Ever since 3G data cards first appeared on the market, prices have been tumbling. When Vodafone introduced the first 3G data card, which we reviewed way back in September 2004, it was charging a minimum monthly cost of £23, for which you got a data allowance of 75MB, while 450MB a month would cost you more than double at £53 a month. When T-Mobile came on the scene it shook things up by offering a 2GB data allowance for only £20 a month as long as you took an 18-month contract.
Vodafone then stayed ahead by offering the first USB based modem, opening up the mobile broadband market to PC Card bereft Macbook users for the first time. In due course, T-Mobile followed suit, and now we really know that the market has become mainstream with the arrival of a 3G data solution from 3 – a company that despite being predicated on the fact that it runs a 3G network, used to lock down its own handsets inside a walled garden.
3’s big selling point for its service is that in specific, ‘Turbo’ areas, its brand name for HSDPA, it can offer up to 2.8Mbps, taking it ahead of the 1.8Mpbs crowd. For this it’s charging only £10 a month for the basic package – with a 1GB of data allowance. This is available in 12, 18 and 24 month packages, the difference being the charge for the USB modem, which is £100, £80, and £50 respectively. The 12 month, £10 a month package will then cost you £220 for the year. If you want the modem for free, you have to sign up for a 24 month deal at £15 a month, which will give you 3GB a month to play with. This works out at £180 per year.
If you want to use it overseas the good news is that you can use them abroad in countries with a 3 network, without incurring any roaming charges at all, Austria, Australia, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy and Sweden. However, in countries without a 3 network, you’ll have to connect via partner networks and you can expect to pay a rather eye watering £3-£6 per MB.
Cleverly, 3 has rolled out the same packages to those with 3G or HSDPA phones capable phones, so you don’t have to pay for the modem if you don’t wish to. The USB modem though does have advantages such as the fact that it can be used on any laptop or indeed desktop PC. A relative of mine told me recently that his internet access was provided exclusively by a USB modem from Vodafone as he rents and tends to move every few months. Previously this meant he was limited to short term dial-up contracts, but now has a fast internet service without having to bother with fixed lines. On the downside, having a USB modem on a laptop dangling from a cable isn’t the most elegant solution, especially when you’re balancing the modem on your lap or have to move to another location.
The modem is the same model from Huawei that’s used by both Vodafone and T-Mobile, and is a smallish smart white oval. Black ones will be available from 7th December, but this more in vogue colour will be a limited edition of only 2000. 3 is also offering ‘skinable’ dongles, available in various colours and patterns, so if you’ve always hankered after a 3G data dongle with a Union Jack or pink polka dots, now’s your chance. Business executives, start queuing now.
There’s a small plastic insert on one side for a plastic cover onto, in which 3 has placed its branding. There’s a small slot in the side for the SIM card, and a mini USB connector at the end. In the box you’ll find a short USB cable, and a longer one that has two connectors at the end, should you hook it up to something that can’t deliver enough power over one port.
The light flashes green when it’s connecting and displays a different colour depending on the speed at which you’re connected – light blue for HSDPA, blue for standard 3G and green for GPRS. Another major bonus of having a USB device is that the modem has some flash memory inside, on which the drivers are preinstalled – making it a plug and play experience. The first time you plug it in you have to wait for the device to be recognised as a virtual CD-ROM drive but after the first time it’s a quicker process. Even so, when you plug it in you have to wait a few seconds for your machine to recognise it.
Ironically on the Mac though, it’s not simply a case of plug and play. In fact, far from it – you have to download a PDF containing complicated instructions, and you have to manually enter details – not really what you’d expect as a Mac user. While it’s good that there’s Mac support, a better user experience would have been appreciated.
When connected via HSDPA, Windows informs you that you’ve connected at 3.6Mbps – despite the fact that the maximum potential speed of the service is 2.8Mbps. This is because the hardware itself can support 3.6Mbps, and means that when the network is upgraded further the hardware should be ready, but Windows is a little misleading at this stage. Once you’re connected, the modem software interface fires up. To be honest the software doesn’t look particularly slick, but then 3’s market is rather more consumer. It provides basic information regarding your data usage, your maximum transfer speed during that session and your total data downloaded. If you remember to rest this you can keep tabs on how close you are to your data limit. Once you’re over your allotted allowance, 3 charges 10p per megabtye.
At the TrustedReviews offices I was just able to connect at no more than standard 3G speeds – so that’s 384Kbps, but at home I was in a ‘Turbo’ region, potentially giving me the full 2.8Mbps. I also tested when out and about such as while hanging around at Heathrow airport.
One thing that bothered me straight away is that the first time that I connected each day, after I typed in the address of the web site that you wish to go to, I was first taken to a page that says – “You are about to browse the Internet which is charged per MB.” I presume that this is because my press sample was set up as a basic per MB account and that users with a monthly plan would not see this.
On my initial test I noticed a decided improvement over the very old Orange standard 3G data card that I am used to. However, despite getting a few bars, which indicated quite a strong signal I noticed that frequently web pages would just stop loading and I would have to stop the page and refresh, to get it going again.
As for the advertised 2.8Mbps speeds, I’m afraid I got nowhere near that. At home I am in a ‘Turbo’ area, and the software indicated this on connecting by displaying ‘HSDPA’. As the laptop I was using didn’t want to load the Java based tool at www.thinkbroadband.com I headed off to www.speedtest.net. Selecting the London pyramid, I initially achieved a speed of 413Kbps and an upload of only 57Kbps – disappointing. The ping was 317ms, so not great for gaming. I then tried other download locations from the selection of natty looking pyramids and the fastest turned out to be Brussels, just breaking the 1Mbps barrier with a download speed of 1,097Kbps. Ok, it’s nowhere near the 2.8Mbps headline figure, but wireless internet access at speeds of 1Mbps for a tenner a month is not to be sniffed at.
I then set about doing stuff you might want to do online. Windows Live Messenger worked without issues and browsing YouTube was fine too. I also tried firing up a Torrent – uTorrent’s built-in test informed me that Port Forwarding was not set up so speeds were glacial.
Generally speaking, I was pretty pleased with the flexibility of having the 3 service, but I was only moderately impressed by the performance. With a 2.8Mbps advertised top speed I was expecting it to be lightening quick and I never really found it to be.
As such, I would be reluctant to rely on it to completely replace my fixed line – it just isn’t as fast or stable. However, if you’re just looking for something to get online with when you’re out and about on your laptop, and your usage is limited to email, and light web browsing with the occasional video, then 3’s £10 a month deal is good value.
3’s Mobile Broadband offering gives you flexible internet access for not too much cash. While at best we never got near the headline speeds of 2.8Mbps and at worst performance was lacklustre, most of the time it works well, making it the best value mobile broadband offering currently on the market.
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