Feature: Warm Weather, Hot Spots
As I wrote this, it was a gorgeous spring day. Birds were tweeting; flowers were blooming; the sun was shining; Daylight Savings Time had kicked in--and I was on deadline. So I did what any self-respecting person would do: I got the heck out of my office.
But before you gasp at my flagrant irresponsibility, I'll hasten to add that I took my office with me. I packed up my notebook, strolled leisurely down the street amidst all those chirping birds, and returned to work at the neighborhood Starbucks.
Wireless access points, or hot spots, at places like Starbucks give you access to high-speed networks, which in turn allow you to get onto the Internet. Most hot spots are based on the 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, wireless network standard, though newer Wi-Fi standards such as 802.11a (which promises faster access) are beginning to appear.
Hot spots are popping up practically everywhere. Gartner estimates there will be more than 24,000 hot spots worldwide by year end, compared to only 6000 last year. A new generation of wireless-enabled notebooks has sprung forth, too, thanks to Intel's Centrino mobile PC architecture.
As I said, it's spring, so grab your notebook and get out of the office. Here's a guide to hot spots: how to find one near you, and what you can expect to pay for wireless Internet access. Finding a Hot Spot
The following Web sites offer interactive directories, sometimes with maps, that help you pinpoint the nearest hot spot. Think of these as a kind of Yellow Pages for hot spots. If you can't find an access point near you, check out the section below, "Other Ways to Go Wireless."
802.11Hotspots.com provides a searchable database of public hot spots offered by service providers (such as T-Mobile) in the United States and many international locations. Search by city, state, or country for a list of alphabetized hot spots that includes the business name, address, and Internet access provider. Clicking the business name gives you more information, including the type of establishment (such as caf?? or hotel); where wireless access is located (only in the hotel lobby, for instance); and wireless protocol (802.11b, 802.11a, or 802.11g). The service is quick, easy to use, and frequently updated. I wish you could search by Zip code, however.
The Community Wireless Node Database Project is a guide to, as the name implies, community hot spots. These wireless access points are usually set up by individuals or groups, and Internet access tends to be offered without charge.
WiFiMaps.com provides an interactive guide to hot spots for "wardriving" fans. Wardriving is the practice of snooping around with your wireless-enabled notebook or PDA and a Global Positioning System device. When you find a hot spot (which requires special software to do), you can add it to the WiFiMaps.com database of known access points. The problem is, the hot spot may be located within a private home or business. As a result, some consider wardriving equivalent to trespassing. According the site, however, it's not illegal.Wireless Service Rates
How much are you likely to pay for wireless access? Here are the current rates from three national wireless networking service providers.
T-Mobile supplies the hot spots at Starbucks, Borders book stores, and some airports, hotels, and other locations. Service plans begin at 10 cents per minute for a pay-as-you-go plan. A minimum session is 60 minutes, but there's no commitment. For $30 a month, you get unlimited national access but must agree to a one-year contract. Don't like that idea? Pay $40 a month for unlimited national access on a month-by-month basis or $50 for a block of 300 minutes.
Boingo offers hot spots in coffee shops, hotels, and other locations. Service plans begin at $8 for two "connect days" (a connect day means you get unlimited access at a Boingo location for up to 24 hours). Additional usage is $8 per connect day. For $25 per month, you get up to 10 connect days within a 30-day period; additional days are $5. Unlimited access is $50 per month.
Surf and Sip is often found in independent coffee shops, pubs, bakeries, and hotels. Service plans without membership begin at $5 for 24 hours and go to $20 for a week and $40 for 30 days. The annual membership fee is $20 per month with a one-year contract, or skip the contract and pay $30 a month. Other Ways to Go Wireless
Some mobile-phone providers such as AT&T, Nextel, and Verizon are beginning to offer Wi-Fi access, with Sprint rumored to be close behind. For instance, AT&T has an agreement with Wayport, a Texas company that offers wired and wireless Internet access in hotels and airports. In those deals, Wayport provides the wireless infrastructure that AT&T offers to its subscribers.
Rates for AT&T's Wi-Fi service start at $10 for a 24-hour period. For more information, see "AT&T Boosts Wi-Fi Hot Spots."
