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Wi-Fi and Mobile Broadband - Component Guide

Keep your laptop connected with the right wireless options


by Dana Wollman on August 25, 2009

pp-wifiFor a while now, Wi-Fi has been an inalienable right for notebook owners. But that’s not the end of the story when it comes to wireless connectivity. Aside from choosing between different standards of Wi-Fi, many users purchase mobile broadband subscriptions to get Internet access from the road. Read on to figure out just how much connectivity you need.

Types of Wi-Fi

Whether you buy a 10-inch netbook or an 18-inch desktop replacement, your laptop will definitely have Wi-Fi. This means that, provided you’re located within range of a router (and know the password, if there is one), you can get online without the aid of an Ethernet cable.

The two main Wi-Fi standards today are 802.11n (wireless-N) and the older 802.11g (wireless-G). Many budget models still offer 802.11g as the base configuration option, but there are other low-cost notebooks, particularly preconfigured models designed for stores such as Best Buy, that have wireless-N.

802.11g supports speeds up to 54 Mbps. This is fine for everyday Internet use, such as checking e-mail and surfing the Web, because this is much faster than even the fastest broadband connection.

802.11n supports speeds over 100 Mbps. Unlike 802.11g, which runs only on the 2.4-GHz spectrum, 802.11n can run on either the 2.4-GHz or 5.0-GHz spectrum. This means it can work with dual-band routers, which reserve low-intensity tasks (such as e-mail) for the 2.4-GHz band, and higher-intensity ones (such as streaming HD video) for the 5.0-GHz band.

If your needs are basic and you want to cut every corner, you’ll likely be satisfied with 802.11g. But since 802.11n only costs around $25 more, you might want to consider upgrading to future-proof your notebook. If you’re interested in wirelessly streaming video, particularly high-def content, between devices in your home, 802.11n is a must.

Do You Need Mobile Broadband?

Mobile broadband allows you to get online anywhere; it doesn’t matter if you happen to be near a router. If this sounds like the kind of Internet connection you’re used to getting on your smart phone, well, there’s a reason for that. Mobile broadband subscriptions are sold through the same carriers—AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless, and, lately, T-Mobile—that operate cell phones (more later on the technology behind mobile broadband).

If you frequently need Internet connectivity outside of your home or office, you will have difficulty relying on your Wi-Fi card alone; free public Wi-Fi can be hard to come by, and you can’t always find a paid hotspot, either. On the other hand, mobile broadband connections are not as fast as Wi-Fi, and monthly subscription fees (typically $60 for 5GB per month) can be steep. So get mobile broadband only if you really need it.

Choosing the Right Mobile Broadband Service

There are two major technologies propelling mobile broadband: Evolution Data-Optimized (EV-DO) and High Speed Packet Access (HSPA). Sprint and Verizon Wireless employ EV-DO; AT&T and T-Mobile, HSPA. Although the end user won’t notice much (if any) difference in upload and download speeds, they have different hardware structures, so an adapter made for one won’t work with another. No matter which provider you choose, you should expect speeds of 600 kbps to 1 Mbps for downloading and 500 to 700 Kbps for uploading.

The primary factors you should consider when choosing a mobile broadband provider are coverage, price, and contract terms. Look at coverage maps from the providers you’re considering and see if they match up with areas to which you frequently travel. To avoid overage charges, get a data plan that provides at least 5GB per month of transfer.

If you want the freedom to easily change between carriers, a relatively new technology called Gobi allows users the option of using either EV-DO- or HSPA-enabled mobile broadband cards. You’re most likely to find this offered in business notebooks (HP, for example, offers it in many of its SMB laptops). That’s good news for businesses that don’t want to commit to a carrier or piece of hardware for any specified length of time.

Mobile Broadband Cards and Adapters

When you purchase mobile broadband, you need to decide what type of adapter you want: integrated (internal) or external. Each has its advantages.

Internal cards, which need to be installed by the manufacturer when the notebook is built, are convenient because they don’t stick out or use up one of your system’s ports. However, getting an internal card is more expensive than an external one, most notebooks aren’t available with integrated broadband cards, and if you get one you are locked into using one service provider on that notebook.

If you buy an external adapter, you can use it on any notebook in the world. You even have the liberty of unplugging it, and installing the software on another laptop—a useful scenario if you have primary and secondary PCs, or if there is more than one notebook in your household.

External adapters are available in ExpressCard or USB flash drive form factors. ExpressCard adapters don’t stick out as much, but many notebooks don’t support them, so USB is usually a better option.

What is Mobile WiMAX and Do You Need it?

Whereas most mobile broadband options today run on the same 3G network as phones, the next generation of mobile broadband, called Mobile WiMAX, is already being rolled out. WiMAX, often dubbed 4G for short, boasts faster speeds than 3G: 3 to 6 Mbps, to be exact.

Right now, the service is only available in select cities, such as Baltimore and Las Vegas. But if you’re in those areas, you can buy a 2GB monthly pass for just $35, a significantly lower price than what you’d pay for a 3G card with a 5GB monthly allowance. Moreover, the penalty for exceeding that bandwidth cap is $10 per gigabyte, whereas it would be more than $50 if you went overboard with a 3G card. In our hands-on testing, we’ve been impressed with the swiftness of downloads, although not necessarily the upload speeds. For now, though, unless you live in a WiMAX-enabled city, it’s not an option.

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