Or so it seems until you really need it and there is no coffee house with a free hot spot. Or when you don’t want to pay a fee to connect at the airport or a hotel for an hour.
Our pockets and bags are filling with Web-connected devices: laptops, smartphones, netbooks, tablets, e-readers and even cameras. But to connect one when Wi-Fi is not available means using a cellphone network, and that usually requires buying a new data plan for each device.
The cost-cutting solution might be to create your own Wi-Fi hot spot, a cloud of Internet connectivity for wherever you go. Not only can a personal hot spot provide a single point of access for all of your devices, it can be shared with friends.
The options are growing. You can buy a simple, slim unit that fits in a pocket or ones that can shift from 3G to speedier 4G networks. You can convert some cellphones into hot spots, while a few new phones now come with hot spots included. I tried several such options while traveling and in my daily routine to see what they offered.
The Novatel MiFi 2200, available from Verizon Wireless ($29.99 with a two-year contract) or Sprint (free after $50 rebate and with a two-year contract), is a Wi-Fi hot spot small enough to slip into a shirt pocket. It is a mysterious-looking object with no screen and a single button.
It wirelessly connects to a 3G cellular network just like a phone, but it also broadcasts a Wi-Fi signal to the surrounding area. Devices within a 30-foot range can connect. I used the MiFi while traveling by car from Boston to New York. Having the coverage brought peace of mind when using Google Maps on my iPod Touch and my laptop to guide me around Brooklyn.
Still, 3G speeds can be slower than what is available at land-based hot spots. Back at home, downloading my daughter’s favorite videos was faster on our home wireless network.
Verizon’s monthly data plans for the MiFi are $39.99 for 250 megabytes of data, or $59.99 for 5 gigabytes, with extra charges for exceeding those limits. Sprint charges $59.99 for 5 gigabytes and extra for exceeding limits. Another pocket-size option, the Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot, from Sprint ($49.99 with a two-year contract), is slightly thicker than the MiFi but comes with more features. The first is speed. It can connect not only to Sprint’s 3G network, but also its new and speedier 4G network. The 4G network is not yet available nationally, but if you are in one of the 33 cities covered, including Seattle, Atlanta and Houston, speeds are fast. (Sorry, New York is not included.)
Another feature that was useful: a bright screen that displays information like remaining battery life, signal strength, the hot spot’s name and password and number of connected devices. The monthly data plan is $59.99, with unlimited 4G usage and a 5 gigabyte cap on 3G and extra charges for exceeding it.
The Clear Spot, from Clearwire, is another 4G option. In fact, it uses the same 4G network as Sprint (Sprint is the majority owner of Clearwire.) The Clear Spot is bigger than the Overdrive and probably not ideal to keep in your pocket during use; it requires a U.S.B. modem, with pricing from $69.99 to $224.99 depending on features. But if your goal is 4G speeds, the Clear Spot delivers.
Not all areas of each city are covered by the network so reviewing the company’s coverage map beforehand is helpful. The Clear Spot costs $49.99 and supports up to eight devices within a range up to 150 feet. Plans with unlimited access start at $40 a month and a U.S.B. modem can also be leased for $3.99 a month. A plan offering 3G speeds in areas outside the 4G network is also available.
The CradlePoint PHS300 ($99.99 at Amazon), works with dozens of phones and also U.S.B. modems. Depending on your carrier, it may work with your phone’s existing data plan or require one that allows tethering. I used one with a BlackBerry Storm; after powering on the PHS300 and connecting it to the BlackBerry, I was viewing Web pages on my laptop in just under a minute and the battery lasted two hours and 20 minutes. The PHS300, from CradlePoint Technology, based in Boise, Idaho, is the same size as the Clear Spot.
The latest way to create a mobile hot spot is with cellphones. This can eliminate the clutter of carrying and charging an extra device. Through Verizon, the Palm Pre Plus ($49.99 with two-year contract) and Pixi Plus (free with a two-year contract) include this option.
Using a Pre Plus with an iPad, I was online and viewing Web pages in about 15 to 30 seconds after waking the iPad from power-save mode. Also useful, the phone chimed when the iPad connected, letting me know I was ready to surf.
Using the phone as a hot spot quickly drained the phone’s battery, even with light surfing. Verizon is now waiving its $40 monthly fee for the hot spot feature. Monthly data plans for unlimited access start at $29.99, which could be an alternative for iPad owners. Starting Monday, Apple will no longer offer its unlimited data plan for the iPad 3G.
More phones with personal hot spots are on the way. Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G, which can run on Sprint’s 4G network, is expected Friday ($199.99 with a contract and rebate; plans for both calling and data begin at $69.99 plus a $10 premium data fee and $29.99 a month for the hot spot feature). And Wednesday, AT&T said it would allow tethering the iPhone to a computer, for a $20 monthly fee.
Google’s recently updated Android operating system, version 2.2, includes a hot spot feature and is expected to be made available soon. But not all Android phones will support that function.
Software can turn many new and older phones into hot spots, too. WMWifiRouter, from Morose Media, based in the Netherlands, works on a variety of phones. I used it on an HTC Touch Pro2, which runs the Windows Mobile operating system. The software ($19.99 at wmwifirouter.com) can be downloaded directly to the phone.
JoikuSpot (joikushop.com) supports the Symbian operating system, including many phones from Nokia and Samsung. Depending on your tolerance for risk, some phones like the iPhone and some Android phones, can be hacked to work as hot spots. Steps for hacking are posted across the Internet, but you risk voiding a phone’s warranty.
There was no one solution that was best for all users in all situations. It depends on the cellphone service you have, the devices you own and where you live or travel. With a laptop, an iPod Touch and maybe an iPad in the future, I like the idea of not carrying around yet another device.
After all, without having to depend on coffee shops for Internet access, I may also be carrying around my coffee.