MacBook Pro ExpressCard EVDO setup & review

  • October 14th, 2006

UPDATE: Apple updates WWAN support for Intel based Macs – Download.

Current Intel-powered Apple MacBook Pro owners share much in common. A preference for balanced computing power, OS X, and a common question concerning the tiny slot located on the left-side of their machines – what to do with an available ExpressCard slot? How about an EVDO ExpressCard?

Verizon Wireless EVDO V640 ExpressCard

While port hungry users may enjoy the idea of expanding on their peripheral accessories options with such products as the Firewire 800, multimedia read / write, USB 2.0, or SATA II ExpressCard solutions, mobile users will most likely yearn for something a little more applicable to satisfy their internet connectivity needs.

At the time of posting, the only wireless carrier offering broadband (WWAN) connectivity supporting ExpressCard users is Verizon Wireless through their BroadbandAccess service. However, with Novatel Wireless announcing support for a HSDPA solution (re: Cingular Wireless) and Sprint rolling out Rev A updates + hardware, ExpressCard broadband will be one hot connectivity option during the 2006 / 2007 year.

I managed to get my hands on a Verizon Wireless Novatel V640. Below you’ll find my personal experience(s) regarding the initial setup, thoughts, and overall impression of mobile broadband on a MacBook Pro.

Verizon Wireless V640 ExpressCard

If there is one thing that Verizon Wireless deserves, it’s credit and a pat on the back for releasing an ExpressCard solution accompanied with proprietary software – VZAccess – which supports Windows and OS X. Yes, that’s right, equal playing field for users on both sides of the fence.

VZAccess acts as a front end GUI for managing your connection on Verizon’s BroadbandAccess network. In addition, the software offers information concerning data usage for keeping tabs on the amount of data transferred to and from your computer. Rumor has it that Verizon will cancel heavy user accounts transferring upwards of 10GB of month. VZAccess manages its connection using OS X’s built-in modem meaning that your connection status is reflected in the Menu Bar with OS X’s dial-up icon. Not the most appropriate method for displaying signal strength which explains why VZAccess must constantly run as an application in your dock.

Fortunately, as of OS X 10.4.7, users can bid farewell to the included connection manager and trust in native OS support. Doing so will provide users with a much more informative signal strength monitor compared to a paltry modem phone icon + unnecessary VZAccess utility.

Native OS X EVDO card support

Apple reaffirms its strength as a no-stress computing environment by supporting EVDO connectivity without the need for additional driver installations. OS X 10.4.7 was Apple’s first OS update to support EVDO cards natively:

  • Novatel 730 (Cingular HSDPA)
  • Novatel 740 (Cingular HDSPA)
  • Sierra AirCard 580 (Verizon & Sprint)
  • Sierra PC5220 (Verizon, discontinued)
  • Novatel 620 (Verizon = V620 , Sprint = S620)
  • Novatel V640

Proof that Apple is actively developing its operating system with wireless broadband connections in mind. From the initial activation to individual carrier updates, OS X users can rely on native support for their EVDO cards.

Verizon Novatel V640 installation

After the initial excitement unboxing the pre-activated EVDO card, I immediately discovered – first hand – how stress-free the installation process was. Rather than relying on the bundled software provided by Verizon, I opted to use Apple’s latest native support for 3G communication devices.

Initial prompt after inserting the ExpressCard

After inserting the ExpressCard, OS X prompts users with the above “New Port Detected” message – Novatel Wireless EXPD CDMA. After selecting ‘Continue’, users will need to enter their admin password.

Menubar extraOnce authenticated, OS X adds a convenient Menu Bar item which proves to be far more effective and informative in contrast to the VZAccess Connection Manager. The menu option offers signal strength information as well as connection information – 1xRTT (slow) & EVDO (broadband). The downside of relying on OS X’s native card support is lack of potentially crucial information concerning the amount of data transferred.

To the dismay of some MacBook Pro users, EVDO is much different in comparison to the standard Wifi connection in that waking the machine from sleep does not automatically re-establish a connection. A 75% resolution can be accomplished by tweaking a small setting in the PPP Options for the card.

