new ways to keep mobile data mobile
Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business
November 3-9 2009 issue #1045
High Tech Office column
Are you one of the many who start getting anxious when you go too long
without being able to get online or check your e-mail?
I’ve got to own up to suffering from this disorder. Smartphones will do
in a pinch, but they don’t satisfy my itch for too long – for anything
more than a quick e-mail check, I much prefer a larger screen and
Wi-Fi hotspots let me use a laptop or netbook, but these aren’t always
available where and when I’d like online access.
Mobile-phone companies, though, are happy to satisfy the jones of data
junkies like me offering a variety of ways – other than mobile phones –
for anywhere/any time connectivity.
You may be able to plug your laptop or netbook to your mobile phone,
using the phone (and its data plan) as a sort of modem to go online
with a simple and standard USB connection. But not everyone can do
this. It requires a tetherable phone and a data plan allowing your
phone to be used in this way.
For instance, Rogers customers can tether their iPhones at no
additional charge, at least until the end of the year, if their plan
includes one gigabyte or more of data. U.S. iPhone users are out of
luck; AT&T says it may allow iPhone tethering sometime in 2010.
If you can’t tether your phone, mobile providers can set you up with a
USB modem: a little gadget that looks like a common USB memory stick
but instead of providing storage lets your portable computer access the
provider’s data network.
I recently had loan of a Sony Ericsson Md400g mobile broadband USB
modem, one of the models Rogers advertises as “rocket sticks.”
Connecting to Rogers’ HSPA data network, it provides broadband-like
download and upload speeds. In addition – and unusual for such mobile
modems – it includes a GPS receiver that worked with Google Maps and
other services. An added bonus is the ability to plug in Memory Stick
Micro and microSD memory cards, letting it simultaneously act as pocket
storage for up to eight gigabytes.
Installation software for Windows and Mac is stored right on the
device, making setup straightforward – at least in theory. It worked
without a hitch on the Windows system I tried but not on my Mac,
perhaps an incompatibility between the software and Apple’s then-new
Snow Leopard operating system.
Plugging a mobile phone or USB device into a laptop or netbook is, at
best, a workaround, though. Ideally, your portable computer should be
able to connect with nothing added. My first laptop needed a plug-in
card to connect to the wired Ethernet network. Later models had this
built in but needed an add-in card for Wi-Fi connections. Now both
Ethernet and Wi-Fi are standard features on virtually every laptop.
If I open up my Dell Mini 9 netbook, beside the hard drive and Wi-Fi
hardware there’s a space labelled WWAN. It’s apparently for plugging in
some sort of card to connect to a mobile data network. But the label’s
all that’s there: no card and no connector to plug one in.
Rogers, however, is offering HP Mini 110 netbooks with the missing
pieces. Most of the specs are similar to other netbook models – 10-inch
screen, Windows XP Home, one-gigabyte memory, 160-gigabyte hard drive,
etc. – but it also includes an embedded 3G module letting it connect to
Rogers’ data network.
It’s priced to compete with other netbooks at $300. Connecting it to
Rogers’ network requires signing a two-year contract.