3 NetConnect HSDPA ExpressCard

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3's new mobile broadband card is almost a no-brainer: It sprints along on 3's current 3G network and will kick into overdrive following the 3.6Mbps HSDPA network overhaul, slips into notebook ExpessCard and PC Card slots and to top it off, has exceptional pricing plans.

3 NetConnect HSDPA ExpressCard

The latest iteration of 3's NetConnect mobile broadband package is as much about future-proofing as it is about the future itself. It's the first ExpressCard of its kind to be launched in Australia -- news that will bring cheers from most road warriors who've bought a notebook in the past 12 months, especially if it was a MacBook Pro.

But if you're still holding out for a new notebook, a bundled adaptor lets you slide the ExpressCard in the PC Card slot of your current laptop. And while the card works a treat on 3's existing 3G network, it's built to the HSDPA 3.6Mbps protocol which 3 is rolling out across its entire network -- an operation earmarked for completion by March 2007.

As the first wireless broadband ExpressCard on the Australian market, 3's new NetConnect card will place the carrier in pole position among large portions of the "road warrior" community.

The reason? The past year has seen an increasing number of notebook manufacturers ditch the aging PC Card slot (also known as PCMCIA or CardBus) and embrace the high-speed architecture of the newer ExpressCard slot. This includes Apple's entire MacBook Pro line. But until now, all mobile broadband solutions have been baked into a PC Card wafer or a USB modem. The former is incompatible with ExpressCard slots and the later is one more thing for the mobile maven to cart around, leave behind or lose altogether.

The NetConnect card (a rebadged version of Novatel's Merlin XU870) adopts the slim footprint of the ExpressCard/34 format, so named for the card's 34mm width. The ExpressCard specification also includes the ExpressCard/54, which has the same 54mm width as the PC Card and the same 75mm length as the ExpressCard/34 (making it 1cm shorter than the PC Card) but with a "dog leg" shape.

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Notebooks can have ExpressCard slots in either or both dimensions. Many Toshiba and HP laptops use the angled ExpressCard/54 (the remote control on selected HP laptops, for instance, is designed to dock into that slot), and these can also accept the straight ExpressCard/34 wafers.

3 has cannily included a PC Card adaptor cradle so that the ExpressCard wafer can be used in older notebooks with only a PC Card slot. At the same time, this provides users with a degree of future-proofing should they upgrade to a new ExpressCard-only notebook in the near future. A stout black hub at the end of the wireless card contains the transmitter and a slim flip-up aerial which, like most of its ilk, can get in the way if your hands hover around the farthest edge of the notebook's keyboard.

As with the previous NetConnect PC Card (which has now been retired in favour of the ExpressCard package), when the 3G signal falls below the usable threshold or is absent altogether the card can automatically roam onto Telstra's GSM network.

This brings with it vastly reduced speeds of around 60Kbps, making the experience similar to stepping down from ADSL to dial-up; you also get slugged with Telstra-imposed rates of AU$1.65/MB for using its network. To alleviate some of that sting in the contract's tail, 3's pricing plans include a small "buffer" allowance for GSM, although the amount (ranging from 2MB to 6MB according to your plan) is definitely on the lean side.

The client software acts as a simple connection manager with support for "mobile" mode using the NetConnect card, as well as Wi-Fi and LAN -- the latter two modes work with the notebook's inbuilt wireless and Ethernet controllers. There's also an SMS client and SIM card address book manager, plus the ability to change the auto-roaming default so that the card remains locked onto 3G.

The NetConnect card makes the most of 3's network which holds large chunks of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra under its wing.

Standard (non-HSDPA) 3G is rated to a maximum of 384Kbps, and our tests close to the North Sydney CBD delivered an average of 250Kbps with a peak of 325Kbps, and around 64Kbps on the uplink. We also visited the same locations as our recent trials of the HSDPA Vodafone and BigPond Next G cards. In the business centre of the Sydney Hilton -- smack in the middle of the city and surrounded by concrete and metal -- the NetConnect card managed to hold a stable connection at around 210Kbps while the Vodafone HSDPA card stumbled.

As expected, our black spot at Bondi Beach still remained as much a no-go area for 3 as for the other mobile broadband networks. Although the NetConnect ExpressCard is AU$100 more expensive than its counterparts from Telstra and Vodafone, the plans represent exceptional value and can land you the card for anywhere from AU$20 down to zero if you sign a contract for 12 or 24 months.

And the plans themselves are sweet temptation. AU$29 per month gets you 200MB, AU$49 lifts the download ceiling to 1GB, while AU$69 lands you a hefty 2GB. Excess charges are a modest 10c/MB. These deals are substantially cheaper than the equivalent mobile broadband offerings of Telstra's BigPond Next G and Vodafone's HSDPA 3G and will become even better value once 3's own HSDPA network upgrade is complete by the end of March next year.

3 NetConnect HSDPA ExpressCard
Company: 3
RRP: AU$399