WEB CONNECTIONS When Wi-Fi isn't available, there are alternatives
By MIKE WENDLAND
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
DETROIT -- As great as it is, Wi-Fi isn't the only game in town for connecting to the Web while on the road.
Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of Wi-Fi, the wireless method of connecting computers to one another and the Net via radio signals that travel up to around 150 feet.
When I travel, I visit public Wi-Fi hotspots at Starbucks or Panera Bread cafes -- and other places such as bookstores, hotels, even truck stops -- for my Internet fix.
But sometimes, you're not near a hotspot. What then?
Today, we'll look at three alternatives offered by cell phone providers. I warn you: None is cheap.
Two are stand-alone devices: the $449 Treo 600 smartphone, offered locally by Sprint and Verizon, and the $499 BlackBerry combination phone and e-mail device, offered by many carriers.
The third is a card that plugs into your computer and, using cell phone frequencies, makes a digital connection to the Net. Sprint, AT & amp;T and Verizon all offer their own varieties of this approach. They cost around $300.
Let's start with the BlackBerry. I tested the new color BlackBerry 7750 offered by Verizon Wireless that also doubles as a phone.
I found the phone part of this unit cumbersome to operate and awkward to hold. It works, but I'd never buy a BlackBerry for just the phone. But for on-the-go e-mail, it really is the best device I've found.
The new BlackBerry models work with both corporate e-mail and regular e-mail accounts. If you use Microsoft Outlook, you can plug a cradle into your PC and synchronize the BlackBerry with your desktop's calendar and address book. Macintosh users, however, are out of luck.
My only complaint about the BlackBerry deals with spam. My office server filters out much of the spam sent my way. But all the junk comes through when relayed to the BlackBerry.
If having a full-featured phone and easy access to e-mail is a necessity for you, you may want to look at the Treo 600 smartphone. I've been using one that works on the Sprint system since last fall.
The unit is a terrific phone, an MP3 music player and a full-functioned Palm organizer complete with a keyboard. It allows me to check my e-mail by pushing a button and then logs onto the Sprint network and downloads my mail. It even has a built-in camera and the ability to send pictures as e-mail.
Verizon Wireless just started selling the Treo 600 a few weeks ago. I wish I had its service instead of Sprint's, because Verizon offers always-on e-mail, like the BlackBerry. Sprint does not.
Unlimited e-mail and Internet use on the Treo and BlackBerry costs $49 a month, on top of whatever calling plan you use.
The third alternative is a PC card that makes a modem-like connection via your cell provider's network. I've been testing the Wireless PC 5220 card from Verizon. I chose this one because Apple offers a download that lets it also work with my Macintosh laptop. Other cards work only with PCs.
The connection speed around metro Detroit isn't great -- about the same as dial-up. But if I visited Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., or San Diego, the same card would give me broadband connectivity.
Verizon is slowly rolling the broadband speed out nationwide and says we should have it in Detroit sometime early next year.
For now, just being able to use the card to connect from just about anywhere I can get a Verizon digital signal is a huge convenience -- and that's about 90 percent of the country. When broadband speeds are more available nationally, I think that the unlimited $79-a-month fee will be worth it. For now, it's a pricey option probably best suited only for the business crowd that needs to be connected no matter what.