Vodafone calls its Mobile Connect Card 'The world's largest mobile office', claiming that this package will allow you to get connected anywhere in the world with a compatible network. It comprises a PC Card GPRS adapter, accompanying software and a network contract that allows you to use GPRS data services with your notebook. This means getting a separate contract for data use, but whether this is a plus or minus depends on your particular circumstances. Most of all though, Vodafone claims that this package is simple to install and use, even for non-technical users –- and that's almost right.This product comes in two flavours: the £149 (inc. VAT) Mobile Connect Card reviewed here, which is for general use; and the £199 (inc. VAT) Remote Access package, which is aimed at corporate users. The hardware is the same in both cases, and the software supplied differs only in that a VPN client is supplied with the Remote Access version instead of Vodafone's instant messaging system.
The Mobile Connect Card itself is an Option Globetrotter, available to buy separately for €349 (around £236 ex. VAT), but without the convenience of Vodafone's all-in-one solution. It's a tri-band GSM/GPRS adapter, so it should be usable on any GSM network worldwide. A retractable antenna is included which is sufficient for good reception areas -- for everywhere else, the card has an external antenna socket (Vodafone will sell you one for £25 ex. VAT). There's also a socket for a headset on the edge of the card. Although the card itself is capable of taking and placing voice calls, this facility hasn't been enabled in the accompanying software. In addition, the service to which you subscribe when you buy the Mobile Connect Card is a data-only service, so you can't swap the SIM out of the card into a phone and use it to make calls. The card works with Windows 98 onwards, but you'll need Windows 2000 or Windows XP to support multiplexing -- that is, sending or receiving SMS messages while connected to the GPRS service. If you're using and earlier OS version, you'll still be able to do either of those things, just not at the same time.
The software component of the Mobile Connect Card aims to make connection as easy as possible, and in the main it succeeds. Put the CD-ROM into your notebook's optical drive and it will begin the installation automatically. This includes the drivers for the card and the Vodafone 'dashboard' application, which also includes a Vodafone instant messenger. The dashboard application is where you'll interact most with the card, and you get the option of setting it to start automatically when you're installing the software. The dashboard application gives you control over the card, and access to SMS functions. You connect to the GPRS data service from here, although the card is connected to the network and can receive SMS messages without this software running. Although the card appears as a modem device, and has an associated dial-up connection within Windows, we couldn't get the card to work without using the dashboard application to initiate the connection; Windows' own dial-up system would go through the motions, getting as far as registering on the network, but the connection would then fail. The dashboard also keeps track of how much data you've sent and received, and keeps a running total. This allows you to see whether you've used up whatever inclusive data transfer your contract provides, although you have to reset the data meter manually. Other buttons on the dashboard go to the SMS centre, launch your browser or mail client, start Vodafone instant messenger or show support information. The SMS centre is where you send and receive messages, although messages can be received without the dashboard running -- they're stored in the SIM until you launch the program. You can enter a list of messaging contacts so you don't have to type the number in every time, and you can also import contacts from a SIM in the Mobile Connect Card. This didn't work with a very old (more than five years) Vodafone SIM we tried, but was more successful with a more recent SIM from T-Mobile. The dashboard can be minimised to the system tray, or reduced in size to show just the connection information and the buttons. A small envelope will flash on the system tray icon when you have unread SMS messages, although its size means you'll need to keep a keen eye out if you're expecting important messages. Where the dashboard for the Mobile Connect Card has the IM client button, the Remote Access version has a VPN client button. Even though the Mobile Connect Card version lacks this built-in VPN client, we were able to use Windows' own VPN client over the GPRS connection with no problems.
The data rate you'll get depends strongly on network conditions: the signal strength and the level of traffic through the node to which you're connected will both affect how your throughput. Some indicative average figures from our tests include 10Kbps in central London during office hours, 30Kbps in suburban south-east England in the evening, and around 5Kbps but peaking at 25Kbps at CeBIT 2003 in Hannover, Germany. If the lack of voice capability doesn't worry you, this is a cheaper way of buying this very useful card. Compared with using a mobile phone for remote connectivity, it's both faster and more convenient -- there are no cables to connect and it's simple to set up. Although GPRS data services are still not particularly cheap, the per-byte charging method means you aren't paying for an idle connection. Buying the more expensive voice-enabled version of this card from Option may appeal to some people, but that doesn't have the advantage of Vodafone's straightforward install procedure.