With the EVDO card inserted and connected, open ‘System Preferences > Network’ and highlight the Novatel Wireless EXPD CDMA connection. Select ‘Configure’ and navigate to ‘PPP > PPP Options…’. Within the ‘Session Options’, check the box next to ‘Connect automatically when needed’.

ppp options

Keep in mind that the “fix” above does not automatically re-establish a connection unless an outbound request is made [from your browser or email client].

Mobile broadband internet access

High-speed internet without limits. Considering Verizon’s BroadbandAccess network coverage expands over 181 major metropolitan areas, high-speed internet access is only second away.

Verizon boasts average speeds of 400-700 Kbits/sec with the network card falling back to 1xRTT of 50-100 Kbits/sec outside of the Digital Network. Fortunately, personal speed tests have far exceeded the “safe” figures provided by Verizon averaging in at 980 Kbits/sec down and 112 Kbits/sec up with 2 out of 4 bars on the signal meter. Active gamers may want to reconsider their primary motives for an EVDO card due to less than admirable pings averaging in at about 230 ms. All tests conducting using Speakeasy.

Daily usage and thoughts

Having accessed high speed EVDO networks regularly via DUN (dial-up network) via tethering using USB and Bluetooth, neither compares to the simplicity and improved connection speed of an ExpressCard EVDO modem.

Those hesitant to dive into the wireless broadband bed with Verizon due to unflattering small print found within the TOS:

Unlimited NationalAccess/BroadbandAccess cannot be used: (1) for uploading, downloading or streaming of movies, music or games; (2) with server devices or with host computer applications, including, without limitation, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, telemetry applications, automated functions or any other machine-to-machine application; or (3) as a substitute or backup for private lines or dedicated data connections.

Rest assured that as of consistent usage on my part, Skype, iChat video conferencing, and YouTube videos work and load as they should. Keep in mind that although there are no real bandwidth figure limitations (5-10 GB?) made certain by Verizon, there are real world examples of Verizon cancelling accounts due to “questionable” amounts of data usage.

My personal thoughts on the matter? If Verizon feels the need to cancel an account due to heavy bandwidth usage, their loss. With Sprint and Cingular readying their wireless broadband solutions, Verizon may want to reconsider kicking their customers to the street. Mixed reports from the message board from early termination fees being waived due to Verizon cancelling accounts, to CSR’s pestering cancelled account holders with additional fees. Proceed with caution and weigh your options. Again, at the time of posting, Verizon Wireless is the only carrier to offer an ExpressCard solution for high speed wireless internet access.

If you’re considering Verizon BroadbandAccess, check out Booster-Antenna for $80 savings on the ExpressCard as well as exhaustive resources on the sister-site EVDOinfo and EVDOforums. If you do happen to order through Booster-Antenna, it won’t hurt to say that Derek Punsalan sent you. The trio of sites are definitely the places to go for EVDO Apple support, questions, and concerns.

To view the entire series of Verizon Wireless Novatel ExpressCard photographs, check out the Flickr ExpressCard tag. Alternatively, feel free to digg this.

I don’t have an ExpressCard

Don’t feel left out from the wireless broadband movement just because you don’t have an ExpressCard. Mobile handset tethering has been around for quite some time. Check with your wireless carrier and weight your options. Oftentimes, tethering your current mobile handset with a paired data plan proves to be far more cost effective than purchasing a data-only ExpressCard.

For those that prefer to go the dedicated data-card route but lack an empty ExpressCard slot, check out the Franklin CDU-550 USB EVDO modem ($270) with Sprint coverage ($59-$79 for unlimited data). This slick little USB-powered modem works on both Windows and Apple hardware. Thankfully, the included native 3G support in OS X supports the Franklin USB modem out of the box unlike Windows users who must load the included data access manager.

Get the Best Software for your Computer

Take advantage of all your computer has to offer with the best software for the job. Whether you are in need of great educational software for your kids or you have your eye on some emboridery software make sure you get the right program for your needs.