By Burt Helm
INTERACTIVE VIEW >
The Good Lets you connect to the Net anywhere, even in a fast-moving train
The Bad Slow speeds and occasionally dropped connections
The Bottom Line Easy-to-use and surprisingly dependable, great for frequent travelers
For road warriors, it's a familiar story: You pull out your laptop to wirelessly connect to the Internet -- but your Wi-Fi network area, or "hot spot," isn't so hot. The network either prompts you for a credit card, teases you with an on-again, off-again signal, or just plain fails to connect at all.
Never fear, the Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 is here. To test the new PC card, which allows you to access the Internet wirelessly without worrying about Wi-Fi hot spots, I hooked onto Verizon Wireless's EV-DO (Evolution, Data-Only) network. It's not as though I had a choice. The Sierra Wireless AirCard 580 works on the EV-DO network only, and Verizon will sell the AirCard to you for $299. Because it's impossible to review one without the other, I'll talk about them together.
FASTER THAN DIAL-UP. Officially active in major cities since September, EV-DO is the first "third-generation," or 3G, network available in the U.S. For a flat monthly fee of $79.99, laptop users can wirelessly connect to the Internet at near-broadband speeds just about anywhere, even while in a car or train. For $15 a month, you can download videos and games onto new 3G-compatible phones made by LG Electronics and Samsung.
I used the new network and the AirCard 580 on a train ride from New York City to New Haven, Conn., as well as while in both cities. On a Windows XP machine, the AirCard is a cinch to install. Simply plug it into the laptop's PC card slot, pop in the accompanying installation CD-ROM, and in three or four clicks through the "installation wizard," it's ready. The card picks up the signal automatically, just like a cell phone would.
Once I was online, the connection speed wasn't quite "broadband." Though Verizon advertises the EV-DO connection as being comparable to a broadband cable or DSL connection, the fine print says the average speeds are 300-500 kilobytes per second "with bursts up to 2 [megabits per second]." That's the speed of a fast cable modem.
I'm not sure if I experienced one of those "bursts" while testing it, but I did clock my connection in New York at about 300 kbps and my connection in New Haven at roughly 450 kbps. That's several times faster than a typical dial-up modem, but less than half that of a wired broadband connection in New York City. All-in-all, the speeds were fine for basic Web-surfing, e-mailing, and instant messaging.
ADIOS, HOT SPOTS. The convenience of surfing the Net, downloading files, and IM'ing friends on board a moving train was wonderful. But it wasn't without a few connection problems. As a rule, the AirCard picked up a signal that seemed consistently one or two bars below Verizon's cell-phone signal. Sometimes it would switch over to a weaker "1xRTT" network, which provides connection speeds of 40 kbps or so, comparable to a dial-up modem. And when my cell phone was at one or two bars, the Internet connection would kick off completely.
Still, over the 100-minute train ride, it wasn't very noticeable. When it did drop the connection, the AirCard usually reconnected automatically a minute or so later, without any clicking needed from me. While using the computer in New Haven, I also experienced a couple of unexplained drops. But the ability to reliably get online while traveling without constantly searching for, and connecting to, new hot spots well outweighed the occasional glitches.
The EV-DO network isn't fast enough or reliable enough to completely replace a wired broadband connection at home. But for travelers fed up with the wireless equivalent of one-night stands at random hot spots, the AirCard makes a perfect long-term companion.
Helm is a BusinessWeek Online reporter in New York