Walt Mossberg

Novatel Laptop Cards Can Access Internet, But Services Vary

For traveling laptop users who rely on the Internet, one of the best developments in recent years has been the emergence of high-speed wireless data networks offered by cellphone companies. Unlike commercial public Wi-Fi services, which require users to be near a “hot spot,” these services can be used anywhere in a metro area, even in a moving car or train.

And the cellular broadband services, such as Verizon Wireless’s BroadbandAccess, can operate at speeds roughly equivalent to, and sometimes well beyond, the speed of basic wired home DSL service. That means you can surf the Web, and get email and large attachments pretty efficiently.

Verizon Card
The card for the Verizon network

A small percentage of users hook up to these cellular broadband networks using laptops that have the necessary gear built in. Another small group uses a cellphone as a modem. But most users of these networks use external cellular-modem cards that plug into a standard slot on the side of their laptops. Therein lies a problem.

The computer industry is in the process of dumping that standard slot, called a PC Card slot, for a new, incompatible slot called ExpressCard. So, buyers of many new laptops are finding their cellphone modems are obsolete.

Now, Novatel, a leading maker of these cards, has come out with a couple of new ExpressCard versions for cellular broadband networks. One, which works on Verizon Wireless’s network, is already on the market, sold by Verizon and by Dell. The second, which works on Cingular’s BroadbandConnect high-speed network, will go on sale from Dell and possibly Cingular later this year, likely late November.

I have been testing the Verizon version of the card, called the V640, as well as a pre-release model of the version that works with Cingular, which Novatel calls the Merlin XU870. The tests not only gave me a chance to evaluate the cards themselves, but also to compare the Verizon and Cingular high-speed networks.

My verdict: The cards were easy to set up and use, and worked well. But the two high-speed networks are very different. While Cingular gave me higher speeds than Verizon in a couple of locations, the Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess network crushed Cingular’s BroadbandConnect in most places I compared them.

This wasn’t a rigorous scientific test. I used two different laptops, an Apple MacBook Pro and a Dell Latitude D820. The Cingular tests were all conducted on the Dell, because the Mac software for the Cingular card won’t be ready until the card goes on sale. The Verizon tests were all conducted on the Mac. On both machines, I used the test service at speakeasy.net, accessed via the Firefox Web browser.

Also, I tested the cards in only Washington and New York City, and on Amtrak’s Acela Express trains in between. That is a heavily populated region; it’s also Verizon’s home territory, and Cingular might have done better in other parts of the country. Verizon has been rolling out its high-speed network since 2003; Cingular is well behind. Verizon offers the service in 185 metro areas; Cingular is in just 75.

Both cellphone carriers charge $60 a month for unlimited data service using the cards, if you have a voice plan with them. The new Verizon card costs $180. The new Cingular-compatible card is likely to cost $50 more.

The cards look nearly identical, and each works on both Windows and Macintosh computers. On Windows, you must connect using special software. On the Mac, you can simply use integrated software from Apple, if you choose. Both cards have small flip-up antennas and indicator lights. Both worked fine.

Verizon’s high-speed service is often called EVDO, for its underlying technology. Cingular’s service uses a technology called HSDPA.

In my tests, which involved about 20 head-to-head comparisons, the Verizon card and network averaged 818 kilobits per second “downstream” (to get Web pages, and to receive email and attachments) and 113 kbps “upstream” (to send email and files).

By contrast, the Cingular-compatible card averaged just 463 kbps downstream and 77 kbps upstream. Plus, during the three-hour train trip, Cingular disconnected me, or simply had no coverage at all, eight times. Verizon did so only once. Verizon has a deal with Amtrak that supplies data service inside the trains, which helped, but this in-train signal doesn’t include the high-speed EVDO service.

Cingular did beat Verizon in two places: my hotel in New York’s financial district and my office in downtown Washington. In the hotel, the Cingular service got a downstream speed of 1753 kbps — its highest in my tests — versus 888 kbps for Verizon and just 747 kbps for the hotel’s expensive wired Internet service. In my office, Cingular got 1133 kbps downstream versus 644 kbps for Verizon.

But the downstream speeds varied wildly. In Trenton, N.J., the Cingular service managed just 16 kbps. The best for Verizon was 1366 kbps in New York’s Penn Station, while its worst was 132 kbps between big cities in New Jersey.

I recommend both new cards. But unless you live, work and travel in very strong Cingular coverage areas, Verizon is the better choice for high-speed wireless data, at least today.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com.

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