- Capable of good throughput (up to 384Kbps)
- provides access to O2 and partners' Wi-Fi hot spots
- 3G coverage is currently restricted to 20 major cities and towns
- Wi-Fi billing is via a separate O2 handset account
O2's cautious 3G rollout has kicked off with coverage earmarked for just '20 major cities and towns' this year, although the company is 'working hard' to provide coverage to 80 percent of the UK population by the end of 2007. This is the background to the launch of the O2 Data Card 3G/GPRS, which is based on the same Merlin U530 hardware as competing offerings from Orange and T-Mobile (Vodafone, by contrast, uses a Qualcomm card).
Installation and setup
Enabling the 3G/GPRS card and Wi-Fi access means installing O2's Connection Manager software, which acts as the user interface and management platform for the various available functions. This process required two reboots -- once after the main Connection Manager application had been installed and once more for a patch to this application. The next step is to create a profile of how exactly you plan to use the card. This process is somewhat involved, as O2 describes Connection Manager as a 'one-stop shop' for Wi-Fi, GPRS and 3G access. Eventually, when O2 3G handsets are available, users will be able to use Connection Manager to connect a notebook PC to the Internet via a 3G handset. Connection Manager can be downloaded for free from O2's Web site. The installation process is slightly complicated by the fact that O2 has decided that billing for Wi-Fi access must be handled via a separate O2 handset SIM. This strategy seems somewhat over-complicated, and could be a turn-off for customers on other voice networks. Once the installation process is out of way, a prompt appears asking you to insert the data card -- there are lots of warnings not to insert it before this point, although it's unclear exactly what the consequences would be.
Features and performance
Given the lack of a nearby hot-spot operated by O2 or any of its partners, we weren't able to test the Wi-Fi integration. However, we got a 3G connection within ZDNet UK's office without a problem. Our Bandwidth Speed Test reported 3G throughput of 339.4Kbps, which is close to the theoretical maximum downlink speed of 384Kbps. Obviously, throughput will vary depending on the kind of connectivity available, and the number of other users accessing it at the same time. If neither 3G nor Wi-Fi are available, you'll be stuck with a modem-speed (56Kbps) GPRS connection. An LED on the top of the PC Card indicates the availability of mobile networks: it flashes blue for 3G and green for GPRS, turning to a solid colour when an Internet connection is made. Wi-Fi, of course, is handled by your notebook's internal module. The Connection Manager provides a variety of options, and even includes an animated graph showing the average connection speeds. There's also a useful calendar feature that lets you inspect your Wi-Fi or 3G/GPRS usage over a set period, including the total amount of data downloaded. We experienced some issues with the software, however. For instance, after clicking on the desktop icon to launch the application, an error message appeared on several occasions claiming the software was already running -- even though it wasn't, according to Windows Task Manager.
Pricing information is pretty scant at the moment: the frustrating user experience that is O2's Web site provides little beyond some rough tariff costs. To get the latest information on the 3G card, prospective customers are asked to phone a separate number (0800 781 0202). The O2 Data Card 3G/GPRS -- the same Novatel Wireless Merlin U530 offered by T-Mobile and Orange -- retails for around £110 (ex. VAT) for customers on high-value tariffs.