We have long argued that a well-chosen and properly-equipped mobile phone can replace a computer aboard for many common onboard tasks. It boots up faster, takes less power and is far more portable.
But there are times when phone and laptop can work together.
Using some simple software and cabling, you can "tether" your mobile phone to your laptop and use it as a modem to connect to the Internet, eliminating the need for Wi-fi hotspots and expensive aircards. We've been doing it for several years now and find that it saves us money and works extremely well.
It is not a perfect solution. There are some misconceptions and some limitations, and some boaters may find that this system does not suit their needs. But for the majority, this is a solid and economical solution - and it will improve as the technology continues to mature.
While your mobile phone may be able to supplant your laptop for many common applications, there are simply times when you need a larger screen to get the job done. There's nothing wrong with carrying both.
Unlike a mobile phone, however, your laptop requires a strategy to get online. Some boaters rely on Wi-fi hotspots to connect, but this strategy can be hit-or-miss. Wi-fi coverage is not universal, and many spots have been locked down due to security concerns. A few years ago, while anchored off Melbourne, Fla., we found 200 open Wi-fi spots. Two years later at the same anchorage there were still 200 spots, but none were open.
Many boaters have also turned to aircards for their Internet connection. An aircard is a device that uses a USB port, PCMCIA card slot, or an ExpressCard slot on your laptop and allows you to access the Internet wirelessly using cellular towers. They typically work great and are generally good solutions.
The biggest disadvantage of using an aircard is the cost. Not only will you typically need a second data plan for your aircard - usually another $50 to $80 monthly charge - but most plans require that you sign a contract as well. Often it is a two-year contract. If you are like us and are only able to cruise for part of the year, you are forced to continue to pay that monthly charge even when you have no use for it, or you will be hit with a large penalty to back out of the contract.
Adding a data plan to your mobile phone, however, often does not involve a contract. By using our mobile phone to connect our laptop to the Internet, we are spared the charges associated with a second data plan. It also allows us to turn the service on and off as we need with no penalty. Together, that adds up to quite a savings. Of course, the services and data plans offered by the mobile carriers can vary widely, so you must check with your provider for specific details.
DRAWBACKS AND LIMITATIONS
There are some limitations that come with using your phone as an Internet connection. The single biggest argument we hear against this system is the inability to answer an incoming call while on the Internet. A few years ago this was a true statement. Older mobile phones did not allow you this flexibility. Today, most mobile phones do allow you to pick up a call while you are on the Internet, though this is handled in a few different ways.
If you have a CDMA 3G EVDO system and receive an incoming call while connected to the Internet, you will have the option of either accepting or rejecting the call. If you accept the call, your data session will end and must be restarted when you complete the call. Any files being downloaded when the call was accepted will need to be re-downloaded.
With Verizon Wireless, this works a bit differently. Verizon has implemented Circuit Precedence Over Packet Data (CPOP) which is implemented on all of their 1xRTT connections (today this includes most Verizon data connections). With CPOP, your call can be accepted and the data connection is maintained until your voice communications are over, then full data flow can continue uninterrupted. However, this still does not allow you to browse the Internet while also talking on the phone.
To tether your mobile phone to your laptop and browse the Internet while simultaneously accepting an incoming call requires a 3G WCDMA/HSDPA network. While these networks are widely available internationally, they are still fairly new in the U.S. AT&T and Sprint are now offering UMTS and HSDPA networks in major metropolitan areas in the U.S. This allows you to use the same phone to speak with someone while also accessing Internet information.
However, if your provider does not offer UMTS or HSDPA, or you are located in an area without the 3G service, such as where we live on the coast of Maine, you are limited to using your mobile phone for either voice or data. Users who find this unacceptable will need an aircard.
In a perfect world having all capabilities available all the time would be great. However, we believe that for most of us it is not worth the added cost. Adding an aircard will increase your monthly costs and perhaps tie you into a multi-year contract. Using your mobile phone will give you Internet access on your laptop when you need it and allow you to have Internet access on your phone anytime, anywhere - all for one monthly fee.
There are various ways to tether your mobile phone to your laptop, depending on what kind of mobile phone you use. It is even possible to use Apple's iPhone for tethering if you are willing to "jailbreak" your phone. We will be including an article on this in the future.
We have used PdaNet to tether our Palm OS and Windows Mobile phones to our laptops for several years. PdaNet for Palm OS works with Treo and Centro mobile phones to connect your computer to the Internet through the Hotsync USB cable or Bluetooth. The software will work with Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000 and Windows ME but does not support Mac OS.
