I need advice about getting a wireless network card for a PC laptop...
March 31, 2007 4:18 PM   Subscribe

I need advice about getting a wireless network card for a PC laptop to get my boyfriend out of the house! We're going to both be working at home soon, but I would love it if he could go to the local cafe, park, whatever and work so we don't drive each other crazy.

I'm more tethered to my home office as I need all my periferals, but all he needs is his laptop and a reliable internet connection to work. So I'm kicking him out! But we need to find him the best wireless card... fast is good but he doesn't need incredible speeds, he works via an online app, but no transfer of huge files or anything, but it has to be reliable, consistent... he can't be getting dropped as his job is pretty mission critical. Luckily we'll be mostly in a major metropolitain area (LA), but it's possible we'll be traveling too, driving up the coast and he might need to work then too, so good extended coverage would be a bonus.

So, here's the question... anybody have any advice or experience to share with us?
posted by semidivine to Computers & Internet (8 answers total)
You want a data card from one or more of Cingular, Verizon, or Sprint. Since I don't live out there, I can't say who has the best coverage.

Alternatively, you can "tether" a phone to the laptop over USB and perhaps get cheaper data access.

For example, Cingular has an unlimited data plan called MEdia Max for $20/mo. Other than VPNs, you can do anything you want with it, although it doesn't fall within the terms of service, hardly anyone gets caught. Verizon customers can apparently tether and use minutes instead, but I don't know whether you're behind a firewall when using it. If it's a web app used without a tunnel (https only), the $20/mo Cingular plan will work fine.

Until I recently got a new laptop with a built-in data card that made it difficult to swap the SIM between my phone and data card, I'd just tether or use the SIM from my phone in my data card, since I was paying the $20/mo anyway. Now I pay $59.99/mo to Cingular for the extra SIM.

A full priced data plan will be $59.99 or $79.99 depending on the carrier and whether he has a voice line with them.

If you're going to be traveling much, having two data cards will be very helpful, because all carriers have spots where even if there is a signal, it is very poor and thus the data doesn't work so well.

BTW, it's kind of rude to say that he's the one that has to leave. Most any peripheral you need is made in a portable version that can be put in a bag and laid out on a table at a park or in a coffee shop or whatever.
posted by wierdo at 4:41 PM on March 31, 2007

If you are not one of this "let's go organic" or "Wifi causes cancer" type then get a real solution for a real man:


The XI-325HP3 model sends with 370 mv (BTW mv? shouldn't this be mA?)


You can also plug an external antenna. If you can't catch a WiFi Signal with this then I guess nobody else will!
posted by yoyo_nyc at 4:41 PM on March 31, 2007

Experience: I've had the Verizon $60/month data card plan since mid-'04. I travel quite a bit, and it has always had coverage -- sometimes only near a window, sometimes only the low-speed (14.4kbps) service, but always coverage. However, there have been days and/or locations where it drops frequently, and there have been maybe 10 total hours of downtime wherein I can connect, but my login is rejected.

FWIW, everyone at my previous company who used Cingular or T-Mobile data cards had serious coverage and speed problems. Then again, that was a couple of years ago; someone must have more recent experience.
posted by backupjesus at 5:01 PM on March 31, 2007

In case it's not clear, wierdo and yoyo_nyc are talking about two different types of wireless connections. wierdo's option basically uses a cellular modem to connect to the internet via your cellphone service; it has the advantage of being available anywhere you can get cell service, and the latest data networks are pretty fast (I think EVDO-A has gained a reputation as the cellular equivalent of broadband). The downside is it can be a very costly route if you're doing a lot of data transfer.

yoyo_nyc's option is the more standard Wifi option, where you take advantage of a Wifi hotspot put up by, say, your local coffee shop. Coverage is a lot spottier—outside a metropolitan area don't expect much—but hotspots are generally subscription-based services that can be easier on the wallet, or (if you're lucky) free if you, say, buy a coffee from the shop providing the wireless or something. The other advantage to the Wifi option is that when the boyfriend's at home, he can hook into the home network and use the same connection you do.

