How much data do I need?
How much mobile broadband data we need depends largely on what we're going to use it for – streaming video is obviously more data intensive than simple browsing or checking email. Some providers offer a data calculator to help take the guesswork out of deciding the best tariff for us.
As a rough guide, 500Mb of data per month is enough for up to 1,000 social media updates, or 20 hours of simple web browsing. A 2GB data limit allows for more than 100 hours of web browsing, or 90 minutes of streaming audio per day, or nine hours of audio-only Skype calls. Even a seriously social media and Youtube obsessed user should find they can get by with an allowance of less than 15GB a month.
Anyone who does get close to their limit will receive a warning text or message beforehand. Compare mobile broadband providers on their out of allowance data costs. They usually charge on a megabyte by megabyte basis - but some providers let customers buy further bundles of data, which can be a much better deal.
How much does the kit cost?
Pay monthly mobile broadband deals are available for little or no upfront cost. As with mobile phone contracts, the devices don't come free – the cost of the equipment is instead spread over the length of the deal.
Those opting for a two year contract may get their mobile broadband device almost free of charge, even if they choose one of the more expensive mi-fi hotspots. Expect initial costs to be considerably higher with a one-year deal; customers who want the flexibility of a 30-day contract should expect to pay full price for their dongle or device ahead of time.
That said, some providers give their contract customers the option of paying for a more expensive mi-fi device in full upfront, or paying what amounts to a deposit and spreading the rest of the cost over the contract, on top of the monthly data costs.
What are the different devices shown?
There are two main ways of getting online with mobile broadband: via a dongle, or via mobile wi-fi. People who want to work on just one laptop will be fine with a dongle – the slim USB stick devices shown above. The best mobile broadband deals for those who want to connect more than one device, or who want a stronger data signal for their mobile or tablet usually come in the form of mobile wi-fi, also known as mi-fi, or a pocket / portable hotspot.
Mobile broadband is also available in in-car form – thanks to the addition of a 12V charger connection on the back of the device. Plug it into the cigarette lighter and it'll provide a wireless connection for up to 10 devices. That should help keep passengers entertained, or keep the navigator up to speed with accurate directions.
Check the coverage
Mobile broadband relies on the mobile phone network to get us online. If there's no signal, we can't get online, simple as that.
Checking and comparing network coverage is therefore crucial. Each operator will have a signal strength map on their website, or there are independent coverage maps from the likes of Ofcom and Rootmetric. Ask friends and colleagues who they're with and how good their signal is, to get an idea of the best mobile broadband coverage in the area.
4G mobile broadband devices will generally offer a 3G signal if there isn't a 4G connection available, and more providers are moving towards charging the same for both 3G and 4G data. But some still charge more for their 4G-capable devices – so if cost is an issue but speed of connection isn't, a 3G dongle or mi-fi device might offer a better deal.
Some operators also offer back up for those mobile broadband notspots in the form of wi-fi access, using their own wi-fi hotspots or those of their partners. For example, O2, Vodafone, and Virgin Media all allow their pay monthly mobile broadband customers to connect to the London Underground wi-fi network free of charge.
Go back up to the mobile broadband deals