If you're looking for Internet access no matter where you go with your laptop, a 4G air card or USB modem can keep you connected anywhere you have cell phone access. These devices simply plug into the USB port of your laptop and then get Internet access using a 3G or 4G wireless network. While "AirCard" refers specifically to the Sierra Wireless brand of USB modems, the term "air card" is often used to describe all USB modems, regardless of the manufacturer.
USB and NonUSB
In the past, you could get USB, PC card and express card modems for a laptop. Today, the market is dominated by USB cards, which are the only type offered by the major wireless carriers. Other types of cards are exceedingly difficult to find and, if you did find one, it would be nearly impossible to get service for it. If you don't have an available USB port on your laptop, another option is a Mi-Fi router. These routers pick up the same 3G or 4G signals as an air card, but rather than connecting directly to a laptop, you can access them wirelessly using the built-in Wi-Fi on your laptop or other Wi-Fi devices.
Features to Look For
Even if you don't have 4G service in your area yet, 4G air cards are the norm today and will work on 3G networks. Many air cards can swivel around on a USB port. This not only keeps them from getting damaged if you're moving your laptop. Swiveling the air card an inch or two in one direction or the other often helps you find the strongest signal possible, especially when you are indoors. Other models include texting and built-in GPS software. Software is almost always built into the air card itself and most work with both Apple and Windows computers.
Choosing a Carrier
Because 4G networks are still being developed across the country, your choice of carrier should depend on which gives the best coverage in your area. In June 2012, PC Magazine tested the top carriers in 30 U.S. cities. While 4G LTE is the fastest service, often twice as fast as 4G and sometimes faster, it's not available everywhere. During the time of the test, Verizon had 4G LTE service in 258 cities and AT&T had it in 39 cities, but these numbers are continuing to expand. If 4G LTE is not available in your area, a 4G service will give you the best speeds. 3G service is often only half the speed of 4G, and sometimes even less.
Prices for air cards vary, but basic 4G models are usually available for $20 to $50. Additional features like GPS can drive up that price. Air cards are basically useless without a service plan, so most air cards available to consumers are branded by the wireless carriers that sell their monthly service along with the air card. You can often get the air card for free if you agree to a monthly service plan. These deals are generally offered to attract new customers or to get customers to agree to a two-year or three-year contract. Make sure to read all of the details, to determine if, for example, there is a termination fee for cancelling a contract early. This is often at least a couple of hundred dollars.
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