobile plans to add support for 3G services next year ). Verizon had previously offered a PC Card that let you hook up a PowerBook G4 to the BroadbandAccess service, but it was only recently that a card has been available for use with the MacBook Pro.

The V640 fits into the Express Card/34 slot in my 17-inch MacBook Pro, and includes software that automatically connects to the Verizon EVDO network, generally giving me broadband-like speeds for connecting to the Web. It isn’t cheap—the card is $180 and the service is $60 per month with a 2-year commitment—although, like many cellular products, the cost of the card varies, depending upon what other wireless and data services you might have with Verizon.

The VZ Access software, which is required to connect to the service, was written by Smith Micro, and it gets the job done, although it would be nice to have it work more transparently—it sort of hijacks your network settings while it’s in use, which is only a problem if you forget and try to make changes in the Network System Preference pane. (Apple has added direct EVDO support as of Mac OS X 10.4.7, which should make this less of a problem with future products.) Once you fire up the card and connect to the Verizon network, you’re on the Web as if you were using a WiFi connection.

Verizon says that you’ll see between average connection speeds between 400 and 700 Kbps for downloads—with bursts up to 2.0 Mbps—and 100-200 Kbps for upload speeds. I hit a few peak speeds in the 1.5-Mbps range, but mostly my connections averaged between 450 and 750 Kbps. I also had a few connections that averaged in the 200-Kbps download range—still workable, but at times reminiscent of my modem days.

Dropped calls were pretty rare, and performance was generally consistent during a session, although from time to time my download speeds would fluctuate wildly. Over two months of usage, the only real issue I have with the card and the service is that it isn’t well-suited to streaming audio and video. I frequently tried to access an internet radio station I listen to via my wireless network, but network rebuffering issues made it painful to listen to, and the same thing occurred regularly when trying to access video feeds from sites like CNN. For checking the Web, staying on email, and connecting to your VPN network, though, the service is great.

After cost, coverage is the biggest factor in whether or not you want to use Verizon’s service. In the last 12 months, Verizon has expanded EVDO service to most metropolitan areas in the U.S., and I achieved the highest speeds in those areas. If you are traveling in an area that doesn’t have EVDO service, the card will automatically drop down the the slower 1xRTT service, which brings download speeds under 100 KBps, but still fine for checking email and many Web sites.

Overall, the V640 and Verizon’s service come through as advertised. The costs of the package make it most useful to the business traveler or road warrior, but if you need more than the email capabilities of a Blackberry or Treo, want better Web access, or need to connect from your computer on the road, this is a pretty handy and slick way to do it.

A few side notes:

  • If you don’t have a MacBook Pro, or don’t want to use Verizon, Sprint is offering EVDO service via a USB EVDO modem from Franklin Wireless. EVDO Info, a great site for news and tips about EVDO service and products, recently posted a detailed review of the Franklin Wireless USB modem.
  • Smart phones like the Treo 700 series and Blackberry phones—and some newer pocket cell phones like LG’s VX8300 —support EVDO and can be used as an EVDO modem, although you will still need to have some sort of data plan in place to use the phone as a modem, according to Verizon.
  • Wireless guru Glenn Fleishman’s “ Get online from anywhere,” from Macworld’s September 2006 issue, is worth reading if you’re further interested in alternatives to WiFi hotspot connections on the road.

[ Rick LePage is Macworld’s editor-at-large ]

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