As I've often said right here at TUAW, I have a need for speed. I want my computers, my phones, and especially my Internet access to be as fast as possible. When I'm at home, secure in the knowledge that my Time Warner Business Cable connection is the fastest I can get (until FIOS comes to my hood), things are going well for me and looking good.
But what happens if I have to leave the house and go on the road as I frequently do? How can I possibly maintain my connection to the Internet while mobile and still get the speed I need? Fortunately, there a a few solutions to this problem such as using wireless "hotspots" around town or using a cell phone's data connection as a high speed modem for my Mac Book Pro.
However, for true freedom, a hotspot isn't the answer for me as you can't always find one when you need one or they cost too much money. As an iPhone user, the option to use my cell phone as a high speed modem was also out. So, that left one obvious choice for me: EVDO cards. Now that I had decided an EVDO card was the answer to my needs, several more questions immediately came to mind.
Which card should I get and from which provider? Would the cards work with my laptop of choice: the Apple Mac Book Pro? How much would the cards and data plans cost me? And the most important question of all: what kind of speed would I get?
Fortunately, living in a city like Los Angeles I have several choices of vendor to check out. So, in my quest for the perfect combination of speed and price for an EVDO card, I decided to try the three top vendors in town to see which would do the best job giving me what I really want: speed and a reasonable price. The three vendors I chose for this little experiment were Verizon, Sprint and AT&T. I tested the cards at various locations around the city to determine the speed of connection and reliability under different conditions.
My test machine for this was a 2.33 Ghz Intel Core Duo 2 Mac Book Pro with 3GB of RAM running Mac OS 10.5.1 and all current updates (my laptop of choice at the moment). I also decided that as the Mac Book Pro has a PCI Express Card slot and all three of the major EVDO card vendors in LA offer a PCI express card option, I would concentrate on those types of cards for this test. What happened? After all this thinking and planning, how did the cards stack up? Read on to find out.
Setup - I selected the V740 card. This card could not have been easier to get going. I ordered online via Verizon's website and it shipped in about one day. The next day it was in my hands. So far, so good. Next, I inserted the card in my Mac Book Pro's PCI Express card slot, waited and watched as the computer recognized the card almost immediately.
Then, after about a minute, the card automatically went through its activation process and then was ready for use. Approximate configuration time from opening package and inserting card to being able to surf the Internet using this connection: under ten minutes.
Use - After the very pleasant activation experience I was hoping the card's performance would continue the trend. Fortunately, it did. I performed various speed tests at several points around the city. Downloaded files, browsed the Internet, checked email, etc. All those things that a mobile professional might do.
Of course, I also did a speed test and was very pleased with the results. I also visited YouTube and had no trouble streaming video on the site. I tested connection sharing with another Mac and was pleased to find out that you can indeed share this connection with another computer via Airport. Yet another perk of this card and service.
The data plan on Verizon is currently $60.00 / Month which gives you a fair amount of data throughput to work with. However, it is not "unlimited" and has a cap of 5GB/Month mostly, I suppose, to stop people from abusing it by running servers or other things that take a lot of bandwidth. I don't necessarily like to have a limit but in actual use, at least for me, the 5GB cap isn't an issue.
Setup - I selected the Aircard 597E by Sierra Wireless. While Verizon's activation and setup process was relatively painless, Sprint's, on the other hand, was far more difficult and time consuming. I wasn't as sure about Sprint's PCI Express offerings so I ended up doing a bit of research on their cards to ensure compatibility with my Mac Book Pro and OSX.
After looking around a bit, i decided that the 597E would be the best choice. in fact, this card even specifically points out its compatibility with Mac OSX on the Sprint website and on its packaging so i thought that would make it just as easy to get going as the Verizon card. Sadly, I was wrong.
Where Verizon's card basically activated itself once i inserted it into my Mac Book Pro, the Sprint card had several steps that were necessary before I could get the connectivity I wanted. One thing before we get into the nuts and bolts of how I finally got the card to work: even though it specifically touts compatibility with OSX at Sprint's website and on the box of the card itself, the included CD does not contain the necessary software or drivers needed to get the card working with Mac OSX. Instead, you need to go to Sprint's website and download the required software. Yes, even though I realize its hard to be a Mac user sometimes and I shouldn't be surprised at this "oversight" it was still a bit disappointing. However, it wasn't terribly difficult to find the drivers and once I got them downloaded, the real fun was yet to begin because I still had to get the card activated.
