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T-Mobile 3G Communication Centre

  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Flat rate tariff
  • access to Wi-Fi hot-spots included
  • good software functionality

Cons

  • Installation problems
  • software tends to hijack network drivers
  • 3G speed currently limited to 128kbps
  • no cheap tariff options

T-Mobile is the third UK network operator to release a 3G datacard, following similar mobile data solutions from Vodafone and Orange earlier this year. To differentiate its product (the PC Card hardware, the Merlin U530, is the same one distributed with the Orange package), T-Mobile offers a flat-rate tariff and bundles connectivity to its network of Wi-Fi hot-spots (a move recently matched by Vodafone).

Installation & setup
Installing the Novatel card proved more troublesome than the Orange version. The accompanying CD installed the T-Mobile software successfully, but failed to load the drivers for the card. A call to technical support failed to find the problem, but did reveal that the driver file was not on the disk. Since Novatel’s Web site does not provide driver downloads, and we were informed by T-Mobile’s tech support that they did not provide the driver either, we were on the point of resorting to the CD that came with the Orange card for the driver. In fact, the driver file is included on the T-Mobile CD, but hidden in an installation package. Running this package -- of which T-Mobile's tech support appeared to be unaware -- finally installed the card. Once we had installed the card, T-Mobile’s software detected both GPRS and 3G networks with ease, but decided that our testbed notebook had no Wi-Fi connectivity. This came as a surprise, since our new Centrino-based Toshiba Portégé was indeed Wi-Fi-equipped. Reinstalling the Windows Wi-Fi network driver only partially the problem -- intermittently, the notebook would refuse to connect to Wi-Fi networks, and we'd have to reinstall the driver to rectify matters.

Features and performance
With all the drivers finally installed and working correctly, the Communication Centre software selects the highest bandwidth option by default, which is Wi-Fi at 11Mbps. If you’re not within range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, it selects 3G -- which, at the time of launch, was rated at 128kbps but is due for an upgrade to 384kbps (matching Vodafone and Orange) later this year; failing that, you’re on GPRS at a relatively lowly 56kbps. An LED on the top of the PC Card indicates the availability of mobile networks, flashing blue for 3G and green for GPRS, turning to a solid colour when a connection is made. A manual override lets you choose a slower connection should you want to; given the current lack of roaming between Wi-Fi and mobile phone networks, you may want to select a lower bandwidth connection if you’re on the move and need to maintain a session. The Communication Centre has a range of options for setting up accounts and applications to use the connections. It stores passwords and user names for 3G and a number of Wi-Fi accounts -- a username and password for T-Mobile's Wi-Fi hot-spot network is obtained by sending an SMS to a number provided in the quick start guide. And yes, you can send SMS messages from the software itself. Although T-Mobile's 3G service was, at the time of this review, running substantially slower than both Orange's or Vodafone's, in practice there appeared to be little difference in speed. We found performance of the 3G connection -- even at 128kbps -- more than adequate for Web surfing. It felt like a broadband connection, and a 10MB file downloaded in less than two minutes.

Pricing
The PC Card itself costs £199 (ex. VAT) from T-Mobile with a contract. A single tariff of £70 per month then covers 3G, GPRS and Wi-Fi usage. There are no cheap options for people who only need occasional 3G or Wi-Fi connectivity, although T-Mobile does offer a GPRS-only solution via a different PC Card for £9.99 and £40 a month. The 3G package is clearly aimed at, and tailored for, mobile professionals who simply can't afford to run out of bandwidth. On the face of it, a single tariff of £70 covers all-you-can-eat 3G, GPRS and Wi-Fi. In practice, the small print imposes a 'fair use' policy of 1GB of data a month; if you exceed this, T-Mobile may ask you to reduce your usage. The company reckons this is approximately equal to 200,000 text-only emails, 25,000 Web pages, 10,000 large Word documents or 1,000 20-slide PowerPoint presentations, which seems to be an accurate estimate.