Being able to access the internet while you’re out and about is becoming a must-have for journalists as well as people who don’t want to be tethered to their desks.
Similar to early home internet packages, buying into the internet-on-the-go dream during its infancy was expensive, but now prices are becoming very reasonable.
Unlike Wi-Fi, a USB data modem or connecting your mobile phone to your laptop gives the option to surf the web almost everywhere you go, provided there’s network coverage.
The growing availability of over-the-air internet access is useful for many people, but it’s particularly useful for journalists who often find themselves nowhere near a Wi-Fi hotspot when they need one.
There’s no denying that being able to pop open your laptop in the middle of a field and send information back to the office is a nifty ability. But before taking the plunge and investing in this nifty technology, it’s worth checking out what deal suits you best, and whether you’d prefer to buy a separate USB modem or hook your phone up to your laptop.
Before you try to connect laptop to phone, call your network operator and ask whether your phone is capable of doing it, and find out what you’ll get charged. Unlike accessing the internet on your phone, even if you’re signed up to a flat-rate data package, certain networks will charge you a premium to do it via a laptop.
Once you’ve understood and accepted the data charges that may be imposed, then it’s time to hook up your mobile phone to your laptop. The majority of phones with modem capabilities come with software that you can install on to your computer and allows you to plug your phone in via a cable. A warning to Apple users though – you may find that the software isn’t compatible.
That aside, you should be ready to use your phone as a modem, but it’s not always straightforward. It’s also worth noting that depending
on yourphone’s connectivity options you may find the internet runs slow. Nevertheless, many people are still happy to use their phones as modems, but if it sounds like too much work, then a USB modem is the next best thing.
At the moment USB modems are available from 3, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone, with O2 to follow shortly. Unlike hooking your phone up to your laptop, USB modems tend to be straightforward to set up and it’s also easy to see what you’re getting charged for. A USB modem can be bought on a monthly contract or pay as you go, which is useful if it’s not going to get used regularly.
USB modems are currently available from 3, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone for free on a monthly contract, starting at £15 a month, with a data cap of around 3GB. 3 is the only provider to offer the £15 deal on an 18-month contract while other networks ask you to sign up for at least 24 months. Both 3 and T-Mobile offer pay as you go USB modems.
T-Mobile’s pay-as-you-go deal works out at £100 for the USB modem and £4 a day for 3GB over a month. 3 also offers a pay-as-you-go USB modem for £100, plus a 30-day bundle costing from £10 for 1GB allowance (equivalent to 60 songs), £15 for 3GB (200 songs) allowance, or £25 for 7GB (400 songs).
If you’re wondering about speed, most USB modems are made by the same manufacturer and then rebranded with the network’s logo. Depending on network coverage though, some will work better than others in certain places. For sheer speed – putting aside all the marketing hype and optimistic claims of speeds up to 7.2Mbps – you can usually expect between 1 and 3Mbps.
Be aware that roaming costs are usually very high, so if you’re planning on being abroad with your laptop and using the USB modem to access the internet, expect some hefty costs.
Andrew Lim is the editor of Mobile Phones for CNET.co.uk