Fortunately, as it used to be in the past, i didn't have to have a Windows system to activate the card. Being able to do it using the Mac OS is a good thing. I just wish it was a bit easier and had fewer steps. Was I spoiled by my experience with the Verizon card? Perhaps. Would it have made a difference if I had tried the Sprint card first? Maybe, but now it was too late.
Anyway, once the card was inserted and the downloaded software running, I went through a couple of the steps until I got to the point where the card needed an activation pin code. This meant I now had the pleasure of giving Sprint a call and wait on hold for over fifteen minutes to speak to a CSR who could activate my card. Once on the line he asked me a couple of question including the ESN number of the card and after a few minutes was finally able to give me the pin code.
Yes, that took some time but it gets even better. Next, he had to give me two other numbers, including what Sprint calls a MDN number, which I also had to enter into various fields in the Sprint Aircard software in order to proceed. Finally, after i entered those numbers, that part of the process was finished. Its at that point he informed me it could take up to four hours for the card to actually register on their system so I could use it. Nice.
After about an hour or so I decided to try my luck but sadly, it didn't work. At this point I won't keep you in suspense: it ended up taking almost five hours for the card to be activated. But finally, it was and I settled in to run some speed tests.
Use - Once up and running, the Sprint card performed pretty well during the speed tests around the city, scoring decent numbers close to what I got from the Verizon card. I also noticed network coverage was about the same as Verizon's as well and I didn't experience any loss of signal at the various points where I tried the card.
Currently, Sprint offers two different plans for these cards with the unlimited one being the same price per month as the Verizon offering. Even with price and performance being similar, the bad experience I had getting the card to work still made the Verizon card the winner for me so far.
Setup - After a bit of searching, I was able to find the card I wanted at an AT&T store relatively near where I live. The card, AT&T's Option GT 3.6 Max Express, is AT&T's 3G PCI Express card and according to their website and the sales rep who sold it to me, should offer equivalent speeds to Sprint and Verizon in most parts of the city.
Sadly, while the AT&T rep at the store was pretty adamant about his company's offering in actual testing it performed very poorly. So poorly in fact, it was almost impossible to get a signal strong enough to test in some areas of LA. I guess AT&T implementation of 3G isn't particularly widespread here. Probably one of the reasons the iPhone isn't 3G yet. No point if the network doesn't support it, especially in a market as large as Los Angeles.
Use - On par with my in-store experience, in actual use the AT&T card itself was also not very good either. I tried it at the various locations around the city where I had taken the other two cards and no matter where I was, the results were pretty much the same -- very slow performance or no signal at all.
Even when I did manage to get a good signal, the speed of the card never approached anything like what I was getting from Sprint or Verizon. Consequently, at this point the card from AT&T would not be the one for me at all. Perhaps once AT&T's 3G network is much better in LA we can revisit it? Until then, the card is going back to the store where I got it.
Conclusion - Of the three cards tested, Verizon was the clear winner in most every way. Its ease of setup and use, speed of connection and reliability was far superior to the other two cards. Sprint was a good second choice and perhaps would have fared better in my testing if I had not had such a hard time getting the card working -- especially in comparison to the one from Verizon.
In the end, I returned the cards from AT&T and Sprint and kept the Verizon card. AT&T took the card back without problem and was able to cancel my service without charge. Sprint, on the other hand, again showed less-than-stellar customer service and is still trying to bill me a $150.00 cancellation fee weeks later, even though I returned the card after only a few days and was assured at the store where I purchased it that my account would be closed without charge. Thanks Sprint. I'll let you know how that one turns out.
Of course, as always, your mileage may vary but at least my experiences, both good and bad, can hopefully help point you in the right direction should you ever need to maximize your on the road internet access. If speed is your thing, like it is for me, a card like this can certainly help satisfy that need -- at least until you get home where the really fast connection is.
*Verizon is currently in the process of acquiring AOL, Engadget's parent company. However, Engadget maintains full editorial control, and Verizon will have to pry it from our cold, dead hands.