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.