Tools of the Trade: Vodafone hits the road with 3G for laptop users

The Mobile Connect data card
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The Independent Online

Earlier this month, Vodafone became the first UK mobile phone company to launch full, commercial 3G data services. Vodafone is not, of course, the first live third-generation network: that honour goes to 3. But 3 only offers access to data-based services on its own network. With Vodafone, subscribers can access their corporate networks or anywhere on the internet.

Earlier this month, Vodafone became the first UK mobile phone company to launch full, commercial 3G data services. Vodafone is not, of course, the first live third-generation network: that honour goes to 3. But 3 only offers access to data-based services on its own network. With Vodafone, subscribers can access their corporate networks or anywhere on the internet.

Tellingly, both Vodafone and rival T-Mobile have decided to launch data cards first, with voice handsets coming later. This decision reflects the continuing dispute between handset manufacturers and the networks over the performance of 3G phones. It also means that Vodafone's service will only interest laptop owners.

The company's first 3G product is a full-sized PC card device, which currently works with the more recent versions of Windows (Mac and, later, Linux support is prom- ised). The substantial card slots into the laptop, with Vodafone's own Dashboard software controlling connections.

The Dashboard interface will win few prizes for design innovation, but it is clear enough to use and gives subscribers details such as data speed and how much information they have downloaded. As with its GPRS services, Vodafone charges for 3G by data volumes, not by the time you spend online.

Fees start with a basic tariff charged at £10 plus VAT a month for a five-megabyte data bundle. Additional minutes cost £2/mb. Heavy users can pay £85 a month for 500mb, but the most popular deals will probably be the medium- and high-user packages, at £20 for 25mb and £45 for 150mb a month respectively. Extra minutes become cheaper the larger the bundle.

The card itself costs between £150 and £50 depending on the data bundle. Anyone who signs up for all but the cheapest tariff before October will have their minutes doubled at no charge, but as yet there are no plans for an unlimited-use price plan along the lines of those on offer from wireless internet (WiFi) hotspot operators.

Nor can 3G networks, as yet, compete with WiFi hotspots for speed, but they do offer much more mobility. So far, Vodafone's 3G network covers just London, the M4 corridor and cities including Manchester, Birmingham and Belfast. Outside these areas, the card falls back to GPRS. Currently, Vodafone claims to cover 35 per cent of the UK population with 3G, and the network is growing.

Where there is 3G coverage, the card performs well, operating consistently close to its maximum data speed of 384 kilobits per second - or about two-thirds as fast as a landline broadband connection (upload speeds are much slower). This is certainly fast enough for almost all business applications and includes playing web-optimised video content from the likes of CNN and the BBC. But you would probably not want to watch a documentary feature this way, not least because of the cost.

The card also handled the transfer between 3G and GSM GPRS networks without fuss in our tests. This is important because 3G to GSM handover problems have dogged other 3G networks. We did, though, experience some problems, with the card losing contact with the host laptop (running Windows XP Professional).

Another drawback, at the top end, may be pricing. Vodafone's rates are significantly costlier than WiFi, and still do not offer unlimited downloads.

But if you need the true mobility that the data card offers then it still represents a good buy, especially for travellers who don't deal with large files. What it is not, as yet, is a replacement for WiFi.

THE VERDICT

Rating: 3 out of 5

Pros: Fast data speeds within 3G coverage area; easy to use.

Cons: No unlimited data bundle; prices still high.

Available from: Vodafone retailers and stores; www.vodafone.co.uk

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