Having access to email and the Web on your smartphone is super convenient, but it still can't quite compare using a laptop over an extended period of time, especially if you need to access to more than a mobile version of a site, or have to write out a long email with attachments. Typically, if you're using a laptop, you'd just hop onto a Wi-Fi connection. But if you're out on the road without access to Wi-Fi, you're sunk. Same if your power goes out. And even if you do find a Wi-Fi hotspot, it can be costly. Many coffee shops and airports charge by the hour ($1 to $5), while hotels typically ask for as much as $20 per day for Internet.
What if you just need 15 minutes of web access? That's where tethering comes in - using your cell phone signal to get web access on your laptop. Aside from the convenience factor, another benefit to tethering is security. You don't have to connect to a dodgy, unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot and worry that someone's stealing your passwords. Finally, if you recently purchased an Apple iPad, tethering means you don't have to wait for the 3G version to come out - and you don't have to limit yourself to AT&T's network.
Now if you need constant access to the web away from home, it's probably worth getting mobile broadband through a cell phone carrier. You'll need to buy a cellular modem that plugs into your laptop (most are USB compatible) and you'll have to pay a monthly fee. (Our report on mobile broadband covers all the options.) Another option for Verizon and Sprint subscribers is the MiFi mobile hotspot, which lets you share a connection with up to 5 devices. Tethering is best in small doses, since using it will run down the battery on your smartphone.
How tethering works
Most smartphones can double as modems, though cell phone carriers sometimes block this option. For example, the iPhone is capable of tethering, but AT&T doesn't allow it. In most cases, though, you can connect your smartphone to your laptop by USB or via Bluetooth and be on the web within minutes. You'll have to download software to your laptop and you may have to fiddle with your smartphone's settings first. PCMag.com's Jamie Lendino warns that Bluetooth connections can be slow and battery draining, so USB might be more convenient. Both AT&T and Verizon limit monthly usage to 5 GB, yet another reason not to depend on tethering too much. It's also a good idea to avoid transferring large file transfers or other data-hogging tasks while tethering.
How much will it cost?
Verizon made headlines recently when it lowered the prices of its Palm Pre Plus and Palm Pixi Plus smartphones and eliminated fees for its 3G Mobile Hotspot service. Previously, subscribers had to pay a monthly fee for this feature, which allows you to turn your phone into a portable hotspot for up to 5 devices. In early April, Verizon announced that this this service would be free (for the time being) for both new and existing subscribers.
If you don't have one of those phones, you have some options. AT&T and Verizon allow tethering on most of their smartphones (except on the iPhone) for about $15-$20 a month. T-Mobile neither encourages nor discourages the practice and Sprint last year announced that it would not allow tethering at all so you'll have to use a third-party app for tethering on these carriers. Just be warned that downloading one of these apps may break your warranty. Tethering apps include Tether for BlackBerry, PDAnet (for most smartphones), EasyTether (for Android) and My Tether (for Palm). You can use PDAnet on a "jailbroken" iPhone, but if you have a jailbroken iPhone, you probably already knew that.