- Easy to set up
- capable of good throughput (up to 384Kbps)
- reasonably good 3G coverage
- Dashboard application could be more informative and user-friendly
- not Mac-compatible
Back in April, Vodafone stole a march on the competition by becoming the first UK mobile operator to launch a business-orientated 3G data device -- the Mobile Connect 3G/GPRS datacard. Vodafone's 3G card has certainly widened the choice for mobile workers seeking a high-speed Internet connection on the move, but it’s not all roses: the pricing is high -- around £85 a month to download 500MB -- and the company's 3G coverage remains fairly patchy. Vodafone obviously needs a healthy dose of competition, and that has now arrived following the launch in July of Orange's 3G Mobile Office Card.Orange immediately attacked on the pricing front, undercutting Vodafone with an unlimited access package for £75 a month. Under this tariff, the card itself costs £85 (ex. VAT). As far as 3G coverage is concerned, Orange claims that 66 percent of the population can access its network, compared to Vodafone’s 30 percent. Orange also estimates that around 62 percent of small businesses and 72 percent of medium-to-large business are covered. The company’s target for 2005 is to raise its 3G coverage to around 90 per cent of businesses. You can check Orange's 3G coverage near you here.
Installation & setup
The 3G Mobile Office Card only works with Windows 2000 and XP systems -- there's no Macintosh support yet -- and you'll need at least 64MB of RAM, 16MB of free hard disk space and a CD-ROM drive from which to install the software (no problem for most modern notebooks). Installation was straightforward -- it took us less than ten minutes to open the box, register the USIM card, load the software, plug in the PC Card and access the Internet. Once up and running, you control your connection sessions from the dashboard application, which is accessed via a shortcut that's automatically placed on the desktop. The dashboard displays the network you're using, your connection status, 3G/GPRS signal strength (when you launched the current application, not continuously), five application buttons (Internet, Text messaging, Internet email, Instant messaging, Office), plus Help, Settings and Disconnect buttons. There's a connection duration indicator, but the dashboard doesn't indicate whether your connection is via 3G or GPRS -- for that, you'll have to look at the LED on PC Card itself, which glows blue for 3G and green for GPRS.
Orange’s 3G data service supports a maximum download speed of 384Kbps, or 48KB of data per second. During our tests, which included downloading a film trailer video clip and using ZDNet UK's Bandwidth Speed Test, we recorded throughput as low as 100Kbps and as high as the full 384Kbps. Remember that, just like DSL, 3G is a contended service with bandwidth shared among all the users in a particular cell. Throughput will also depend on your distance from a base station and type of service you are accessing. Most of our testing took place in the central London area, but during a brief trip to the wilds of East Yorkshire we had to rely on the fall-back option of GPRS. With GPRS, the Mobile Office Card can deliver speeds up to 53.6Kps downstream and 26.8Kbps upstream. The card can be set to work in one of three modes: 3G only, GPRS only or automatic switching between 3G and GPRS. The latter makes most sense in areas of good 3G coverage, but at the edge of Orange’s network it might be worth locking into GPRS to prevent data transmission interruptions as the system switches between 3G and GPRS operation. We had a few usability issues with the dashboard application, the main one being that if you want to switch between an Internet session and text messaging, for example, you have to disconnect and reconnect via the relevant application button. The same goes for the Internet email, Instant messaging and Office application buttons. This procedure is irritating, and seems unnecessary given that, once connected to the Internet, you should be able to access SMS, email, IM and VPN clients in the normal way. That said, the dashboard does allow you to create custom settings for each of the application buttons, and the data collected in the individual 'connection details' dialogue boxes could prove useful to IT managers.
Orange offers a range of tariffs for its 3G data service. Power users will want the option that includes the card for £85 (ex. VAT) plus a monthly charge of £75 for 'unlimited' use (this actually means 'fair use' of up to 1,000MB a month). At the other end of the usage spectrum, there's a 'pay as you consume' option with the card priced at £255 (ex. VAT) and data at £2 per megabyte. In between these extremes, there are low (7MB), medium (65MB) and high (400MB) options, with card and 'out of bundle' data rates priced correspondingly. Analysts claim that prices should continue to fall over the next six months, reaching around £40 to £50 a month for unlimited access early in 2005. Going forward, Orange says it will launch a version of the Mobile Office Card with Wi-Fi connectivity as well as 3G and GPRS, by the end of 2004. The company is also investigating a Macintosh-compatible version of the card and says it is 'working with the manufacturers of the datacard and software to improve the functionality and the user interface'. The card is the Merlin U530 from Lucent Technologies and Novatel Wireless.