MacBook Pro ExpressCard EVDO setup & review

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.

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Discuss - 23 Comments

  1. Looking nice. I was surprised you even got close to 1mbit. My area’s network must suck because with my experience with Verizon’s EVDO and Cingular’s EDGE, I get 200-300kbits/sec. =/ But alas, the fine print is crappy.

  2. Derek says:

    I was going to ask if you were certain you were within the Digital Network coverage area but remembered that if you weren’t, your speeds would have been drastically slower 50-100 kbits/sec. Strange network coverage for sure.

  3. Derek says:

    It really is too bad that nothing like this is available in Canada yet. 🙁

    Sprint offers data roaming in Canada and Mexico at slower 1xRTT and broadband speeds (depending on roaming agreements) – all without roaming. [Example?] It might be too much of a hassle to setup a US billing address and experimenting with your roaming luck. You might want to hold off a little bit though as I am sure that Novatel has agreements with Telus to carry its line of ExpressCard units.

  4. Andre says:

    It really is too bad that nothing like this is available in Canada yet. 🙁

  5. Rob says:

    Why get an express card from Verizon when you can get a USB rev. A device from Sprint?
    Then you can use it on any USB compatible computer, and sprint coverage which is twice as good as verizon.

    I sugest you look at evdoforums.com

  6. Derek says:

    I’m assuming you’re referring to the Franklin USB EVDO modem? I’ve already taken a look at that device. While the ExpressCard may protrude out the side of of the MacBook Pro about an inch, the Franklin device sticks out much farther.

    I’m crossing my fingers holding out for the HSDPA hardware to roll out on Cingular.

  7. Rick says:

    Having played with these cards over the last few weeks I have to point out one thing I think you missed.

    The quality of the signal affects the throughput very heavily. I could tell without looking how many bars of signal I had both with and without the VZAccess software.

    http://ricktech.blogspot.com/

  8. Dan says:

    I just got the new blackberry 8100 “pearl” which allows me to connect through bluetooth and access the EDGE network. I have clocked speeds using c-net with three bars of signal at 200kbps. This feat is pretty impressive because it is FREE with the unlimited blackberry data plan. If you don’t know already that data service only costs $20 compared to Verizon at $40 and Verizon charges $15 on top of that for USB tethering. Just a bit of advice.

  9. Eli says:

    I have to second what Dan said about tethering the pearl. Being from the land of Comcast, I am very familiar with my cable connection going out, leaving me stranded without digg for minutes, even hours!!

    With my handy blackberry pearl, my macbook, and fibble’s modem script, I get upwards of 200k included with my $20 data plan. Apart from the script, seamless integration with OS X via Internet Connect.

    (p.s. my pink for october theme is out, sans comments and trackbacks. you have GOT to quit pumping out these themes. I’m going nuts trying to keep up.)

  10. Derek says:

    I retract my previous comment concerning the Franklin USB modem. It doesn’t look like that device is Rev A. Correct me if I’m wrong…

  11. Derek says:

    There are real problems trying to use this card with Parallels and Cisco VPN on the OS X side.

    I’m assuming you’re already watching this thread on EVDOforums? There seems to be a beta fix for Mac VPN / Cisco users being tested while a VPN solution from Equinox is currently available.

  12. Chad says:

    There are real problems trying to use this card with Parallels and Cisco VPN on the OS X side.

    I can use VPN on my bootcamp side, but this is a real PITA. I’m hoping they get this issues worked out soon so I can drop bootcamp all together.

  13. Tom G. says:

    Can anyone confirm that you can be a portable hotspot by turning on Internet sharing?

  14. Derek says:

    I can confirm that internet sharing does work using the ExpressCard through the Airport.

  15. EVDO Guy says:

    Great content here!

    For those that want to switch back between using the native 10.4.7 EVDO drivers and VZAccess, be sure to check out:

    Access for VZAccess and 10.4.7 native drivers

    VZAccess for Mac OS X and 10.4.7, Do Not Play Well Together

  16. Wm. Cerniuk says:

    I have been running this card for some time. Verizon’s general wireless service is not as good as Cingular but the network speeds for 3G are better. Also, built in drivers for this card tend to cause kernel panics; is the only time my Mac crashes is when this card has botched up the menu. Last, if your machine begins to get hot or seem sluggish and the processor gets overloaded, check Activity Monitor. If “System Events” is eating up 30 to 190% of your CPU (two processors = 200%) then you can blame the built in driver. Simply force quit System Events. It will clear the menu bar on the right and it will get relaunched. The system will then return to normal.

  17. Derek says:

    Odd that you should report such problems with the drivers. Generally, I have managed to run this card continuously for hours on end without problems. Funny that I actually had better performance using the built-in drivers rather than installing the package with the Verizon installation disk.

  18. Russ says:

    Same problem here with the CPU hitting 100% on one core. Fans blaze and you must quit Access Manager for it to stop.

  19. Mike says:

    With my handy blackberry pearl, my macbook, and fibble’s modem script, I get upwards of 200k

    Verizon does not support all BB’s and Mac’s as a tethered modem
    I have been trying to help a friend with the pearl to mac modem connection. Will you share your “fibble” script? I would be very greatful and excited.
    8100 pearl user with tmo and verizon 7130e user

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