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October 22, 2011 • Reviews

Review: TruConnect ‘Pay as You Go’ Laptop/Tablet Internet Service

Recently I stopped carrying a laptop with me when we do family travel: my Android smartphone, iPad and iPod are enough to allow me to do everything I need wherever we go. There is almost always free WiFi available, and if not I have my smartphone.

But what about those in an area without WiFi access, or those who want to use a laptop or tablet in a car? For them there are wireless hotspots such as the MiFi available from most carriers – but those all require expensive monthly access charges with huge overage fees.

What about the lighter user who wants the access – but not the $50 monthly fee (what it would cost on my carrier, Verizon)? TruConnect now offers a ‘Pay for what your use’ service based on either a USB laptop dongle or a MiFi device. They were kind enough to offer me a MiFi with a $20 credit to test the service – so let’s see how it did!

The Hype:
Pay for what you use With TruConnect you don’t need to pay for an expensive monthly plan or bundle of megabytes that you may or may not use. And it doesn’t matter if you use a little more one month or nothing the next. TruConnect lets you pay just for what you use. It’s ideal for the casual or occasional user. Simply keep your device in your bag and then pull it out when you need mobile internet access. “Pay by the megabyte” is perfect for most users.

You can read the full press release here, or get more info from TruConnect.

The Reality:
Immediately upon hearing the basic terms of TruConnect’s deal, my first two thoughts were ‘wow that sounds expensive’, and then ‘hmmm … I wonder how that would work for my family’? You see, as I mentioned we have WiFi MOST of the time, but in the car driving places I have a 3G signal, but no one else can use that connection – well, without me signing up for an added $30 a month fee!

TruConnect sent me a MiFi to test out, with simple instructions about getting it set up and running as a personal hotspot. You attach a credit card, and when your account dips below $2 balance, you are automatically ‘topped up’ by another $10. It is a simple and painless process.

TruConnect uses the Sprint network for the 3G coverage. So … if you have good Sprint coverage you will have a good WiFi Hotspot, but if not you will deal with slow speeds and random disconnects. Since the hardware is a standard Novatel MiFi and the network is Sprint, none of this is related to TruConnect – but since I have never used Sprint in my current location (I did have Sprint and Nextel phones for my previous job in Massachusetts), I learned a lot about the coverage.

One thing all of the editors at Gear Diary and I wondered was – is this a good value? That is a tough question, but is ultimately dependent on how you use the service.

As an example, my personal account is with Verizon, which charges $50/month for a 5GB data plan on a WiFi hotspot (AT&T is priced the same, and Sprint has 3GB for $45).

If you were to actually to use 5GB of data on the TruConnect service, you would pay $200 including the $4.99 monthly fee. If you restricted your usage to be no more than the $50 charged by Verizon or AT&T, after the $4.99 monthly charge you could use just under 1.2GB.

So exactly what should you be using in terms of data? I figured that with the $20 credit provided I could use about 365MB of data (again including the $4.99 fee). As a further comparison, 250MB per month would cost ~$14.75, which is very comparable to the prepaid iPad data plan for 250MB AT&T offers – but of course that is only for the iPad.

For my general usage, I found I was using the TruConnect MiFi mostly with my iPad … and mostly for email and light web browsing. My son and I went to the Skrillex show recently, and we brought the MiFi in the car so he could access the internet from the iPad and his iPod Touch. Normally he would stream YouTube videos just for the music … but I reminded him that a 10 minute song used ~25MB of data … or roughly $1. What I told him was that he could stream to his heart’s content … or get a concert t-shirt! It is that sort of thing that puts the cost of data into perspective.

However, more recently my wife and I had the chance to go out for a nice dinner at a Bistro, and she had brought her laptop along for the drive to go online and adjust her work schedule for the upcoming weeks, since she needed to do it and didn’t want to deal with it when she got home. For the cost of less than a megabyte of data (including checking her GMail and Facebook), she took care of everything she needed without having to wait – or trying to do it on a smartphone screen!

TruConnect provides two utilities to track your usage. First, when attached to the mobile hotspot you can access the internal tracker which provides connection details for that specific connection period. I actually had some issues getting that to reliably work on the iPad at first, but have had no problem since updating to iOS 5. This method is great if you are concerned about specific usage, but not so helpful for long-term tracking.

There is also a full account status available through the TruConnect site. You login, and check your account, and you get a listing of every billing to your account. You can even match these to your notes from the hotspot monitor if you are concerned about billing accuracy. One time I was concerned about whether I was using excessive data waiting for the TruConnect monitor on the iPad; I checked my account and found no unusual data billing, so I assume it was just timing out. If you tend to use the MiFi a few minutes here or there, you might find it overwhelming to go through pages of charges per month, but it is nice to see a detailed and accurate accounting of your usage.

So in the end, TruConnect absolutely delivers on their claims of a simple device, easy setup and configuration, and clear pricing of as little as $4.99 per month. Beyond that, every person needs to make their own value judgement in terms of the data fees. For light or occasional use, you can get 250MB for less than $15 a month, but once you break 1GB of monthly data you might be better off with a full access plan. The good news is that you have no contract and no termination fees – you own the MiFi (or USB access point), so you cancel your service if your data needs become too great and move on to a larger data plan.

And to me that is where TruConnect delivers best – by providing nationwide service through Sprint, reasonably priced equipment, and a reasonably monthly and per-MB rate that works fine for moderate data usage but without ever tying you to a contract or other obligation.

Review: TruConnect ‘Pay as You Go’ Laptop/Tablet Internet Service

Where to Buy: TruConnect

Price: $4.99 + $0.039/MB. MiFi is $89.99, USB is $69.99

What I Like: Low price if you are a light user; decent price for hardware; Sprint service for coverage; No contract

What Needs Improvement: If you use loads of data it can get VERY expensive VERY quickly!

Source: TruConnect provided a loaner MiFi unit with $20 credit

6 Responses to " Review: TruConnect ‘Pay as You Go’ Laptop/Tablet Internet Service "

  1. Anonymous says:

    Virgin Mobile has prepaid $10 for 100 MB and $20 for 500 MB (this one being cheaper than TruConnect) plans, and that’s also running on the Sprint network. Admittedly, the MiFi is $60 more with Virgin Mobile, but you can always buy one off of eBay for less, and seeing how Virgin is owned by Sprint, you don’t have to worry about your prepaid provider (because VM is pretty profitable for Sprint, so if VM goes away odds are TC wouldn’t have a network to run on!).

    Also, if you only need to connect an iPod Touch plus one other device, you could get the Peel 3200 from Virgin Mobile for $30, which allows for one WiFi connection.

  2. TruConnect Mobile says:

    Remember with Virgin Mobile that 500 MB expires after 30 days whether you use it or not. With TruConnect you only pay for the 500 MB if you use the full 500 MB. With TruConnect you will never have 1 MB of data expire.

  3. Thanks for pointing out Virgin Mobile – it is always great to know about alternatives.

    The distinction is important – if you are someone with a consistent but low data usage, then the Virgin Mobile plan might be best.  But if you have low but sporadic usage you are likely to lose money.  This happened when we had a pay-as-you-go phone for my son for a while – when he needed it the minutes always seemed to expire!  So in that case the TruConnect plan makes more sense … something for everyone!

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