Assuming your boyfriend's laptop has a PCMCIA slot, he can take advantage of both options as needed—Wifi for when he's down at the coffee shop with the free hotspot, and the EVDO card when he's at the park or on the road. The mission-critical side of things makes me thing it might be better to go the cellular route as wierdo suggests, if you really had to pick one.
posted by chrominance at 5:01 PM on March 31, 2007

Response by poster: His laptop will already have a wireless card built in, as in 802.11b or g, for our network at home and any free hotspot... what we are looking for now is a mobile broadband connection via a cellular card, who is best, most reliable, what card anyone has had good experiences with etc.

And wierdo, I'm sorry you thought my post was rude to my boyfriend, but besides the fact that he is absolutely willing to be the mobile one (for the sake of our sanity and our relationship) you really can't find a portable version of two 23 inch LCD screens.
posted by semidivine at 5:40 PM on March 31, 2007

chrominance, it doesn't get more costly than the unlimited rate. ;) If you want to log on from nearly anywhere, it really is your only option in most places. WiFi is nice, but it doesn't come close to comparing.

If you have a voice line with VZW, you can tether the phone for nothing but minutes when your Sprint/Cingular/whatever data card isn't working or is out of range. The big problem with getting advice from MeFi about something like cellular modems is that the networks vary so wildly between markets. Where I live, anybody but Cingular (or maybe Alltel, if I stay in town) would get me little coverage. In parts of LA, VZW is by far the best, in others, you'd be better off with someone else. You either have to find someone who lives next door and goes the same places as you or try them out and make use of the evaluation period until you find one that works well for the places you go. Between HowardForums and the carriers' coverage maps online, you can get a pretty decent idea. If you do ask, ask about a specific carrier's coverage in a specific place.

Also, at this time, Cingular isn't the best option for widespread 3G availability in LA. They've got it in some of the area, mostly the various city centers, but the overall coverage would be better from Sprint or VZW for the moment. That said, they are expanding, and in the areas where you can't get 3G, their EDGE service is somewhat faster than Sprint or VZW's 1xRTT service. I don't live there, though, so try to get some people's opinions who do actually live there. Also beware of the people who reflexively say that VZW is the best when they haven't ever or only long ago used other carriers. Far too many people are swayed by their advertising and provide advice based on that alone. Also you need to be aware that they have an enforced 5GB a month usage cap even on their unlimited data accounts. None of the other carriers do that, at least so blatantly, although all reserve the right to cut you off if you use so much it degrades the network.

Again, the best thing you can do, if you have the time and the money to spend on a few different services for 14 days to a month (the carriers' trial periods vary) is to try them all and see who works best in the areas your boyfriend will be using the service. I've seen too many arguments about the quality of service of the various providers, in the various cities of SoCal to advise you to do otherwise if you can at all help it. The bad part is that you'll be on the hook for activation and usage fees for the time you used the service for possibly 3 carriers.

Unless you have a line with VZW or Cingular (and you check Cingular's coverage map or don't mind using EDGE in some areas until they get 3G more widely deployed there) and can get their $59.95 deal, go with Sprint first, since their unlimited data price is $59.95 even without an existing voice plan.

semidivine, sorry to have been presumptuous. In my defense, I've known a few people who have been that way about things, so it colored my response accordingly. I agree it would be difficult to lug around a couple of 23 inch screens and the battery to power them for a couple of hours! I made the assumption you were talking about things like printers, scanners, and input devices.
posted by wierdo at 11:53 PM on March 31, 2007

Response by poster: wierdo, no worries! and thanks so much for your thorough response... it was really helpful!
posted by semidivine at 9:10 AM on April 1, 2007

Its been mentioned on here before, but look at Sprint's SERO program (google it for the site). The plans include unlimited EVDO wireless data and start at $30 per month. Hit me up on email for more info on how to properly tether the phone and the laptop, Sprint makes it a little tricky as they want you to spend big bucks on a data device and plan.
posted by jtfowl0 at 2:49 PM on April 1, 2007

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