ATT Makes 3G Broadband Simple

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

The USBConnect 881 eschews the traditional PC Card interface for USB 2.0 and opens up the world of 3G to almost any PC.

With notebook computers getting thinner and lighter, it is getting harder to add options and features. What's more, the need for mobile broadband connectivity is growing at a rapid pace and all of the major players out there are offering various 3G solutions -- adding to end-user confusion.

AT&T, however, is taking a slightly different approach, instead of offering yet another PC card (PCMCIA)-based 3G radio, the company has turned to Sierra Wireless to create a USB-based 3G radio, marketed under the name -- AT&T USBConnect 881.

Not much smaller than a flip phone and offering a hinged USB connector, the unit proves to be a little obtrusive. Housed inside the unit is a rechargeable lithium Ion battery, which is used to give a boost to signal strength and a user serviceable SIM card. At 93mm x 39mm x 20mm (3.7" x 1.5" x .8"), the unit can seem somewhat large sitting next to a modern ultra-slim notebook.

The device plugs in via a fully articulated USB plug, which allows users to angle the device in multiple positions. Obviously, there are some disadvantages to having this device hanging off the side of a notebook computer, one of which is potential damage to the device and the notebook if the unit is banged or bumps into something.

An easy solution to that dilemma is to use a short extension cable -- perhaps AT&T should consider including a short extension cable and some stick-on Velcro in the package, which would allow users to connect the device to the back of the notebook's panel lid while in use.

Click here for a closer look at the AT&T USBConnect 881.

The device requires the end user to install the included battery and the SIM card, both of which are quite easy to do. Once the unit is plugged into a PC's USB port, the installation program will be automatically launched. The USB connector includes some built-in storage memory, which acts like a USB key drive, allowing the installation and driver software to be installed directly on the device. That seems to be an intelligent way to offer the installation program, especially when one considers that many ultra-light notebook computers lack an optical drive.

The software installation is relatively automatic and requires a few minutes to complete; users will have to reboot the PC once the installation is complete. Connectivity to AT&T's 3G network is handled by the included AT&T Communications Manager software. Once the unit is plugged into the system, all a user needs to do is launch that application and then click on connect. The connection process can take as long as 30 seconds and relies heavily on signal strength from the AT&T network available at the user's location.

The connection proves to be quite stable and offers decent speeds. While testing the unit, we were able to drive some 40 miles on the Long Island expressway, travel through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and arrive at Ziff Davis Enterprises' offices (East 28th Street and Madison Ave), all without losing a connection. The unit also performed well on the outskirts of Philadelphia and in several spots in New Jersey. Using Speedtest.net, a top downstream speed of 905K bps and an upload speed of 359K bps were reported in the midtown Manhattan area.

In short, users willing to put up with the unit's bulky size and the costs of a 3G data plan will be well served by the AT&T USBConnect 881.

Connor J. Ohlhorst contributed to this review.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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