For road warriors, an ultraportable laptop is only as good as its Web connection. Sure you could latch on to open Wi-Fi networks, but one of your best bets for on-the-go connectivity is a solid USB modem. AT&T recently updated its sole USB option, with the AT&T Beam ($19.99 with 2-year contract). It’s a minor upgrade from its predecessor, the AT&T USBConnect Momentum 4G, but it does come in at half the price and offers a few useful additions. The Beam is your only choice on AT&T, but it’s an excellent performer and earns our Editors’ Choice award for USB modems on the carrier.
Design, Setup, and Plans
The Beam shares a clear resemblance to the Momentum—it’s a 2.6-by-2-by-0.46-inch black plastic dongle with a swiveling metal arm that houses the USB connector. The design can impede adjacent USB slots, but AT&T includes an adapter and extension cable that’s useful for laptops with cramped ports. The back cover easily slides off to reveal the SIM card slot and the microSD card slot—a useful add-on, especially if you frequently use microSD cards with your smartphone or tablet. Our 32 and 64GB SanDisk card worked fine during my tests.
On the front is a 0.95-inch, 96-by-64-pixel LCD that shows signal strength, connection type, and a bar that indicates how much data you’ve used from your monthly allotment. It’s a useful addition for monitoring your data usage.
Setup is as simple as plugging the Beam in and following the on-screen prompts. I tested on Windows 7 and Windows 8 laptops, both of which automatically installed the appropriate drivers. You can then install the option AT&T AllAccess device manager, which lets you monitor usage and set the network type. On Windows 8 devices, you can find an AT&T Live Tile that also shows usage stats. After you’re all set up, you’ll have to go to your network settings in Windows and select the Beam under Mobile Broadband Connections. Macs are not supported.
You can buy the Beam with a 2-year contract for $19.99, but you’ll be locked into AT&T’s only option for monthly data: a $50-per-month plan that includes 5GB of data with the option to pay $10 for every 1GB more. Current AT&T customers can utilize the carrier’s Mobile Share plans, which start at $20 per month for 300MB shared across all your mobile devices and an additional $20 per month for each connected device. Mobile Share plans range from the aforementioned 300MB plan all the way up to a 50GB plan for $500. All Mobile Share plans already include unlimited talk and text for your mobile phones, and you can get a middle-of-the-pack 6GB plan for $90 per month, plus the $20 per month for every connected device.
The Beam is also available off-contract for $169.99 with access to AT&T’s prepaid DataConnect plans. AT&T offers three options: 100MB for $15, 300MB for $30, and 1GB for $50. These plans are also only active for 30 days or until your data runs out.
Performance and Conclusions
In my tests, the Beam took about 20 seconds to establish a connection to AT&T’s network after being plugged in. It will automatically connect to the fastest network available, with LTE as the fastest and HSPA+ 21 as a fallback. The Beam also supports slower 3G connections and is global-ready for international roaming in more than 220 countries.
I tested in various locations around New York City, with the AT&T Unite mobile hotspot on hand for comparison. The Beam averaged just over 8Mbps down and about 3.5Mbps up. That’s faster than the Unite’s 6Mbps down, but there’s some loss of speed when you’re dealing with a Wi-Fi hotspot as opposed to a direct USB connection. Either way, the Beam is going to get you fast speeds on AT&T’s 4G LTE network.
The Beam is your only option on AT&T for USB modems, but it’s a good one, provided you don’t use a Mac. It’ll get you fast 4G LTE speeds, has a useful display for monitoring usage, and supports microSD cards as an added bonus. All of that earns it our Editors’ Choice award for USB modems. If you are a Mac user, you can still get connected on the go with a mobile hotspot like the MiFi Liberate or AT&T Unite.
|Cellular Technology||GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, LTE, HSPA+ 21, GSM|
|Bands||850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc