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Review: Which 3G network is the best?

By Brian Nadel
May 13, 2008 12:00 PM ET

AT&T LaptopConnect

AT&T's LaptopConnect data network has definite appeal for those who live on the road. It not only delivered the fastest test speeds over its High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA) network, but AT&T gives you the card for free -- if you commit to a two-year contract.

The carrier offers the choice of four connection cards; I tested Sierra Wireless' USBConnect 881 USB card. The 881 card is tiltable, has a 380 milliamp/hour built-in battery and an external antenna jack (although AT&T doesn't sell an antenna for it). It weighs two ounces and slips easily into a notebook bag pocket, but when inserted in my test laptop, it blocked a nearby USB port.

The card automatically loads the needed software the first time you connect it to your laptop. AT&T's Connection Manager (ACM) software has an online timer, and shows the network's signal strength bars and how much data has moved into and out of the computer.

Sierra Wireless USBConnect 881
Sierra Wireless USBConnect 881
You also can use it to control the notebook's Wi-Fi connection, although its interface lacks the real-time "fever" graphs showing connection speed that the VZ Access Manager shows. It is also missing the GPS abilities of Sprint's system.

In tests, AT&T's network left its competitors in the digital dust, with average download speeds of 755Kbit/sec. and average upload speeds of 484Kbit/sec. The peak download speed was 1.6Mbit/sec. It connected in just 3.0 seconds and loaded the test Web page in 0.228 seconds. On the downside, the cellular modem ate up 40 minutes of battery time, midway between Sprint's hour and Verizon's 20 minutes.

AT&T has five DataConnect plans that start with the $20 entry-level plan, which includes 5MB of uploaded and downloaded data per month (extra megabytes are a whopping $8 each). The top-of-the-line plan is the 5GB plan that costs $60. If you go over that limit for two consecutive months, the company doesn't charge for it, but a representative will contact you about ways to cut your use. Failing that, AT&T "will work to terminate the contract," according to a company representative. He added that this outcome was very rare. Without a two-year contract, the 5GB plan costs $80.

AT&T concentrates its data network in the country's top 270 markets and plans to add 80 more by year's end, but falls back to its older data network in some areas. According to the company, a large majority of covered markets use the latest HSPA technology.

AT&T might not offer the best laptop interface or GPS, but AT&T's LaptopConnect gets you online with the fastest connection available.

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