Staying connected on the move has never been easier. Whether you need it for business or entertainment, mobile broadband can now provide a high performance portable internet link at speeds which are beginning to challenge fixed line broadband.

But there’s now a wide array of options for getting online with mobile broadband so the first step is choosing the right hardware, the right network and the right package. Matt Powell from Broadband Genie guides you through the options below.

What you need to use mobile broadband

Generally your choice of mobile broadband hardware will come down to one of four options.

Mobile broadband dongle

A simple USB dongle provides connectivity to a single computer at a time. The key advantage is price, as these are very cheap or free on many contracts. But most of the time they’re only compatible with Apple Mac and Windows computers and are not designed to share the mobile internet connection. So, perfect if you just want to use a laptop with mobile broadband but not suitable for tablets or other devices.

Wi-Fi dongle

A Wi-Fi dongle, also known as pocket Wi-Fi or MiFi, is a mobile broadband device which provides connectivity over a Wi-Fi link rather than USB. This means it will work with any hardware that supports Wi-Fi (such as tablets, laptops and games consoles) and allow the connection to be easily shared with others – typically a Wi-Fi dongle supports 5-10 users at a time. They are more expensive up-front, however, and need to be kept charged if you wish to use the dongle without having it plugged into a USB cable.

Mobile broadband enabled tablets

Tablets like the Apple iPad can be purchased with built-in support for mobile broadband. Just pop in a SIM and you’re ready to go. The upside is you don’t require any additional hardware and it’ll just work out the box, but it also makes the tablet itself much more expensive and the connection cannot be shared with any other devices. Broadband Genie has a dedicated guide to tablets with mobile broadband contracts that dives deeper into the available options.

Tethered smartphone

Modern smartphones include a Wi-Fi tethering feature which essentially turns them into Wi-Fi dongles, sharing the network link over a Wi-Fi network you can configure and control via the phone’s interface. While this can be among the cheapest ways to get mobile broadband – since you already own the hardware and have a deal with the network – you do need to confirm that your contract permits tethering. Some packages include data for tethering but others may need an additional fee. You’ll also need to keep control of usage when tethering as it can be easy to blast through a small data cap this way and get hit with a nasty extra charge on your bill.

Coverage and speeds

Mobile broadband needs a strong signal to perform at its best so if possible you should check network coverage before buying. This is obviously tricky if you’re travelling around the country, but at the very least you can see if there’s a signal in the areas you know you’ll be visiting regularly.

3G mobile broadband is widespread across the UK so you can rely on it to some degree, though there are still plenty of areas where it won’t be available. If you’re out in the countryside there may be no mobile signal, and when travelling by train or car you’ll find the connection to be unreliable as you pass rapidly between areas of varying coverage. 3G typically provides a speed of just a few megabits, which is plenty for web browsing and email but can make large file transfers tedious, though there are now upgraded 3G services provided by some network operators which allow 3G to run faster than ADSL home broadband.

4G mobile broadband is relatively new to the UK and as such the coverage is far patchier in comparison to 3G. Many towns and cities now offer 4G but outside the busier areas you’ll probably find it’s not available. 4G can be very quick, but prices of both the hardware and deals may be higher and unless you’re often in 4G areas you’ll frequently end up falling back on 3G.

Guest post from Matt Powell Broadband Genie