The ability to get online anywhere with a 3G cell network data card goes a long way toward delivering on the promise of mobility. But those who use Verizon's network and find themselves in an AT&T-only area (or vice versa) have been out of luck.
That is -- until now, thanks to Qualcomm's ingenious Gobi technology that can connect with several networks, for as close to a guaranteed connection as it exists today.
Rather than working with a single frequency, the Gobi device -- which currently can only be obtained already built into a notebook -- uses Qualcomm's MDM1000 chip that can operate on 850 MHz or 1.8-, 1.9- or 2.1 GHz. As a result, rather than being stuck with either this network or that network, Gobi lets you choose which to connect with, doubling your chances of getting online.
In the U.S., you can log onto AT&T's HSDPA or Verizon's EV-DO network, as well as any of 350 networks from Austria to Yemen. On the downside, Gobi ignores the emerging 4G WiMax network that can provide real-world data speeds that are three times faster than the 3G networks. (At the moment, 4G is active only in two U.S. cities.)
On top of being able to pick which network to log onto, Gobi can simplify a notebook maker's ability to offer network connections on its products with one card. Vendors no longer need to stock and install different cards for each network, which can cut their costs (and hopefully pass those savings on to the consumer).
At the moment, Gobi is available built into 17 notebooks. Later this year, look for USB and ExpressCard add-on devices that can upgrade any notebook with a USB 2.0 or Xpress card slot to Gobi.
A Gobi test drive
To give Gobi a thorough test drive, I used an HP EliteBook 2530p, a 3.2-lb. ultramobile system with a 12.1-in. screen, excellent keyboard, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a built-in DVD burner. The configuration that I used sells for US$1,999, which includes $125 for the Gobi option.
Of course, the price tag doesn't include the subscription to the networks for data access. Because the Gobi can tap into two different networks, you'll need -- you guessed it -- two separate data accounts. Both Verizon and AT&T have monthly plans that include up to 5GB of downloads for $60 each, while Verizon also has a $40 monthly plan that includes 50MB per month.
Using the Gobi-equipped EliteBook HP's Connection Manager software, I got online in a dozen places in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. I collected more than 250 data points over 10 days in 15 locations in all three states. All speed readings were repeated three times and all the results were averaged.
At each location, I timed how long it took to go from one network to the other and connect with each network. Then, I used SpeedTest's online bandwidth meter to gauge upload and download speeds as well as the network's latency.
I also downloaded a presentation, viewed YouTube videos, listened to a Web radio station and did a Skype video call. Finally, with a Web radio station playing, I timed how long it took to drain the notebook's battery using the system's built-in Wi-Fi and then using the Gobi radio connected to each network.
Fast and flexible
I found that the Gobi card was as fast as when I used a single-band installed or USB add-on device. Connecting with Gobi was incredibly liberating when encountering an overloaded network or a dead spot -- when I couldn't connect with one network, I used the other one.
Overall, I was able to get online at an average of 1.2Mbit/sec., not bad for a wireless data network. I found that the AT&T network delivered faster service with a peak throughput of 2.8Mbit/sec. and average of 1.3Mbit/sec. compared to Verizon's peak throughput of 1.8Mbit/sec. and average of 1Mbit/sec. On the other hand, Verizon's network did offer less latency, which can translate into quicker response.
Both networks proved to be reliable enough for performing daily tasks, including retrieving e-mail, listening to Web radio, downloading presentations, sending photos and watching YouTube videos. I also made several VoIP phone calls and did a little videoconferencing using the Skype service.
Going from one network to the next was a little harder than jumping from one Wi-Fi hot spot to another. To swap AT&T for Verizon or vice versa, I had to open HP's Connection Manager, select the new network, and let the card change its settings and load the new firmware, which took about 40 seconds. After that, the Connection Manager showed the network's signal strength and was ready for the online world.
Finally, keep in mind that Gobi is a power hog. With the Gobi radio on and connected, the notebook's battery ran for an average of 40 minutes less than the 4 hours 19 minutes it ran using just the built-in Wi-Fi.
Gobi is still a relatively new technology and includes some of the problems typical of new technologies, such as high price (especially because you have to subscribe to any service you want to use), some awkwardness (especially its service-swapping process) and heavy power usage. Still, for the roving executive who absolutely has to get online, it's priceless to have the freedom of choice that Gobi delivers.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.
This story, "Double Your 3G Option With Gobi Technology" was originally published by Computerworld.