When it comes to Internet connectivity for a PC or tablet, 4G or 3G cellular mobile broadband can serve as a great substitute for cable and other wired networks, either some or all of the time. As with Wi-Fi, you can connect through cellular wireless when you’re out on the road, but with 4G/3G, your access is far less spotty. In this article, we’ll drill down into the pros and cons of various ways of getting mobile broadband access: through built-in cellular wireless; smartphone hotspotting; and peripherals like USB mobile broadband adapters and mobile broadband routers (also known as “mobile hotspots”).
If you’ve ever shopped for an Apple iPad, you’ve noticed that one of the main model choices is “Wi-Fi” or “Wi-Fi + Cellular.” The same holds true for many other notebooks and tablets, and even for some eBook readers. For example, Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 Carbon notebook, several Panasonic Toughbooks, and the Asus Nexus 7 tablet all come in “cellular” models as well as WiFi-only ones.
On laptops with built-in cellular wireless, you’ll find an antenna — typically in the case — along with the radio transceiver chips… similar to the antenna and mobile broadband chipset in a smartphone.
Built-in cellular offers several advantages over using a smartphone or peripheral. First, it’s “done-in-one” — nothing else to remember, pack, keep charged, or keep track of (and not lose).
Second, it raises no “proximity” concerns; there’s no need to stay near (in cable, Bluetooth or Wi-FI range of) a device whose bandwidth you’re sharing.
Third, you won’t be draining your phone battery more quickly by having your phone also act as a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth hotspot.
It’s also possible that you’ll get better broadband coverage and service thanks to the dedicated antenna, although opinions on this vary.
On the other hand, there are some down sides to embedded mobile broadband. For one thing, the cost of a device with embedded cellular is higher — anywhere from $50 to $150 extra. Think how much more storage, or other options and accessories you might get instead for the same price!
Also on the money side, there are added costs for either getting a cellular plan or adding another line to your existing plan. A second line for your smartphone’s plan will cost between $10-20/month, plus fees for actual data usage. You might want to check for pay-as-you-go options. For instance, Lenovo offers a no-contract 3G service called Lenovo Mobile Access (LMA).
Meanwhile though, if you want to upgrade to new carrier technologies in the future — and still stick with embedded cellular — you’ll need to replace your entire PC.
Just because you’ve bought a mobile-broadband-capable device, however, doesn’t mean that you are obligated to use that feature immediately, or ever. For example, when I got my iPad 2, I didn’t activate mobile broadband for the first few months. Then, about six months after I finally did that, I stopped the auto-renew, first by relying on Wi-FI to access the Internet, and some months later, by using my iPhone to provide Internet access to my iPad and notebook.
Most smartphones and cellular service plans today include options to share the broadband access through some mix of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and/or USB cable.
For example, I’ve used my iPhone to connect a Windows notebook using all three of these; to connect my iPad by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi; and my Android tablet by Wi-Fi. Also, at times when my home wired broadband had gone out, I’ve used my iPhone to provide Internet service for my desktop PC, connecting via the USB cable.
Options for smartphone hotspotting are usually in the OS’s settings. Look for HotSpot or Internet Sharing (if you’re running an older version of the phone’s operating system, you may need to update it, or to add an app or two).
You’ll have to keep the phone reasonably close to the PC or tablet — no more than 10 feet away or so.
Using a smartphone as a hotspot can be quite convenient. Many of us carry our phones with us everywhere.
Yet carriers tend to charge extra fees for hotspotting options. Also, hotspotting tends to run down batteries quickly. (One solution here is to bring a pocket battery pack — such as the Innergie PocketCell Duo — along with you.)
Furthermore, on many phones, you still can’t access the Internet and do phone calling at the same time. Fortunately, though, this limit is going away. iPhones on AT&T, for instance, don’t suffer from this.
If you decide against using your smartphone as a hotspot, you still have two other choices: a USB mobile broadband adapter, or a pocket mobile broadband router.
USB adapters and mobile hotspots are readily available from wireless carriers’ stores, as well as from places like BestBuy, CostCo, Radio Shack, and Target.
USB mobile broadband adapters are conveniently small (which also means, though, that they’re easy to lose)! They are, of course, useful only to devices that have a USB port and any necessary drivers. This should include any notebook PC.
A mobile broadband adapter won’t drain your smartphone’s battery, because it plugs directly into the PC’s USB slot.
However, the USB port has to also supply enough power to the adapter (which shouldn’t be a concern with notebooks, but could rule out iPads, for example).
You’ll need to either add the device to the account your phone is on — which can mean a $20/month charge — or provision it with its own contract.
USB adapters are typically less expensive than mobile hotspots (unless you can get a special price promotion on a mobile broadband router).
Unlike a mobile hotspot, though, a USB adapter can only be used with one device at a time.
These pocket-sized devices combine a mobile broadband adapter and a Wi-Fi router in a single case. Back in 2007, Novatel Wireless was the first to offer these with its MiFi product line.
Like cellular phones, notebooks and tablets, mobile hotspots are carrier-specific. Novatel, for example, offers the MiFi Liberate for use with AT&T; the MiFi 500 LTE for Sprint, and the MiFi 6510L for Verizon.
Features of mobile hotspots keep getting better. Novatel Wireless’ new MiFi Liberate, for instance, offers a Wi-Fi range of up to 30 feet and is capable of connecting up to 10 devices at a time. The Liberate also offers battery life of up to 12 hours. It can show data usage and accept text messages directly on its own 2.8-inch touchscreen display and also comes with a microUSB slot good for up to 32GB which is accessible to all connected devices.
Typically, as with a USB broadband adapter, you’ll need to either add the mobile hotspot device to the account your phone’s on — which can mean a $20/month charge — or provision it with its own contract.
A company called FreedomPop, though, is bundling each of its mobile hotspots with 4G cellular service offering 500MB of free Internet access per month. Depending on the model purchased, service is provided through either Sprint’s LTE network or the older WIMAX service run by its subsidiary, Clearwire. Paid upgrade options, supporting more data usage, are also available.
Meanwhile, if you travel, keep in mind that you’ll need to tote not just a mobile hotspot, but a USB charging cord and AC adapter, too.
If you travel internationally, however, you should know that a growing number of companies rent country-specific routers/adapters for pricing far more reasonable than international roaming data rates.
All of these approaches work. It’s just a matter of which one is best for you!