Choose the best USB modem or MiFi mobile hotspot

Unless your laptop has a built-in mobile broadband module -- and many don't -- you'll need to add one in order to hop onto the Internet via a 3G or 4G network. You can buy one from your wireless carrier, when you buy your mobile broadband plan. Netbooks typically have a mobile broadband built-in, but are less powerful than laptops. See our separate report on netbooks for buying advice and product recommendations.

Here's what expert recommend to make sure you're getting the best USB modem or mobile hotspot for your needs:

  • Get the right network. Mobile broadband carriers -- AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc. -- can vary wildly in terms of speed, reliability and price. So choose your network first, and then shop for a USB modem or mobile hotspot from that carrier. Our report on Mobile Broadband can help you choose the right carrier.
  • Do you want to hook up several devices to the Internet at once? If so, you'll probably want a mobile hotspot. These pocket-sized devices beam a Wi-Fi signal up to about 100 feet, so you can connect several Wi-Fi devices (laptops, smartphones, gaming devices, etc.) at once. You can connect all of your own devices or share your signal with friends or coworkers.
  • Do you need the fastest possible connection speeds? A USB modem can connect only one laptop or other device to the Internet at once, but experts say you may get slightly faster upload and download speeds with a USB modem (which sticks directly into your laptop's USB port) than with a mobile hotspot. With a USB modem, you also won't have to worry about battery life, as with a mobile hotspot, which will need to be recharged after a few hours.
  • Check for compatibility. Make sure the wireless card you choose is compatible with the laptop or other devices you want to connect.
  • Could you tether your smartphone or rely on a public Wi-Fi hotspot instead? If you just need a few minutes of mobile Internet access here and there, you might not need to buy a mobile broadband plan and wireless card at all. If you have a smartphone, you might be able to tether it to your laptop and share its Internet connection, although not all smartphones -- or carriers -- will allow you to do this, and it will run down your phone's battery (see our blog entry on how to turn a smartphone into a modem for more information on tethering). Otherwise, you'll need to find a public hotspot (at a coffee shop, airport, hotel, etc.), although these connections may not be secure.

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