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Novatel Wireless Ovation MC950D USB HSUPA modem

Mobile broadband in stick form

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Downloading a 7MB music file took 55.4s, an average data transfer rate of 1.01Mb/s, though Novatel's software displayed a maximum speed of 1.73Mb/s. At other times, we saw peak speeds of 1.9Mb/s. Even Vodafone admits you'll only get "typical" speeds of 1.7-5.5Mb/s, so we were just inside that range. The speed you experience depends so much on your proximity to the base-station and how many other people are sharing the overall bandwidth.

Pinging Register Hardware half a dozen times yielded an average latency of 295.3ms.

Vodafone also offers 2.1Mb/s HSUPA upload-boosting technology in its 7.2Mb/s HSDPA zones. Curiously, the Ovation didn't register this when we first plugged it in, in mid-January, around the time we were testing Vodafone's USB Modem 7.2. Now it's early February and the MC950D is emitting a cyan light, indicating that HSUPA has now been enabled on Vodafone.

We got an average upload speed of 209Kb/s - again, well short of the promised perfect-world maximum of 2.1Mb/s.

Novatel Wireless Ovation MC950D

Compact

We'd also point out that Vodafone's connection compresses web-page graphics, with the result that the picture quality drops considerably. We weren't keen on it, but some Register Hardware readers - if the comments on our Vodafone USB Modem 7.2 review are anything to go by - prefer if because it means less data's crossing the network. T-mobile does this too, but the compressions less noticeable.

Switching to T-mobile's HSDPA service, in both north and central London, we got an average speed of around 336.4Kb/s when downloading the music file, peaking at 419.6Kb/s, according to Novatel's software. Pinging Register Hardware half a dozen times yielded an average latency of 594ms.

But it's easy to be distracted by raw numbers like these. While HSDPA might not be the best technology for bulk downloading and gaming - the latency's not up to snuff - it is eminently usable as a general internet connectivity system. We found browsing, email checking and Skype on a par with the experience we get from a good public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Judging the Ovation on it's own merits, rather than a given network's performance, we're impressed. Network-permitting, there's headroom for a decent broadband experience, and as carriers roll out HSDPA at 7.2Mb/s and HSUPA support too, it'll allow you to take advantage. Under Windows XP, Novatel's software lacks elegance, but it works, and its Mac OS X support is good too. Novatel apparently also offers Linux drivers for those who favour the open source OS.

Crucially, the Ovation is compact, so it's easy to take with you and stow when it's not needed. We prefer an ExpressCard product - reviewed here just because it means you (generally) can leave the adaptor in place when you stow your laptop in a bag. But if you have no ExpressCard slot or a free PC Card bay – Novatel's ExpressCards come with a suitable adaptor – the USB alternative is no less capable. And it's the only choice if you want to connect a desktop to a HSDPA network.

The MC950D will set you back around £200, which isn't a bad price to pay for an SIM-free device that allows you to select whatever network is offering the best data deal at a given time.

Verdict

Yes, network-specific devices are cheaper, but if you want the flexibility of being able to switch HSDPA connectivity provides, you have have to pay for the privilege. The Ovation MC950D delivers that flexibility while providing decent performance and enough headroom for the fastest of today's HSDPA and tomorrow's HSUPA networks.

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Novatel Wireless Ovation MC950D USB HSUPA modem

Broadband without wires - or network ties...
Price: £200/$350 RRP

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