3 Mobile Broadband
27th May 2008 | 13:43
High-speed mobile internet on your laptop is but a dongle away
British people love hunting only one thing more than foxes - free WiFi hotspots.
Such is our annoyance that our American cousins can find them all over the place, and our contempt for the "please enter your credit details for an hour's access!" messages, that all but the busiest company-credit-card-toting suits actually use such services.
Besides, who wants to get their big, creaky laptop out in the middle of a city anyway?
Well, with the move to smaller sub-notebooks such as the Asus Eee PC, HP Mini-Note and the MSI Wind, there's now a much more realistic demand for internet access on the move.
Over the last 12 months, mobile network providers like 3, T-Mobile and O2 have woken up to this. And equipped with their new HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access)-enabled mobile phone masts, they're offering 'mobile broadband' on your PC for a monthly fee.
3 Mobile Broadband offers a solid selection of data packages: £15 a month will get you 3GB of downloads - the same offer as both Vodafone and Orange - whereas £25 will get you a whopping 7GB, beating the competition in the number of gigabytes offered.
There's also a £10 option for 1GB, though this doesn't represent such good value for money - and a number of 'Pay As You Go' options, meaning you're not fixed into a contract and just top up on Gigabytes when you're hitting the road.
The deal gets exactly twice as tantalising if you're already a 3 mobile customer; you'll get the contract packages for half price for the duration of the contract.
This offer is so strong that if you're not a heavy internet user and don't need the speed, it may well work out cheaper to use 3 Mobile Broadband instead of a home broadband connection.
The modem resembles an oversized USB memory stick, and while there are various colours and sizes available, there's no ExpressCard option - so the modem needs to be removed after each use.
The various 'dongles' on offer are all manufactured by Huawei, a company that currently appears to be the leading supplier of USB modems. Vodafone, O2 and Orange all use its devices for their respective mobile internet packages.
For once, this kit really is Plug-and-Play. All you get in the box is the dongle and a few throwaway leaflets - a tiny memory chip inside the dongle stores all the software and drivers required, and this is installed automatically upon first insertion.
Within a minute of plugging the USB modem in, and once you've inserted your 3 SIM card into the slot next to the USB connector, you're confronted with a 3-branded dialogue box and a large 'connect' button. Information is provided such as the speed you're getting and the best speed reached this session.
It's easily overlooked, but a mobile phone's Bluetooth connection's top speed is around 2MBps. For the first time, this becomes a bottleneck when in HSDPA-enabled areas, and connecting to 3's data network using the USB dongle was unmistakably faster than when connected to an HSDPA-enabled mobile phone via Bluetooth.
Once connected, speeds were impressive, even far away from London. In the three major cities we visited during the course of this review, we achieved an HSDPA connection with at least 1.5MBps - often getting over 3MBps.
High-speed web access
At top speed, pages loaded so fast and files downloaded so quickly that our experience was no different from using the notebook with our usual office WiFi connection - and that's an impressive feat.
While we had no issues with the service itself at all, we were slightly concerned with how hot our modem got after even a short time connected; it was uncomfortable to handle after only ten minutes of use. Heat means wasted energy, and this was reflected in the drop in our notebook's battery life.
Mobile broadband may well be finally here. It's fast, affordable and 3's 3G and HSDPA coverage is impressive.
Whether you've got an ultra-portable notebook that's missing its internet when out and about, or just want an alternative to home broadband for your desktop PC, 3 Mobile Broadband is a solid option.