By Stephen H. Wildstrom Wi-Fi networks have liberated the notebook computer, allowing connections to the Internet far from the nearest network cable. But while Wi-Fi works fine in offices, houses, airports, coffee shops, and other hot spots, it has major limitations. It is far from ubiquitous, and it can't be used when you're moving in a car or on a train.
Laptop makers plan to cover that gap by adding wide-area wireless coverage -- the kind provided by cell-phone networks -- to their next generation of notebooks. While PC cards for using these networks have been available for a while, built-in access, just like built-in Wi-Fi, is a lot more convenient. Sony (SNE) is the first to hit the market -- with its $2,300 Vaio WGN-T350P, which has a wireless modem to connect with the Cingular network.
NOT CHEAP. The big advantage of the phone-based network over Wi-Fi is that it's available wherever Cingular has service, including most U.S. cities and suburbs. At one point while testing the Sony, I was able to work on e-mail and check Web sites from a bus heading up I-70 to Pennsylvania. The connection handed off smoothly from one cell tower to the next, and when a link got dropped, it was easy to reconnect.
The big shortcomings are the cost, flexibility, and speed. Cingular service costs $80 a month for unlimited data, and cheaper metered plans make sense only for very occasional users. An integrated wide-area notebook PC such as Sony's locks you into service from one carrier or, at best, one of the two major wireless technologies. Then there's cruising speed. Cingular's fastest service gets you 100 to 200 kilobits per second. Where that signal is not available, the modem drops down to a painfully slow 30 to 50 kbps. Wi-Fi delivers at least 500 kbps and often does much better.
Sony gets the best of both worlds by including software that allows for easy switching between Wi-Fi and Cingular connections. Someday this will become automatic as the software senses and chooses the best and cheapest network for you. The Vaio does the next best thing by letting you switch with one or two clicks -- provided that you are using a Wi-Fi network for which the laptop has already been configured.
BETTER CONNECTIONS. I wish I could be so enthusiastic about the laptop itself. The Vaio T350 is a small subnotebook that weighs just three pounds and has a footprint smaller than a letter-size sheet of paper. And the use of a relatively slow but still adequate Pentium M processor allows a respectable four hours of running time on a battery charge. But I found it too small for practical use. The cramped keyboard makes accurate typing difficult. And the 10.6-in. widescreen display feels a lot smaller than the 12.1-in. standard display found on most other small laptops. The tiny type can be difficult to read.
More conventional notebooks with integrated wide-area service will hit the market this fall. Unlike the Sony, which is sold mainly to individuals and small businesses, they will be aimed at corporate accounts.
Better networks will make these products more attractive. Verizon Wireless' Broadband Access is now available in 30 metropolitan areas. I tested it in a laptop with a Kyocera (KYO) PC Card adapter and got speeds of 300 to 500 kbps. Sprint (FON) is building a similar network.
TRULY PORTABLE. Cingular has rolled out a new, faster network in six markets and plans to move to a technology that will equal or beat Verizon's speeds. And Intel (INTC) is pushing an alternative called Wimax that could offer multi-megabit speeds.
Wi-Fi hot spots may offer many laptop users all the mobility they desire. But if you need anywhere-anytime connectivity, built-in wide-area networking may prove irresistible. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org