I've been using PDAs and Smartphones for longer than I care to remember. Since trading in my Filofax in the early 1990s my life has existed in Cyberspace on a Psion 3, Psion Series 5, HP Journada, various Orange Smartphones and over the last two years on my iPhone 3G and now my iPhone 4. All these gadgets have had connections to laptops and desktops, initially Windows, but now everything exists in Apple Space.
The better these toys get, the more I find I'm reliant on them - from keeping track of expenses, looking up passwords, linking back to my Pogoplug and its disks back at home, to route finding, on-line timetables, and of course social networking and mail - I can do nearly everything I need to do on my iPhone and link it back to my iMac or MBP when back at base, wherever that may be.
Which means that there are times when I'm completely and utterly screwed - especially when I'm abroad. The old O2 unlimited data plan may have been replaced by a more restrictive 500Mb allowance, but this is simply luxurious when you are abroad, with prohibitive roaming charges and exorbitant wireless fees for anything more than very casual access. And without liberal access to data, the iPhone (or any other Smartphone for that matter) becomes little more than any other phone on the market, except it's much more painful having all those apps at your fingertips that you can't or daren't use.
What you need is a personal WiFi space around you which provides you with a mobile lifeline to Cyberspace. In the UK 3 have led the way with their MiFi device which is a 3G device that generates a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. But this is locked to 3, and as soon as you step out of the UK you get hit by those evil roaming charges once again. launch2net (see the review from earlier this year) allows you to generate a WiFi hotspot but it means dragging a laptop around with you which is not a particularly mobile solution - it's a bit of a throwback to the days when mobile phones came with batteries the size and weight of a car battery.
There is an alternative to the 3 MiFi solution which costs a similar amount but does the same job without tying you to a specific network. Enter - stage right - the Zoom 3G Wireless Travel Router.
The Zoom device allows you to plug in (almost) any 3G USB stick and will then generate a WiFi hotspot from the 3G signal. I've had mine for about a fortnight and it's had a huge impact on my life here in Zurich. I can use the translation programme while I'm in the supermarket (my German is non-existent). I can do currency conversions using the latest Forex data rather than week old rates. I can get train and tram times before I leave the office so that I don't have to hang around the tram stops in the rain. I can see Twitter at work (a social networking free environment) and get my mail without having to fire up the laptop.
The Zoom 3G Wireless Router is not as elegant (pretty) as the 3 MiFi, but it is downright functional. The box is about 4 x 3in and an inch thick. It weighs just under 5 oz with the battery. The photo below shows a size comparison to the 3G iPhone. The unit is supplied with a rechargeable battery which lasts about 3 hours in a single go, and takes a couple of hours to recharge from the power adaptor (also supplied). The router can run from the mains if required. LEDs on the top panel show power/charge status, USB connection, Wireless on, and Ethernet connection. An on/off switch is located at the rear of the unit, alongside an Ethernet port. As shown above the 3G dongle fits into the USB socket on one side of the box. While this looks a bit ungainly, the connection is good, and I've never had the dongle fall out, despite having the unit sitting in a rucksack pocket and in my trouser pocket.
Router configuration is very simple. It's easiest to connect the unit to your computer via the ethernet cable, plug in the dongle, power up and then set your browser to point to http://192.168.1.1 which will load up the configuration page for the device. A Wizard is available to quickly get you up and running, and allows you to modify the configuration manager password, choose a security method for protecting your WiFi hotspot and assigning a password if necessary, and finally for setting up the dongle/ISP settings - APN, username and password, and PIN. Some of these will be provided with your dongle, others are easily available from the internet. You will have to go through this configuration every time you change the dongle. If you use the same dongle all the time the device retains the settings.
There a numerous other configuration options available through the configuration page advanced settings but I've not really investigated these. Everything I need can be achieved through the wizard. I regularly change 3G dongles and configuration literally takes 30 seconds between changes. For those of you concerned about security (which should be all of you!), the router can handle WEP, WPA and WPA2 protocols. And while on the subject of protocols, the router supports 802.11n/g and b wireless capabilities.
The Zoom travel router has proved to be one of my best buys of the last few years. Inevitably there are going to be places where it won't work because no 3G signal is available. I very much doubt I'll be able to use it on most of the train journey between the East Midlands and London on which none of my connections seem to work for very long, but when you are out of range of a wireless hotspot in town there shouldn't be any problems. It really comes into its own as soon as you go abroad, especially for iPhones, iPads and other smart gadgets which need live data to truly make them smart. Zoom also produce a 3G dongle which is not locked - so with the pair of gadgets, all you need to do when you go to a new country is buy a PAYG SIM card and you should be up and running in no time.