Mobile operators such as Vodafone and Orange are now making their second generation of 3G data cards available. Orange, for example, offers the Fusion card from French manufacturer Option. This combines both 3G and WiFi capabilities in one card.
For owners of older laptops without built-in WiFi hardware, that is a valuable addition: WiFi is now being used by companies for access to their local networks, as well as for "hotspots" in public places such as hotels and airports.
Users of laptops with built-in WiFi do not need this extra functionality, of course, but in tests for the Fusion card, it was actually easier to set up than the built-in wireless access in a laptop running Microsoft Windows XP.
This is a result of the Orange Mobile Office Card software. Developed by France Telecom, the software controls both the cellular and WiFi connections on the Fusion card.
Owners of PC laptops with built-in WiFi can also control that using the Orange software. Given the performance of the Fusion card, however, the only compelling reason to use built-in WiFi would be better power management. PC cards drain laptop batteries swiftly, and the Option Fusion is no exception to this.
Since Orange launched its first Mobile Office Card last year, the operator has made steady improvements to its network, so it is hard to judge how far performance increases are down to the Option card and how much is a result of better 3G coverage.
In an area with a good signal, the Fusion card worked well, with the software claiming a data speed of 384 kilobits per second. The card also maintained connections well, which is important for tasks such as synchronising data with a company IT system.
Finding a good signal is the key, however, in making 3G worth while. Coverage on Orange's 3G network - and those of its rivals - is still not as comprehensive as coverage on GPRS (2.5G) systems.
Although it is possible to use the Fusion card in 2.5G areas, in practice this is less reliable than with a 2.5G card, even though the Fusion handles the 2.5G/3G handover better than some earlier models.
Laptop owners who already have 2.5G data cards, and are happy with them, should probably not rush to upgrade. Anyone who needs to work on a wireless network in an area where 3G signals are less than optimal should also look at a 3G phone before opting for a data card. Handsets seem to perform better with weak signals, and it is easier to see if there is a 3G signal by looking at the display on a screen, than it is to boot up a laptop computer.
But 3G coverage is improving steadily and, given that Orange charges the same for 2.5G and 3G data, any PC user looking to go down the wireless route should test the Fusion card.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Pros: built-in WiFi at little extra cost.
Cons: Windows only; coverage can still be better with a handset; will not work in the US.
Price: from free, with a contract.
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