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Speed Sticks: Three Wireless USB Modems Reviewed

Stay online while on the road with wireless USB modems from Sierra Wireless and Novatel combined with services from AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint, but be prepared for a few bumps in the road.

Traveling around town without a broadband connection for your laptop can be a hassle. But with the help of a USB modem -- a gadget that connects to your computer's USB port and uses your wireless carrier's broadband cellular service -- you can perform nearly any online task, as long as you're in your carrier's coverage zones. And, assuming you stick close to main roads and don't venture off the beaten path, you should have good luck connecting.

To get a feel for some of the top services and products available, I evaluated the Sierra Wireless AirCard 881U on AT&T's 3G network, the Novatel USB727 on Verizon Wireless' BroadbandAccess and NationalAccess networks, and the Sierra Wireless Compass 597 on Sprint's Mobile Broadband Network.

I compared each device's design, installation process, speed (using, and general usability to determine which is best for the person on the go. And although each had attributes that made me cringe, I was generally pleased with their performance and believe they're all worthy of your use -- as long as they work wherever you're going.

Sierra Wireless AirCard 881U

Sierra Wireless' AirCard 881U is big and bloated, but it can pack a punch if you're just looking for speed.
(click for image gallery)

At first glimpse, the AirCard 881U from Sierra Wireless is a beast of a gadget. Big, ugly, and surprisingly heavy, the USB modem isn't nearly as stylish as the other modems.

Similarly annoying is the install process. If you're a Windows user, it's easy -- simply pop the disc into your machine and follow the screen prompts. But if you're a Mac user, it's much more difficult. To install it on my Mac OS X 10.4 MacBook, I had to go to the Sierra Wireless Web page's support section and download the correct software for my operating system. Once that download was complete, I was finally able to install the software, restart my computer, and connect to AT&T's 3G network.

The AirCard 881U's software was delightfully easy to use and far more bearable than the ridiculous install. To connect to the 3G network, you need only to open the program and click the Connect button. In a matter of seconds, the modem is up and running and you're free to surf.

I was pleasantly surprised with the speed I experienced while browsing the Web. Simple pages like opened in just a few seconds with 3G connectivity and more complex Web sites like opened about twice as fast as my EDGE-connected cell phone, but about 10 seconds slower than my Wi-Fi connection. All in all, I was getting about 1.0 Mbps on the downlink and roughly 375 kbps up.

Although 3G connectivity with the AirCard 881U was a great experience, it suffers from the same limitations that all USB modems do: it's governed by the data coverage that wireless carriers provide. And unless you live in a big city or around a densely populated area, don't expect 3G wherever you go. In fact, I quickly found myself surfing at EDGE speeds when I ventured away from the metro area.

The Sierra Wireless AirCard 881U is a generally lackluster USB modem that's bloated, too heavy, and more of an eyesore than anything else. And although connecting to 3G was delightfully easy and the price tag -- free after mail-in rebate -- is attractive, AT&T's $60 per month data plan and the AirCard 881U's aforementioned issues should make you think twice before picking it up.

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