Vodafone Mobile Connect 'super 3G' data card
HSDPA for the masses?
Review It's been more than three years since the UK got its first 3G mobile phone network but a little less than two years since cellco Vodafone allowed its customers access to the technology. It's not hard to see why it waited: the early hype about mobile broadband quickly proved unjustified. But a last we're coming to the end of a year-long programme of metropolitan base-station updates bringing High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), and there's a chance that the promise of 3G will be realised...
HSDPA is theoretically able to deliver downloads speeds of up to 14.4Mbps, but that's some way off. Networks are staging the tweaks needed to deliver that level of throughput. Most are initially targeting 1.8Mbps, and that's what Vodafone promises for one of its first HSDPA devices, the 'super 3G' version of its Mobile Connect Data Card, now formally dubbed a "3G Broadband" product.
Vodafone-branded the card may be but it's actually made by Option - it's the Globetrotter HSDPA card. Some cards are made by Huawei, I understand, but the review sample was the Option product. The connection software comes from DigiNext. The card is a standard PC Card device and like past Mobile Connect Cards incorporates a large, red module that here pokes out almost 4cm beyond the edge of your notebook. The SIM card slides into a bay on the underside of the card. On the edge of the module you'll find a connector for an external antenna, though Vodafone no longer supplies one in the box.
Gone too is the headset socket, along with the SIM's ability to allow voice calls to be made. Presumably, Vodafone reckons the card's users will prefer VoIP, airtime terms and conditions, and usage limitations permitting. The SIM does enable text messaging, and the Mobile Connect software provides an email-like interface to manage incoming and outgoing SMS messages. Personally, I'd have like a more IM-esque SMS interface that automatically groups messages chat-style - Palm Treo works this way - but I guess Vodafone email styling will appeal more to business users.
Vodafone provides a version of its Mobile Connect software for Mac OS X users and ships the 3G Broadband card with Mac drivers. Alas, being a PC Card device, the card isn't compatible with my ExpressCard-only MacBook Pro, so I wasn't able to test the card out in my own machine. Unlike the PC release, however, the Mac software doesn't provide a texting interface - it simply defined the parameters of the connection between card and network and then uses OS X's own Internet Connect utility to open a data link.
It does at least provide usage statistics - as does the Windows version - to help you judge whether you've been tucking in to your data tariff too aggressively. The Windows code also adds links to your default email and web browser applications, and has an integrated Wi-Fi hotspot locator. This is simply a searchable list of Vodafone-affiliated hotspots. Since the 3G Datacard itself has no Wi-Fi support of its own, you'll need a suitable WLAN adaptor to connect to one.
When you're in the right place, click the software's WLAN icon to connect to a hotspot - presumably it tells the base-station to give you access as a Vodafone customer, saving you from entering your credentials through the hotspot's own web front-end. All the ones near me are McDonalds, and I didn't feel it prudent to sit beneath the golden arches and pull out almost two grand's worth of Acer Ferrari laptop to try this. The WLAN icon remains greyed out until Windows has associated your machine with the nearby access point.
But, let's be honest, the point of the card is HSDPA access - Wi-Fi's just a back-up for the slowly diminishing areas outside Vodafone's 3G zones. Right now, that's limited to London, Birmingham, Bristol, Tyneside, Merseyside, Manchester and Glasgow. Inserting the card into the notebook and running Mobile Connect for the first time allows you to select the network you're using and the country you're in. All done, up pops the main Mobile Connect interface and you're ready to click on the Mobile icon.
Connected, Windows happily reported I was on a 1.8Mbps connection, the very top end of HSDPA's current download bandwidth range. Vodafone suggests you'll typically get no more than 1.4Mbps, but even being slap bang in the centre of London - and suitably proximate to a Vodafone base-station, presumably - I got a slightly lower figure.
Trying it out with a download - the 22.9MB Windows Media Player 11 beta package - I achieved reported speeds of up to 1.3Mbps, according to Windows, or 2.1Mbps according to Mobile Connect. Numbers are all very well, but I can say the download process - and, indeed, loading web pages and getting email - felt fast. Better in fact than the office WLAN connected to a 2Mbps ADSL link. Since it's the broadband backhaul and not the Wi-Fi speed that really governs how fast a hotspot's internet link is, I'd say the 3G card is going to give you better performance than many a public WLAN, especially if the hotspot is being used by others.
Outside Vodafone's metropolitan HSPDA zones and beyond the reaches of its 3G network, the Mobile Connect card can go online using GPRS. You can set the card to favour any kind of mobile phone network connection, right down to dial-up over GSM. The Option card has EDGE support, but Vodafone's documentation doesn't mention this technology.
Upload speeds can reach 384Kbps, so big file transfers from your machine are faster than they were under 'old' 3G - up to 128Kbps - but these are both raw radio speeds and real-world performance, after error checking and other protocols come into play, is much lower and didn't feel anywhere near as quick as downloads did.
Then there's pricing. The card itself costs £49 or £99 depending on your data tariff, of which there are three, costing £25, £45 and £95 a month respectively. The cheapest bundles 250MB of data transfer each month, with the rest costing £1 a meg. The other to are 'unlimited' in the UK - ie. subject to the usual 'don't take the mickey' policy.
Overseas the £25 and £45 tariffs bill you £3.50 a meg on Vodafone's other networks or £8.75 elsewhere. Only Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Hong Kong have Vodafone-owned HSDPA networks. The £95 tariff includes 100MB of roaming data transfers. All these prices exclude VAT and are Business-customer prices. Consumers pay the same but aren't offered the top-end roaming-oriented tariff.
Vodafone's Mobile Connect 3G Broadband data card certainly delivers mobile broadband, and it's clear HSDPA is a big step up from 3G. Roll on future bandwidth enhancements, not to mention improved upload speeds, courtesy of HSDPA. Even with HSDPA, 3G lags behind the speeds many of get from landline broadband, but at last we can say you can get a broadband experience on the move.
The downside is the cost. Sure, Vodafone bills 3G at the same rate as GPRS, but it's still a big monthly outgoing. You're not going to want to use it to replace a Wi-Fi connected ADSL modem, for instance. And given how slow GPRS feels after using HSDPA, you're not going to want to use the card outside Vodafone's HSDPA territory. ®