'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

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Johnmcl7
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'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby Johnmcl7 » 01 Jun 2008, 01:48

There's been some talk about these mobile broadband services over the last couple of months so as requested I've put together a quick review.

A few companies now offer a mobile broadband package of some sort which is basically a USB data modem and some sort of data package which allows your PC to reach fairly respectable speeds thanks to 3G/HSDPA. My main contract is with Vodafone who at the time offered poor data packages and even now I don't believe their standard packages allow for data when the phone is being used as a modem for a PC. Vodafone do have a dedicated mobile broadband package but it's currently contract only at 15 pounds a month, Vodafone coverage is generally good however I didn't want to be tied into a contract. I was drawn to the Three pay as you go service which looked very reasonable, the modem had recently come down in price to 70 pounds (and now far lower) and for ten pounds I could have 1GB data transfer for 30 days. Three also offer 15 pounds for 3GB and 20 pounds for 7GB, as I wasn't going to be using the modem regularly this looked like the best option so that's the one I bought. My usage would be for trips away from home where the wireless hotspot prices are so daft the USB modem would be more reasonable.

The Modem - Huawei E220

The package itself is in a DVD style case packed with various instruction books, sim card etc., the USB modem and two usb cables - one short cable, one longer cable.

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The two cables are mini-USB, one is a short one and the other is a longer one with a pair of USB plugs if the machine isn't supplying enough power through one of them. The modem seems very fussy in that it only works with these two cables, standard mini-USB cables don't allow the PC to detect the modem properly. Vodafone offer a neater USB modem which is only slightly larger than a USB memory stick although I'm fine with the E220 as I always use it on the longer USB cable to allow optimum positioning for the best speeds.

The modem itself is a reasonably small device which I just leave sitting in a backpack pocket ready for whenever I need it. There's not much exciting to see:

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On the top just above the little wireless signal there's an LED indicator which shows the status of the modem, primarily a cyan blue if the modem is connected at HSDPA speeds and a darker blue for standard 3G. On the top is the mini-USB connector and the side has the slide out holder for the simcard.

Using the modem

Pop the simcard out its credit card holder, slide it into the modem then plug the modem into the PC and away it goes - there's no driver CD as the modem mounts itself as CD drive with an autorun which will either install 3's modem program or run the application if it's installed already. On the first go I let it install which put the 3 modem application, a dial up connection and the modem drivers themselves. I'm not very keen on these auto-installers because if they don't work you're a bit stuffed, I was unable to get the Vodafone version of my modem to install on a work laptop although that was a fairly heavily locked down one. On my machines the install has worked fine although my Sony TX for some reason keeps claiming the modem is invalid when I try to run dial up as does one of the USB ports on my XPS M1330 which I haven't found the source of yet. I'm not sure about Linux compatibility as obviously the mass storage aspect of the device won't work with Linux nor is there a drivers CD supplied - from reading some EEE discussions though I believe there are certain models of USB modem which will work.

Once installed and run, the default window for the application has a nice big connect button which is all you need to get connected as all the settings are configured for you, this is a shot of the program in action with the only difference being it shows disconnect and connect:

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At this point I hadn't put any credit on my new simcard yet so the first step was to browse to http://www.three.co.uk/my3 (only site you can get to before the modem is activated) which allows you to set up a new account and get started. I purchased a topup voucher with the modem, there's an option to activate the voucher on the three site which then gives you the choice of either using it as credit to make calls/texts with or to use for mobile broadband. Once activated it was a simple case of disconnecting and reconnected and the world wide web was within my mobile grasp.

The application works similarly to a mobile phone with the various tabs along the bottom giving you access to to messages, contacts and options:

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I don't have much interest in this aspect of the device since I have a separate phone although the text messaging part worked fine during the activation process of my account with various confirmation messages being sent by 3.

Mobile browsing

I'm such an internet junkie that I wasn't too bothered about the speeds the device would be likely to pull, as long as it could manage fast-ish dial up speeds at least I could do some browsing. So far however I've been very impressed with the speed, I've used it in Inverness(middle of nowhere), Dumfries (still pretty much nowhere) and London, in each location the modem was able to connect at HSDPA speeds falling back to standard 3G occasionally although subtle positioning of the modem minimised this. Technically HSDPA should be able to hit an impressive 7.2Mb/s, the fastest I ever saw was around the 1Mb/s with the average being 600-700Kb/s (all in bits). The speed meant I could browse at a decent pace, watch Youtube videos and download all pretty much at the same pace as my home 1Mb/s adsl connection. The only time I found the speed to be an issue was for uploading although this is no different to ADSL connections where the upload is much lower than the download, when I needed to upload a 15MB file I was only pulling about 15 KB/s (bytes).

I haven't tried any online gaming but I don't really think it would be suitable for that as the latency can be somewhat erratic.

Conclusion

It's no secret that I buy rather a lot of gadgets, some work out well and some end up gathering dust - the USB modem is definitely in the former category, it's been extremely handy while being away to have a internet connection wherever I need it and additionally when the broadband at home has been playing up. The package is excellent value for money as I've frequently had my eye on mobile data packages but the supposedly 'unlimited' data plans rarely are anything like that. 1GB has been plenty for my usage but if you need more there are further packages as well. As I've not reached that 1GB cap in a month I don't know what happens at that point, according to the 3 salesperson you have the option to activate another voucher and start with a new data allowance. With the modem now available for under 50 pounds it's pretty much a steal.

John
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby Bryn » 01 Jun 2008, 04:48

Nice review John.
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby csteff » 01 Jun 2008, 10:52

nice as always :)
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby matt » 01 Jun 2008, 11:00

What size laptop do you find you use this service with the most?

£10 seems pretty reasonable to me as similar home adsl usage deals can cost more.

Also can you get these modems built in to laptops rather in USB form?
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby iwt » 01 Jun 2008, 11:33

My Sony TZ has a 3g modem built in and I use that most of the time - nothing else to carry around. It works fine on my Rock, but whilst I take the Rock with me sometimes, I'm not usually using it while travelling. I also tried it on my dad's desktop which runs XP and again it works fine - that was just about making sure it would be a backup for him as he's going to switch broadband providers.

They do 3 different types of modem now, the Huwaii e220, the zte mf622 (which doesn't work straight out of the box with Linux) and now a USB stick modem.

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Three still seems best value / least contract. When I was looking t-mobile and o2 - whilst you're making more of a commitment on the contract cost - include hotspot access in the price.
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby Johnmcl7 » 01 Jun 2008, 12:58

matt wrote:What size laptop do you find you use this service with the most?

£10 seems pretty reasonable to me as similar home adsl usage deals can cost more.

Also can you get these modems built in to laptops rather in USB form?


As it doesn't work with the TX it's been the XPS M1330 although it's always a close decision between the two machines anyway, the XPS M1330 has the advantage that I can carry everything I need on it, do some gaming and have the processing power available for any tasks that need it. I've used it with the XPS M1710 when the adsl is not working well.

There are a few laptops with 3G builtin, tends to be ultralights although there are others with it available.

John
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby Dr Who » 04 Jun 2008, 12:49

Have you tried it in Edinburgh yet John? Just given the mother-in-law an old laptop of mine and now want to get her online without getting a contract.
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby Johnmcl7 » 04 Jun 2008, 13:15

Unfortunately not, I've been meaning to pop down to Edinburgh for a while but not been able to do so with all the building work on the house at the moment.

John
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Re: 'Three' 3G USB Modem review (mobile broadband)

Postby james » 04 Jun 2008, 13:39

well that was quick, I bought the ZTE MF622 (the black and orange modem) yesterday afternoon and it arrived this morning!
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