Over the last year or so, I’ve been subjected to extensive travel and the occasional unorthodox office arrangement. That means I’ve had to find a way to work effectively without a reliable and constant internet connection. Easier said than done. For a while, I did the coffee shop and library thing but eventually came to my senses and realized that working on an open wireless network is a worse idea than the Tupac hologram. So I decided to look in to some of the “hotspot” devices that Verizon offers to see if they could hook me up with what their ads claim to provide, i.e., secure internet everywhere.

The DROID Hotspot

For the uninitiated, a “mobile hotspot device” is a gadget that provides a wireless signal for your laptop, iPad or anything else. Smartphones are now able to provide this same service with a “hotspot” feature built-in. So, rather than carrying around an extra device (see below) to provide a wireless signal, you can use any newer smartphone to double as a wireless internet source. This is a pretty awesome feature, but only when it works.

I tried to use this feature on two different Motorola DROID X phones, and it worked miserably both times. On one phone, the signal would drop off about every five minutes, requiring reconnection. On the other phone, the hotspot software would shut the phone down after about ten minutes. But man, when it worked, it was an awesome ten minutes. Mobile hotspot? More like, COLDSPOT, amirite you guys?

I realize that tons of new phones with better capability have been released by all the major providers since my crappy DROID X came out (Verizon has replaced mine 3 times), but I definitely walked away with a sense that hotspot features on some smartphones can be pretty flaky and unreliable. And if you are relying on an internet connection for work, you might want to have a device that you know will work every day and in most locations. My particular smartphone didn’t provide that reliability.

Now, I fully realize that a lot of people have had luck with their smartphones as hotspot devices. Good for them. If it works on a consistent basis and can provide a good enough connection for you to get your work done, then that’s great. But for those of us with cell phones that don’t live up to the task, there are other options.

The MiFi Device

I occasionally have to work in an office without internet access. Because my bosses feel bad for saddling me with this devastating first-world problem, they gave me a Verizon MiFi Mobile Hotspot device so that I could connect to the wonderful world of email and Google. It works like gangbusters. The connection is pretty fast as wireless goes, and I hardly ever experience drops. It also connects to a workplace VPN without a problem.

The device itself is fairly cheap, though, as is the case with any phone or wireless device, the cost comes in the form of 2-year contracts and service/data usage fees. Niki Black wrote about a similar device that she got on Amazon for $0.01, so the initial investment can be nominal. The question is whether you want to sign up for an additional contract and data usage fee on top of the one you are already paying for on your cell phone.

This is where the math comes in, because the one downside in all of this is that you will in all likelihood have to pay some kind of fee for the mobile broadband service that comes with connecting to the internet through a hotspot. It may make more sense for you to use the smartphone that you already have, but that depends on the quality of service. If you don’t have a smartphone, or if the one you have is terrible, a simple MiFi device could be a viable option.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vorty/172846344/)