Like dogs with shock collars, Wi-Fi users are constrained to a small coverage area. Stray too far and – zap – server not found. If you want unlimited browsing freedom, you could buy an expensive laptop with an EVDO modem built in, or you could upgrade your existing Cheeto-stained notebook with the $50 Sierra Wireless Compass. Yeah, you’ll pay a bit for the monthly service, but you’ll never be without a connection.
The Compass looks like a chunky USB drive, but it houses not only a microSD slot for adding some memory but also a (Sprint) EVDO modem and a GPS receiver. You won’t get blazing speeds (imagine 5 minutes to download a 10MB file), but you will get access from anywhere, plus a decent if under-featured GPS to boot. The data plans are unremarkable: $60 for 5 GB a month; $40 for a paltry 40 MB (hint: kick down the extra $20, cheapskate).
You can get up and running without a CD since all the software’s right on the Compass: Just plug it in and a virtual CD drive shows up in your system with the software ready to install. Later on, the unit appears as a micro SD slot, which supports cards up to 32 GB – future-proofing for a time where such ridiculously large memory cards exist.
When you fire up the modem software, a black window opens and you’re ready to connect. Handy meters show your signal, time spent, and data usage. But there are also tabs at the bottom for some simple applications, some GPS applets, and a VPN option (though we don’t know if this would interfere with some VPN clients). In a rare bit of altruism, one of the applications even offers the location of Wi-Fi hotspots across the U.S., should you be running low on data.
While the GPS is useful, it’s web-based and slow, and there’s no simple way to find and track your location; you must search for a business to find out where you are – unless you’re really good at determining your latitude and longitude. The chubby unit hogs the ports; good luck sliding in your wireless mouse nubbin next to it. We also found that the modem is all too eager to slip from EVDO the slower 1xRTT connection. And though it comes with a D&D style dice sack for all its accessories, you’ll probably lose the cap the first day. But don’t worry, it’s probably waiting for you at 29.9367 N, 90.1111 W.