Mobile broadband lets you connect your laptop to the Internet anywhere you can get a 3G or 4G wireless signal -- but to beam that signal to your computer, you're probably going to need a wireless card. Our report on mobile broadband covers the networks; this report covers the devices.
The name "wireless card" is left over from a time when these little gadgets were actually shaped like cards that you stuck into your computer. These days, your mobile broadband carrier will probably instead offer you a choice of a USB modem (which looks like a USB flash drive, and hooks one device to the Internet at a time) or a mobile hotspot (which usually looks like a thick credit card, and beams a wireless signal that several devices can share). A few laptops and most netbooks have mobile broadband modules built right in, but these may be tied to a particular wireless carrier.
Plenty of experts test wireless cards -- and find clear favorites. The best USB modems and mobile hotspots offer faster download/upload speeds or more reliable connections than others (even on the same network) or are simpler to use.
PCMag.com is easily the best source for wireless card reviews. Experts here have tested most of the current USB modems and mobile hotspots you can get from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Virgin Mobile and more, recommending the best wireless cards from each carrier.
Another great source is Mobile-Broadband-Reviews.com, where reviewer Marc Aarons likewise lists the best wireless cards from each carrier and explains why. CNET, PC World and Laptop Magazine each test about half a dozen popular USB modems and mobile hotspots and recommend the best ones. Macworld, Geek.com, ArsTechnica.com, MobileTechReview.com and GottaBeMobile.com test fewer devices, but their tests and reviews are just as thorough. In all, we examined reviews from about a dozen sources to come up with the best mobile hotspots and USB modems for this report.
The first thing to do, experts say, is to choose your mobile broadband carrier -- then get the best USB modem or mobile hotspot that carrier offers. Reviewers recommend the top-rated wireless cards from Verizon Wireless more often than any others, largely because Verizon boasts the fastest 4G network in most tests. Meanwhile, AT&T's wireless cards get the fewest recommendations from our sources -- just like AT&T's mobile broadband network. To figure out which carrier to buy your 3G or 4G mobile broadband plan from, check out our separate report on mobile broadband.