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Technology Today - April 2015 - Netgear's Aircard
By Robert Sanborn

Traveling with electronics is getting to be more of a pain each year with so many new devices that need to be connected to the internet to properly work. For road trips, it gets more complicated. My GPS wants to be connected, my Radar Detector wants to be connected, my daughter wants to be connected. And unless you are spending a small fortune on your data plan for your smart phone, it can both be expensive and difficult to keep all these things connected.

What’s worse in traveling is that you often need more than one GPS device to figure out where you are going. A good example is that quite often, the hotel I want to stay in has a different postal address than it does an address the GPS can find. Worst yet is when the GPS insists it is in another town or city than where it is located or the brochure or book says one city but in fact, it is located in another.  Ran into that the other day when picking up my daughter from a friend’s house. Is it in Westfield or Carmel and when I ask him, he says it depends on who you ask. So, traveling with a connected household, it is not uncommon to have a half dozen devices or more that need access to the internet and I really don’t like sharing my data plan. Run over and it gets quite expensive. The other problem is that I really don’t want a mobile hotspot that I have to pay for month in and month out because I really only need it when we are traveling and there could easily be two or three months in a row when we are not on the road.

So off we go looking for another gadget to travel with and this time, it is the AT&T Unite Mobile Hotspot. I wanted a pay as you go plan and something that connects with a service that is widely available. Having used AT&T wireless service for several years has shown that it is quite widely available and for where I am traveling, should do just fine. Though I do remember several trips on the Blue Ridge Parkway where there was no service whatever. The unit I have is made by Netgear, www.netgear.com and is the Aircard model 770S. you can get the specifications about the card from the Netgear website far easier than you can from AT&T’s website.  When you purchase one of these devices, you need to select whether you are going to go with a data plan that is either for seven or 30 days. There are also international plans available.

Netgear Aircard

The good news is that it is a nice compact package, just 4.3 inches long, 2,7 inches wide and near half an inch thick weighing only 4+ ounces. Inside is a 2500mAh lithium ion battery that weighs as much as the device itself and the package comes with a USB charging cable with a standard and micro connector and an AC wall adapter. I thought Netgear did a terrific job with the case as it is of a soft non slip material that should stay mostly where you put it. It has a colored LCD screen on the front, a recessed off switch on the top, SIM card slot on the front, and a pair of external antenna ports on the front as well.

Put the battery in, turn it on and you see a very well lit display showing you how much data is used, the name of the Wi-Fi network and the Wi-Fi password. You can also check messages and settings, and a tutorial is online as well all through the touch screen. In the settings you can change the brightness of the screen, hid the Wi-Fi info and manage your broadband connection. Through messages, you can view and delete messages sent to your hotspot through your AT&T Unite number. The Wi-Fi icon allows you to manage the connected devices, access WPS, and enable guest accounts among others. All quite impressive. From the same screen, you also see the Wi-Fi signal strength, the type of network you are connected to, and life remaining on the battery. If you are making a long trip in a car or camper, you might want to invest in multiple port charger connectors. My old car just has the one they still call the “Cigar Lighter”. When it goes to sleep, just tap the power button and hit the unlock icon to bring it back. A quibble would be that it used a standard charging connector on the Unite Mobile Hotspot as I have to carry an additional cable for it.

Setting up the Unite Mobile Hotspot is a pretty straightforward process. Plug in the battery which already has power to it and you are nearly done. You need to register the device and will need a SIM card number and the devices wireless IMEI number which total 35 digits so read them carefully. As you probably know, the IMEI number ends up giving you a wireless phone number for the device but it is just to allow it to connect to the cell phone network for messages regarding connection and status. You also need to select a monthly data plan as well and I chose the 2GB plan. I probably should have read the fine print as to how long I am committed for. And after talking with them at AT&T, it seems it is called a monthly plan but unless you put money into it each month, it ends.

AT&T has refill cards for the “Go” series of phones and hotspots and what you do is to buy a refill card, log into the account at AT&T’s website, and reload it. A downside is that the connection and refill is only good for one month and needs to be updated as you go. For casual surfing of the web, checking email, and the like, the 2GB plan at $25 will work just fine. My only complaint is that it will expire each month and need to be refilled. As my trip schedules are for March, July, and September; I would prefer not to have to deal with something monthly so will see how it works out when it expires at the end of 30 days. If you need more data available, you can change to a 5GB plan for $50 or an 8GB plan for $75.
Now that the plan is loaded, we wait for better weather, pack up all the electronics, and hit the road. And while we were on the road, the unit worked without a hitch. On our trip from Indianapolis south into South Carolina, it worked great. We were able to use an iPod, iPhone, and laptop and the connection was just as fast as most Wi-Fi hotspots we would try.  If you manage things well, you really can access a lot of information for a very long time with the 2GB plan. I just refrained from the big App updates or Windows updates and even playing online games and looking at YouTube videos don’t take up much bandwidth unless you spring for the HD content. We had four days of driving and several days while at our destination and only used up 1.1 out of the 2GB plan.

I like the unit, it is small and well put together and as I mentioned before, with the nonslip surface, pretty much stays put where you need it though once connected and set up, we just put it into one of the back seat pockets and you can nearly forget about it. It holds a charge very well. You just spend $50 (with a two year contract) or $199 for the Unite Pro unit and add whatever data plan you need for the month and are good to go.

More from CES later.

Robert Sanborn

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