Every now and then, I find myself somewhere with no free WiFi or Internet connection of any sort, and yet I'd like to connect or do some research online. The most obvious place is on a plane, but, funnily enough, I'm not really bothered about it in that situation. I'm quite happy to sit back and read a book, or watch a TV show on my iPod Touch.
The archetypal place for me is my local Audi dealer: there's free WiFi for customers, but they've blocked off the SMTP port. So you can download your email, but you can't answer any of it. What's even worse, perhaps, is that they've blocked off VPN access too, so I can't even VPN into the DevExpress servers and send email through that. Prior to getting my iPhone, I used to tether through my AT&T Tilt in these situations, but of course, there you're limited to Bluetooth speeds, rather than 3G speeds. iPhone tethering is not yet available through AT&T (and rumors are swirling around about how much it will cost anyway), unless you want to fiddle with the not-quite-legit hacker solutions.
The other issue with AT&T is that iPhone tethering is likely to be an extra cost monthly plan with possibly a 2 year commitment. That's exactly what I don't want. I would only have use for tethering in very rare situations, so I'd prefer having a pay-as-you-go plan at perhaps a higher cost per GB rather than a monthly plan where I'm continually grumbling about shelling out the $30 (or whatever) extra per month.
Yesterday I finally decided to go pick up a Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go from BestBuy (the only place that sells them). It's a USB wireless device (Novatel Ovation MC760) that uses the 3G network for internet connection (Sprint's network as it happens). It also uses a pay-as-you-go type plan for your connections rather than a monthly commitment with a 2 year plan. You can buy several blocks of connection time/resources, anything from $10 for 100MB to $60 for 1GB. However, not only are these pre-paid blocks limited by the amount of data you can transfer, but also by time: they have expiry dates. So, for example, this morning at the Audi dealership I bought the smallest block ($10) and it'll expire in 10 days' time. Nevertheless, I managed to use 25% of it in the 90 minutes I was connected.
The device comes as is, with a lanyard, a quick start guide, and "preloaded software and user guide". But no CD. Ohhhh-kay.
The quick start guide said: "Insert device in an available USB port. Follow on-screen instructions to install device drivers and connection manager." So I did. Vista did its usual installing of device drivers for a new USB device, but that was it. No special "on-screen instructions". No connection manager. What's going on?
Turns out that the device itself has some flash memory and some circuitry that makes the PC think the memory is a CD. No shit. And of course, I have turned off the "open CD-ROM when inserted" option as any sensible person would have, so I didn't get the on-screen instructions automatically. Actually, inserting the device gives you two new removable drives: the quasi-CD-ROM with the install apps (and user guide) on it, and a microSD reader — yes, you can insert a microSD card into the side (the one from my old phone now sits there happily).
So I ran the install app (
LiteAuto.exe) and it failed. At which point, I almost took it all back to BestBuy.
But, after working out that I should run the installer as administrator (duh!), I got it all installed and clicked on the Activate button in the Connection Manager. Unfortunately we live in a Sprint backwater: one, maybe two, bars, and so it took a long while to go through all the screens (PIN, name, address, credit card number, etc). Eventually I came to a screen that said, I kid you not, "our servers are experiencing a heavy load, it may take 1 to 2 days to activate". Yeah, just like the day when the iPhone 3GS was launched and several million new devices were being activated, but this was just an ordinary day in the Virgin Mobile universe so they must have told the hamster to clock off early from spinning his wheel.
I phoned up after about 30 minutes of not getting an email announcing my activation (and I still haven't got such a thing). I talked to José and yes the servers were down. He couldn't help. He said to try calling back in 30 minutes. I didn't since I had other things to do (it was about 6:30 by this time) and dinner needed preparing and cooking.
This morning at the Audi dealers I phoned again, and we managed to get everything activated, and the device connected and all was good.
So what do I think of it? Overall, I'm very happy. The dealership had much a better Sprint signal than we have at home and the connection throughput was acceptable for what I was using it for (email, Twitter, IM, some web). I didn't do any explicit testing of download or upload speeds — frankly I'm not too bothered since it's only going to be used as a stopgap solution — but it seemed equivalent to using Safari on the iPhone.
The only downside that I had was that using it continuously doesn't half drain your laptop's battery. The battery in my Dell XPS M1530 lasts just over 2 hours for me doing the work I do, with WiFi active. This morning, with the device connected and online all the time (and WiFi turned off), the battery died after 95 minutes. (And you guessed it: since I was expecting the car service to take less than 2 hours, I hadn't brought my power adapter.) That's some pretty heavy-duty power requirements right there: a drop of 20% in available battery time. I'll certainly do some more testing, but it's something to bear in mind in the future.
Electronic - Disappointed [7" Mix]