Beyond Wi-Fi: Laptop Heaven but a Price - New York TimesJune 23, 2005
Beyond Wi-Fi: Laptop Heaven but a Price
By DAVID POGUE
PLENTY of technologies can get you online wirelessly these days, but there's always a catch. Wi-Fi Internet hot spots are fast and cheap, but they keep you tethered to the airport, hotel or coffee shop where the hot spot originates. A Bluetooth cellphone can get your laptop online, but at the speed of a slug. And smoke signals - well, you know. The privacy issues are a nightmare.
But for the laptop lugger with an expense account, there may be another option. It's a relatively new cellular data network called C.D.M.A. 1xEV-DO, which, as you surely knew, stands for Code Division Multiple Access Evolution-Data Only. No wonder Verizon Wireless, the earliest and largest adopter of this technology, just calls it the BroadbandAccess plan.
To get your laptop onto this very fast wonder-net, you need a special cellular card that slides into its PC-card slot. Novatel and Kyocera have recently given the blossoming EV-DO future a big thumbs-up by releasing new cellular cards for laptops running Windows (and, with a little tweaking, Mac OS X).
EV-DO offers two addictive benefits. First, it's cellular. You don't have to hunt down public hot spots; an entire metropolitan area is a hot spot.
Second, EV-DO means sheer, giddy speed. EV-DO is a so-called 3G (third-generation) network, the fruits of $1 billion in Verizon development. And when your laptop or palmtop locks onto a good signal, you can practically feel the wind in your hair.
How fast is that, exactly? Verizon claims you'll be able to download data at an average of 400 to 700 kilobits per second (kbps), which turns out to be true. That makes EV-DO at least five times as fast as the rival technology offered by Cingular and T-Mobile, called EDGE (70 to 135 kbps), and about seven times as fast as Verizon's original data network (still available), which it calls NationalAccess (60 to 80 kbps).
Yeah, but how fast is that? Who besides network geeks measures anything in kilobits per second?
A more familiar unit might be time, as in how long it might take you to download a two-megabyte attachment. On a dial-up modem, you'd wait over six minutes; Verizon's older NationalAccess service, about five minutes; the EDGE wireless network, about three minutes; and Verizon's BroadbandAccess, about 40 seconds.
In short, using BroadbandAccess (EV-DO), you feel as if you're hooked up to a cable modem, even when you're sitting on a beach, your deck or a speeding commuter train. When your signal is strong, you get Web pages in a flash, file attachments in no time and video feeds without a hiccup.
(Sending data is a different story, however. You average around 100 kbps, because these cards use the older, slower channel for uploading. "When you download a big presentation, it goes really fast," says Roger Entner, a telecom analyst at the consulting firm Ovum. "But then if you forward it to someone else, you feel as though you've hit a wall." He suspects that the wireless carriers limit upload speeds so that wireless laptops can't be used as traveling Web sites. "The wireless carriers want to avoid letting people using the card as a wireless Web server," he explains. "It kind of kills your business model.")
So in general, speed is not a problem with EV-DO. But coverage and price may be.
Verizon's high-speed wireless network now covers 32 major metropolitan areas, including biggies like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, along with a somewhat baffling selection of smaller cities like West Palm Beach, Fla., and Madison, Wis. Verizon says that the rollout has just begun, and that by the end of this year, half the American population will be EV-DOable.
Fortunately, even when you're outside the designated cities, you can still get online. Verizon's software seamlessly switches you to its older, slower NationalAccess network, which pretty much works wherever Verizon cellphones do. There's quite a speed hit; you feel as though someone secretly swapped your cable modem for a dial-up modem. But at least you can check your e-mail without having to return to, say, West Palm Beach.
Finally, there's the little matter of price: $80 a month, a price that seems expressly designed to milk corporate business travelers. On one hand, that price gets you unlimited service, and it really is $80 a month; at this point, you're not saddled with the taxes and fees that jack up your cellphone bill. On the other hand, that price doesn't even include cellphone service. (Of course, you can always use a free program like Skype to make voice calls while you're connected - but you didn't hear it from me.)
Then again, Verizon has the playground all to itself, so it can charge whatever it wants. But wait until Sprint introduces its own EV-DO service later this year. You might not be able to pronounce "C.D.M.A. 1xEV-DO," but you can sure say "competition."
If EV-DO sounds, on balance, as though it would be a good fit, your next step is to choose a cellular card for your laptop. Verizon offers three EV-DO models to individuals: Verizon's older, slower, less-featured Audiovox card ($100), and two new ones: the Novatel V620 ($50) and Kyocera's KPC650 ($70). (A fourth card, from Sierra, is offered only to corporations.)
In general, the cards are pretty much alike. Each can automatically switch to the older NationalAccess network when necessary. Each protrudes from your laptop by over an inch, meaning that you'll probably have to eject the card each time you put the laptop back in its case.
The Novatel and Kyocera cards come with Verizon's VZAccess Manager software, a little dashboard that lets you switch among your three wireless options: BroadbandAccess (EV-DO), NationalAccess (the older, slower network with more coverage) and Wi-Fi (if your laptop is so equipped). This software isn't especially gorgeous, but it's rock solid, easy to install and filled with useful displays; one shows a graph of your connection speed, for gloating purposes. It also lets you exchange short text messages with your friends' cellphones.
(The software works only in Windows. But at EVDOinfo.com - a great site for EV-DO news and instruction - Mac OS X fans can find step-by-step instructions for making these cards work in PowerBooks, too.)
Kyocera says there's quite a difference between its card and its rivals, though: its KPC650 is supposed to provide speeds up to 35 percent faster, especially in low-signal areas. Its tricks include faster circuitry, shielding from interference and a flip-out antenna that swivels in any direction. And sure enough: PC Magazine found that the Kyocera card was faster than the Novatel in two-thirds of its test locations.
My tests in downtown Tampa, Fla., which has BroadbandAccess coverage, must have fallen into that "other third" category. With the antenna in its best position, the Kyocera averaged 476 kbps, versus the Novatel's 543. (Test protocol: five runs of the bandwidth tester at www.toast.net.) Clearly, speed tests are flaky and variable, giving different numbers depending on your signal strength, which online bandwidth test page you use, and the mood of the EV-DO gods. (If you really get the bug, you can also buy an external antenna for extra speed and reception.)
But no matter which card you get, the big winner is EV-DO - or it will be, once its coverage grows and its price shrinks. Someday soon, it may even become the first completely satisfying wireless way to get online.