With PdaNet for Windows Mobile you can connect from your Windows Mobile mobile phone using the Sync cable, Bluetooth or even Wi-fi. The software supports almost all Windows Mobile phones. On the PC side, it supports Windows Vista, Windows XP and Windows 2000 but does not support Mac OS over USB. It supports only Bluetooth DUN for Mac.
We have found installation and setup to be fairly straightforward, and performance to be good. The software costs $34.
There are also no-cost solutions for tethering your mobile phone. If you have a Treo 755p or Treo 700p and want to tether to a Windows 2000 or Windows XP computer, you can download the Palm Tethering Software. It uses the USB sync cable as the connector to the laptop. The software will work with Alltel, Bell, Cellular South, or Telus networks. It will not work with Verizon or Sprint, which provide their own software. You can find links to instructions on the Palm Tethering site. The software will not work with Mac OS.
Some phones have the capabilities to tether to a laptop built in. The Palm Centro has software for tethering over Bluetooth included on the device. Windows Mobile 6 offers Internet Sharing, a built-in application that allows your mobile phone to act as a high-speed modem for your laptop with either a Bluetooth wireless or a cable connection. If you have access to a UTMS or HSDPA network, you can use the voice and data connection simultaneously.
For BlackBerry mobile phones there's Tethered Modem software. Their website includes a list of BlackBerry devices that have wireless modem functions. The website also includes a link to detailed instructions for setting up your connection.
Nokia has solutions for tethering your Nokia Symbian mobile phone to your PC or your Mac. By downloading Nokia PC Suite or iSyncIt for the Mac you can use your mobile phone to connect your laptop to the Internet. On your PC, you can use Nokia PC Suite's One Touch Access application as a modem to create a network connection to the Internet. A connection can be established via cable, infrared or Bluetooth wireless technology. iSync on the Mac allows a connection via Bluetooth or the USB port. Many mobile phones are supported on both platforms. Visit the website for a list of phones and detailed instructions of how to make the connection.
SUPPORTING TWO LAPTOPS
The above solutions provide a way to use your mobile phone to connect a single laptop to the Internet. But what if you are like us, a two laptop family? There are a couple of solutions that allow you to use a single mobile phone to connect multiple laptops to the Internet at the same time.
One way is to use one of the laptops as a gateway. To do this, connect the mobile phone to one of the laptops and use the Windows Internet Sharing software on the laptop to share the connection with others. Detailed instructions for doing this can be found on the Microsoft website. Another excellent article can be found on the Practically Networked website.
Cradlepoint Technology has a set of router products that can use a mobile phone to create a Wi-fi hotspot. You connect your mobile phone's USB plug into one of Cradlepoint's routers and it then becomes a Wi-fi hotspot that can be used by all of your laptops. This is an excellent solution. We've tried it and it works, although not all mobile phones and carriers are currently supported.
However, Cradlepoint has ingeniously allowed new updates to be downloaded from their website, so your router can support additional mobile phones as they add them. Cradlepoint has a variety of products - including some that are battery powered and some that will also allow you to plug in an aircard. If you need to do this, check them out.
Before our latest cruise we aquired a MiFi card from Verizon and have found it works great. MiFi is a personal Wi-fi hotspot that allows up to 5 Wi-fi devices to connect simultaneously within a 30 foot radius. It's a tiny, battery powered EVDO modem, about the size of a credit card. It requires a Verizon data plan, we choose the 5 GB plan for $60 per month. The device cost $99 with a two year contract. However, Verizon does allow you to turn off the plan when you are not using it - a nice feature for part-time cruisers. They simply extend the time to the end of your contract.
We found the battery lasts a couple of hours under use. It is simple and relatively quick to recharge using either AC or DC power. All in all we have found it to be highly reliable and have had good fast Internet connections most anywhere we have been. Versions of the MiFi card are now available through Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
- 01 - Introduction
- 02 - Boost Your Signal
- 03 - Locating Cell Towers
- 04 - Calculating Line Loss
- 05 - Navigation
- 06 - Adding a GPS
- 07 - Memory Cards
- 08 - Weather Forecasts
- 09 - Tides and Currents
- 10 - Other Applications
- 11 - Connecting a Laptop
- 12 - How to Buy a Phone
- 13 - Palm OS
- 14 - Windows Mobile
- 15 - Apple's iPhone
- 16 - Blackberry & Symbian
- 17 - Bluetooth Headsets
- 18 - Power Accessories
- 19 - The Bahamas