A: Smartphones have become the Swiss-Army knives of the technology world and one of the most important developments in these handy devices is the ability to use them as a gateway for a computer (or other devices, such as an iPad or iPod Touch) to access the Internet.
At some point in the future, it is entirely conceivable that the only Internet connected device that most of us will use is a 4G connected smartphone (imagine eliminating the cost of your home Internet connection and voice line!), but that time is still a ways off.
4G will take a while to deploy and today’s 3G networks aren’t even close to our home Internet connections when it relates to speed, so stay tuned on that front.
The early smartphones only had one option for allowing a computer to use it to gain access to the Internet: tethering. This essentially turned the smartphone into an external modem via a USB cable or in newer phones that supported it, wirelessly via Bluetooth.
Tethering allows for a single device to connect to the phone as a means to access the Internet.
Newer phones, like the Droid X incorporate a true hotspot circuit, which means that multiple devices (5 in the case of the Droid X) can all use the phone to access the Internet simultaneously.
It’s no different than any public hotspot from the standpoint of connecting to them but unlike a public hotspot, there are limitations.
In the case of the Droid X, in order to use the device as a mobile hotspot, you must pay Verizon an extra $20 per month and are limited to 2 GBs of data (uploading or downloading).
Equally, in order to tether your computer to the iPhone 4, you must pay AT&T an additional $20 per month and be subjected to the same 2 GB limitation (iPhone 3 & 3GS users that have upgraded to iOS4 can also choose to activate the Internet tethering option for the additional charge as well).
When you tether a computer via the iPhone 4, it is possible to set the computer to additionally share its connection with others, but that can get complicated for the non-technical.
If you search the Internet, you will find lots of discussions on how to circumvent the fees charged by the carriers if you ‘root’ the Droid or ‘jailbreak’ the iPhone; both are hacks to bypass the controls embedded in the operating systems that maintain what can be done with the phones.
BE FOREWARNED: Rooting and jailbreaking violates the terms of the agreement that you signed with your cellular carriers and can void the warranty on the device and/or service agreement with your carrier.
The Droid X in particular is rumored to have a special bootloader signature that can ‘brick’ (render useless) the device if an attempt to gain root access is made. There are already postings about successful attempts to root the Droid X, but unless you are a thrill seeker or a hacker, I’d recommend that you stick to the rules.
Another major consideration when it comes to using any smartphone to access the Internet is battery life.
In my tests with the Droid X as a hotspot, the battery would run down in three to four hours, so make sure you plug the device into a power source when using it as a hotspot for extended periods of time.
Also, the Droid X will halt data access when the phone is in use, while the iPhone can continue to be used as both a phone and data device simultaneously.
Another small benefit to tethering an iPhone via a USB cable is that it continues to charge the phone while it is being used as a tethering device, but the same battery drain issue will come into play if you decide to tether via Bluetooth.
How you plan to use your smartphone as a mobile Internet service will have the biggest impact on which method is best suited for you, so if you are in a position to decide between these two, think through how you will really use it before making your decision.
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