A common misconception surrounding notebooks equipped with 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi is that you're able to switch on and surf the Web anywhere, anytime. The myth is further perpetuated by Intel's marketing material for its Centrino platform, so don't feel down if you were fooled.
It's true that Wi-Fi enabled laptops can jump online if there's a wireless hotspot nearby, but otherwise you'll need to sign up with a wireless broadband provider -- iBurst or Unwired -- or a 3G data card service from Vodafone, Optus, Telstra or 3.
Both wireless broadband and 3G data card services are mobile Internet technologies, but there are two primary points of difference -- speed and coverage. 3G services run on your standard mobile phone network, and therefore cover anywhere there's a mobile phone signal. If you're outside a 3G coverage area, it'll automatically revert to the slower but still useable GSM network (or CDMA if you're on Telstra's Country Wide plans), ensuring a connection at all times.
In return for 3G's stellar coverage, users must forego a certain amount of speed. 3G's maximum throughput of 384Kbps (600Kbps on Telstra's EV-DO) pales in comparison to the 1Mbps offered by a wireless broadband service such as Unwired and iBurst. Further, speeds drop down to 50kbps when you're bumped onto the GSM network.
The iBurst service is ideal for the mobile professional, but like its 3G cousin, will have difficulty swaying the average consumer due to high access prices.
Installation of the device is stunningly simple, with the iBurst card sliding into a Type II PCMCIA slot on your notebook. It measures a petite 125 x 56 x 14mm, and the 'tab' won't get in your way since it doesn't stick out too far past the edge of the chassis. That said, those using smaller notebooks and a slapdash typing style may occasionally bump into it.
The antenna is also quite small and rotates in all directions, which virtually eliminates the chance of someone unwittingly snapping it off. For those operating from an area with poor reception (i.e. deep inside a building), the card offers a connector for an external high gain antenna.
While it's widely labelled as a 1Mbps service, the exact theoretical data rates supported by iBurst are 1061Kbps for downloads and 346Kbps for uploads. This is similar to a mid-range ADSL connection, and is fast enough to accommodate most Internet applications but may struggle with heavy video streaming.
iBurst's coverage area has extended quite significantly since the service's inception, but at present it's limited to the east coast cities of Metropolitan Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, Central Coast, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Melbourne and Canberra. Clicking any of the links above will take you to a detailed coverage map for your selected city.
By comparison, Unwired's coverage is limited to Sydney and, as of 5 April, inner-city Melbourne. What's more, iBurst's coverage is set to further surpass that of Unwired when the provider expands its service into Adelaide and Perth in the near future.
The card's maximum power consumption is a low 3.3 watts, so you can comfortably leave your notebook's power adapter at home without worrying about a rapidly decreasing battery life.
Service prices vary depending on your ISP of choice (a full list of iBurst ISP partners can be found here), but like any wireless Internet service, the cost is likely to be too high for the average consumer to justify. However, most mobile business users will happily shell out the cash, as the cost is far outweighed by the productivity gains resulting from constant Internet access.
The PCMCIA wireless card will set you back AU$299, while monthly access fees range from AU$30 per month for 256/64Kbps download/upload speeds and 200MB of data transfers, to AU$199.95 for 1000/256Kbps speeds and 10GB of data. Set aside around AU$150 extra for "setup fees", while exceeding your monthly data allocation will cost around AU$0.15-0.20 per megabyte.
This makes the iBurst solution somewhat more expensive than a 3G data card overall. For example, Vodafone offers an unlimited data transfer 3G service for AU$100. Prices for lower-end iBurst plans are quite similar to equivalent 3G plans, however.
The iBurst catch-cry is "it just works", and this is for the most part true. After pulling the device out of its packaging, we were able to get online within minutes. All that's required is a basic software installation, during which you'll be prompted to insert the card into a vacant PCMCIA slot. From there it's just a matter of filling out the provided login details and hitting 'connect'. No rebooting is necessary.
The drivers and system software support both the Windows and Mac operating systems, unlike Unwired which is limited to Windows XP only.
We tested the service in Sydney's Metropolitan area. The specific locations used were Pyrmont, the CBD and Eastern Suburbs areas such as Bondi and Vaucluse. All of these locations offered up full signal strength, but this is to be expected since Sydney is iBurst's largest coverage area.
No dropouts were experienced during testing, even whilst on the move in a car or bus. However, it's disappointing that the service won't work on below-ground trains since tunnel reception is poor or non-existent.
Despite iBurst's theoretical maximum download/upload speeds of 1061Kbps/346Kbps, we recorded speeds of 599.39Kbps/142.65Kbps during our testing with the tcpIQ Line Speed Meter. This result is in the range we expected, since it's rare that Internet services reach anywhere near their maximum throughput speeds. Web page load times are speedy and there's no patchiness when making VoIP calls.
While our benchmarks give a good indication of general Sydney CBD performance, don't take them as a completely accurate indication of the speeds you'll experience, as this depends largely on your location. Throughput will be higher if you're close to a transmitter, and if the signal is able to travel to you without being interrupted by a clutter of buildings or other dense objects.
On the whole, iBurst is a superb wireless broadband solution that's highly useful for the mobile business user, but regular consumers will likely find its price to be a deal breaker.
iBurst Wireless Card