It depends on what you’re using it for. There are upsides and downsides to built-in mobile broadband and external mobile broadband.
Built-In Mobile Broadband (A Quick Recap)
The best integrated mobile broadband radios will support practically any carrier worldwide. To do that, the laptop’s radio must support GSM as well as CDMA technology. For the United States, that means Sprint and Verizon’s EVDO networks as well as AT&T’s HSPA network.
One such radio is Gobi, made by Qualcomm. Currently they’re being put into HP laptops and give some very flexible advantages.
Advantages of Built In Mobile Broadband
Besides reducing power consumption (less than some broadband cards) and better reception in some cases, there’s no card to break.
Another practical advantage is for international travelers. While being on a contract in the US with Verizon, one could travel to Europe and subscribe to a ‘pay as you go’ plan or prepaid plan.
Disadvantages of Built In Mobile Broadband
You’re gonna pay upfront for the convenience. Using HP laptops again as an example, customizing a notebook to have a 3G radio included will cost an additional $125. To throw gasoline on the fire, they’re available in the business line of laptops that range from $1,500 to $3000. Consumer range laptops ($300 – $1400) usually are given the option of mobile broadband cards.
A major disadvantage is when built-in mobile broadband is tied to only one carrier. At that point it loses big on it’s natural advantages.
Most people have laptops for more than 2 years. With built-in mobile broadband tied to one carrier, you’d most likely be locked into a 2 year contract. After that period is up, you wouldn’t have the option to switch to a network that’s improved and can better serve your needs. While your original provider may enjoy you being stuck with them for so long as you have your laptop, you probably won’t.
Advantages of External Mobile Broadband (Broadband Cards)
Price. Mobile broadband cards can usually be had for free with a 2 year service agreement. Depending on the card, you could even make up to $100 in rebates. That would pay for almost 2 months of the service.
Another advantage unique to broadband cards are extra features that come bundled. Depending on the card, it may act as a storage device for microSD flash memory. Besides working as a thumb drive, some cards also come with built-in GPS that don’t require service agreements for use. While turn-by-turn directions are not usually an option, it’s definitely handy if you’re stuck on the I-10 somewhere and need to find a nearby Wal-Mart for a much needed spare tire.
Indirectly tied to the price is the ability to ‘upgrade’ to a better network with newer cards every 2 years or so. Like cell phones, broadband cards are constantly getting better. After two years we may be looking at cards that can seamlessly go between Long Term Evolution networks (16-25 Mbps sexy download speeds) and 3G networks. Sprint, for instance, is already launching a 3G/4G modem to work on its existing network and newer WiMAX network.
Disadvantages of External Mobile Broadband (Broadband Cards)
They can break.
Of course there are steps you can take to avoid that. I cover some of them in the free E-Course Wireless Broadband Exposed (available at the end of this article). Nevertheless, if it does break, and you’ve got no insurance, you’re only options are paying for it to be fixed or looking for a new one on eBay. After all, you’re most likely without the internet. Add that to the fact that you’re stuck with a 2 year contract that’s making you pay for service you don’t use.
Not fun. Definitely not fun at all.
So Which Should I Get?
If you don’t mind shelling out the cash for an internal broadband radio by Gobi (works with multiple networks), then go for it. Otherwise, save yourself the money. Heck, even make yourself some money and get a broadband card. Technology changes rapidly and it helps to be able to upgrade easily.
You can think heavily about getting internal mobile broadband when they start making Long Term Evolution (LTE) laptop radios. Trust me, with Verizon pushing up their LTE network launch, it’ll happen.