ATT Makes 3G Broadband SimpleBy Frank Ohlhorst | Print
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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.
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.