Novatel Merlin U520
Wi-Fi is great, but have you ever wished you could just take your connection with you when you leave your home or office? Now, you can--if, that is, you're lucky enough to live in one of a handful of cities and you have some cash to spare. Novatel's new Merlin U520 PC Card adapter connects you to one of the fastest mobile-data services in the United States, AT&T's 3G UMTS network. UMTS is AT&T's wireless answer to DSL and cable broadband, and although this flavor of 3G is significantly slower than standard fixed broadband services, it has one big advantage: mobility. You can use the Novatel Merlin U520 to get a wireless broadband connection wherever you happen to be--a park, a restaurant, a car, or a client's office--assuming you're within AT&T's UMTS coverage area. The service converts entire metropolitan areas into giant Internet hot spots, but it's currently available in only Detroit, Phoenix, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Don't fret if you live elsewhere; the rollout has only just begun. AT&T is keeping its rollout plans under wraps, but expect to see the UMTS service in new markets in the coming months. The service and the PC Card modem are pricey, about $80 per month for all-you-can-eat service, plus $150 for Novatel's Merlin U520. Still for businesses eager to keep their mobile workforce online, the productivity gains made possible through ubiquitous broadband Internet access could easily offset the price tag.
As with your cell phone, you'll need to have an active UMTS account with AT&T to use the PC Card modem. A SIM card provided by AT&T, which slips into the back of the U520, gives you permission to connect to the UMTS network. All this is taken care of when you purchase your U520 along with the UMTS service.
Installing the Merlin U520 on a laptop is a breeze. The unit ships with a CD bearing Novatel's MobiLink software, which installs automatically when you insert the disc but is compatible with only Windows 2000 and Windows XP. Once the software is installed, simply insert the Merlin U520 and launch the MobiLink utility by clicking the app's desktop icon. The MobiLink utility lets you connect to and disconnect from AT&T's UMTS network, allows you to send and receive SMS messages, and displays the status of your connection, including whether you are within the UMTS coverage area.
Unfortunately, the Merlin U520 isn't backward compatible with AT&T's slower but far more prevalent GPRS/EDGE network. This limits the value of the U520 for frequent fliers who need Internet service in areas where AT&T's UMTS network isn't yet available.
We tested the Novatel Merlin U520 in San Francisco and consistently experienced speeds of around 250Kbps. That's quite a bit slower than the rate of standard cable or even DSL broadband, but it's a heck of a lot faster than the 56Kbps you can expect from standard cellular data connections. Even with UMTS speeds, you probably won't want to repeatedly download large files with the Merlin U520, but you won't find yourself drumming your fingers waiting for a Web page to load, either. If working with the Web on the fly is part of your business, the AT&T Merlin U520 combo can speed things up dramatically.
Novatel covers the Merlin U520 for one year and offers toll-free tech support Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET for the length of the warranty. The AT&T Web site also hosts a FAQ and a user forum for both its UMTS service and the Merlin U520.