While the idea of unplugging while away on vacation sounds appealing, the harsh reality is that many cannot stay offline for long. Emails pile up, tweets go unread, and Facebook pics of your friends’ cute kids and fabulous meals go unseen.
Fortunately, it’s virtually impossible to lose all connectivity, unless you are really trying to do so, and with minimal investment and a bit of effort, you can connect not only your mobile devices, but your laptop as well.
The easiest way to log in is via a free and open Wi-Fi hotspot. Coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, hotel lobbies, and a growing number of public parks offer free Wi-Fi. The connection is typically too slow to stream significant media or download large email attachments, but it’s often fast and stable enough to check email and catch up on news.
Before heading away, do a bit of research to find the free spots near where you’ll be staying. The Jiwire Wi-Fi finder registry lists more than 825,000 such spots in 145 countries at the time of this writing, and is very likely the best.
A quick online search reveals dozens of others, and mobile apps too, including JiWire’s, Hotspotting, and Wada.
As with any open network, private or public, be aware of any security concerns. You’ll likely be fine reading ESPN.com, but play it safe and leave the online banking for when you return. Also, be polite and courteous. If you are going to use a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, please buy a cup or two in return.
You likely don’t need to find a hotspot, so long as you have a relatively new smartphone and cell signal. Android (version 2.2 and later), iOS (iOS 4 and later) Windows Phone 8, and BlackBerry (6.1 and later) devices support tethering, and that includes most new smartphones purchased within the last two or three years.
Through tethering, laptops and other devices can piggyback off a smartphone’s data connection. The smartphone can act as a personal hotspot, similar to a MiFi, or devices can connect via Bluetooth or a USB cable.
Naturally, there are some restrictions. If you have a Verizon Share Everything plan or AT&T Mobile Share plan, the smartphone hotspot feature is free and data consumed counts against your total plan. Those on the Sprint Unlimited Data plan must pay $20 per month for 2GB of tethering data, or $50 for 6GB. Generally speaking, T-Mobile offers free tethering with most of its Simple Choice Plans, but adds restrictions in terms of data amounts.
From there, costs vary depending on a number of factors, including your plan and whether or not you are grandfathered into an old unlimited data contract.
For those without the free hotspot feature, there are other options. There are many tethering apps available in Google Play, which enable free wired, Bluetooth, and hotspot tethered connectivity, and are a way around any potential carrier fees. EasyTether and FoxFi are two that work particularly well. Carriers have been known to pull them from Google Play, but they are typically still available online and in third-party app stores, and can be installed with minimal hassle.
There are varieties of old tethering apps for BlackBerry, but TG can’t confirm if they work as a go-around for BB10. The same goes for Windows Phone 8. iOS users are definitely out of luck however. Apple strictly forbids tethering apps in its App Store, though sometimes an inconspicuous app sneaks in with a hidden tethering feature, but quickly gets pulled once sites like Brighthand start reporting on it.
Once again, be mindful of your data consumption while tethering. One notebook checking email will likely not cause an issue, but five notebooks checking email and one uploading high-resolution vacation photos will.
What if you have a weak cell signal? Then tethering is pointless. For those devoid of connectivity, a cell signal booster may help. These can be very expensive, costing upwards of $400, but can certainly prove useful for those living or spending extended time in a deadspot. TG hasn’t tested many out, but a few fellow editors have used the Wilson Sleek 4G, which currently costs around $100 on Amazon.com, and have been impressed with its performance.
Between hotpot features and tethering apps, who needs a personal MiFi? Well, MiFi units typically allow more devices to connect (up to 10, usually), and have features for easily managing connected devices and data consumption. Also, tethering will drain your smartphone’s battery, so a dedicated device is certainly more convenient. For those on an AT&T or Verizon family share plan, MiFis cost an extra $20 to share the data, otherwise you are footing the bill for a separate data contract.
There are a bunch of MiFi units available, but the AT&T Novatel MiFi Liberate, T-Mobile Sonic 4G, and Verzion Jetpack 4G LTE Mobile Hotspot 890L are three of the best currently available.
Pay-as-you-go and contract-free MiFi units are also available, though these typically offer slower 3G speeds, which is just fine for most everything but video streaming. These include MiFis from DataJack and TruConnect, which will run as little as about $20 per month for a modest amount of data, less than 1GB, depending on usage, plus the cost of the device. Freedom Pop is another interesting and possibly inexpensive alternative. It has a freemium service that allots free data for watching adds, filling out surveys, and referring friends, in addition to paid options, plus the cost of the device, which the company claims is actually just a deposit and subject to refund. Freedom Pop is currently limited to select areas, however.
Going overseas or leaving the country? Read on to find out the least expensive way to stay connected.
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