Meanwhile, there is an alternative to wireless hot spots: 3G wireless networks. Short-hand for third-generation, 3G refers to a cell phone network capable of handling data at high speeds, as well as voice traffic. Sprint PCS Vision is said to be the largest such network available. With 3G service, you don't have to be physically near an access point, as you do with 802.11-based wireless hot spots. But 3G service can be expensive, and it often delivers slower speeds than what you'd get at a hot spot.
For my review of Sprint PCS Vision, see "Mobile Computing: Sprint's New High-Speed Wireless."NOTEBOOKS & ACCESSORIESReview: Sharp Ultraportable
Sharp's new, reasonably priced Actius UM32W ($1899) ultraportable is a great value, if you can overlook the flimsy external CD-ROM drive and a bare-bones, clumsy-feeling keyboard. Our reviewer loved the notebook's wireless network antennas embedded in the 12.1-inch screen, the CompactFlash card slot, and other features. But the UM32W comes with trade-offs, such as a hard drive that's inaccessible to users.
You can use the PCWorld.com Product Finder to shop for the latest prices.Review: New PowerBook Small in Size, Big in Beauty
Apple's new 12.1-inch PowerBook G4 has a lot going for it (other than the ad campaign starring Austin Powers' Mini Me). The $1999 model our reviewer tested provided lots of power and connectivity, and like other PowerBooks, it's sleek and attractive. Still, there are caveats. At 4.6 pounds, this subnotebook is heavy, and the screen is too small for comfortable long-term use.
You can find the latest prices at our Product Finder.HANDHELDSNews: HP's Latest IPaq
Details were sketchy as I wrote this, but it looks like Hewlett-Packard is about ready to bring some new IPaq Pocket PCs to market. The IPaq H2200 will have at least 64MB of memory and 32MB of ROM, with some models offering Bluetooth connectivity and a universal remote control for home entertainment devices.Tip: Sign Up for Palm's Newsletter and Save
Palm occasionally offers special, limited-time product discounts to subscribers of its Palm Store US newsletter. A few weeks ago, for instance, I received a special offer to buy open-box Palm handhelds at a discount. Included in the offer was an open-box Palm M515 handheld, on sale for $200. The offer lasted through that weekend only; a few days later an open-box M515 was selling for $240. (The Palm US store's factory outlet includes open-box models as well.)
Open-box Palms were previously purchased and then returned by customers. According to Palm's Web site, open-box models have been thoroughly inspected but may be missing some of the box's original materials. You can return a defective open-box Palm within 15 days for a full refund. News: Cameras Are the Rage
PDA/cell phone combos with embedded cameras are, as they say, the bomb. Several vendors introduced flashy new models recently, including Siemens. The company's SX1 offers PDA, camera, phone, and MP3 playback functionality; supports the Series 60/Symbian operating system and Bluetooth technology; and features a 65,536-color display. Its number pad, with keys on the left and right sides of the display, is bound to get attention. The SX1 is expected to be available this fall; no pricing has been announced.WIRELESSNews: Improved Wi-Fi Security in XP
Security has always been a concern when it comes to Wi-Fi networks. Microsoft is hoping to allay those fears with a free upgrade to the Windows XP operating system. The XP upgrade supports the new Wi-Fi Protected Access standard, rather than the Wired Equivalent Privacy standard supported in earlier XP versions. Why the switch? WPA reportedly has stronger data encryption and network authentication than WEP.News: From Big Screen to Mobile Phone
Full-motion video is coming soon to a mobile phone near you. T-Mobile has become the first U.S. wireless carrier to begin delivering movie-like video with sound to a mobile phone. The phone, the new Nokia 3650, costs $199 and supports RealNetworks' RealOne media player and service (which is coming soon to some Pocket PCs, too). With the service, you can enjoy streaming news and sports videos, plus downloaded music, video clips, and movie trailers.
If that weren't enough razzle dazzle, the Nokia 3650 also features--get this--a built-in camcorder, VGA camera, and audio recorder. Now you can use your phone to shoot a video clip, attach it to an e-mail message, and send it on T-Mobile's high-speed data network.Suggestion Box
Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it.
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