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<p>When Vodafone announced its <a href="http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39290671,00.htm">7.2Mbps HSDPA broadband service</a> towards the end of last year and promised HSUPA (high-speed uploading at up to 1.44Mbps) into the bargain, the network operator said it would bring out a modem, known internally as the 'Pebble', to allow access to the new data speeds. </p>
HSDPA/HSUPA network coverage is currently very sparse
Basic desktop software
When Vodafone announced its 7.2Mbps HSDPA broadband service towards the end of last year and promised HSUPA (high-speed uploading at up to 1.44Mbps) into the bargain, the network operator said it would bring out a modem, known internally as the 'Pebble', to allow access to the new data speeds.
No sooner had we received a Pebble — officially called the USB Modem 7.2 — for review than a second similarly specified modem, the USB Modem Stick, appeared.
For Windows XP and Vista users, both USB modems are 'plug and play', requiring no software installation before use. Mac users need to preinstall software that's supplied on a CD. We looked at both modems together in this review, and tested them on notebooks running Windows XP and Vista.
You can get either variant of the modem on various tariffs, with the modem itself varying in price from £49 to £170. Check the full range of tariffs at the Vodafone online business shop.
Both modems are made from a rather fetching white shiny plastic, reminiscent of Vodafone’s Mobile Connect USB Modem. Like the Mobile Connect product, the new modems are made by Huawei.
The USB Modem 7.2 (Pebble) is a flat, broad lozenge with a SIM slot on one long edge and a mini-USB connector on the other. We measured it at 48mm wide by 90mm deep by 13mm thick.
It comes with two cables. A short (19cm) USB cable may suffice for most needs, but there's also a second cable a little over 80cm long. This will prove useful if you need to use the modem with a floor-dwelling desktop PC and you want the modem on your desk. The longer cable is double ended, so you can use a pair of USB ports to provide power to the modem if necessary. The box also includes a mini-USB to full-sized USB converter.
The modem itself has a red strip running around the edge. This is illuminated when the modem is powered; when data is being transmitted it fades in and out — what Vodafone calls in the manual the 'breathing effect'. This sounds rather affected, but in practice it looks very cool.
Status LEDs show the nature of the connection: blinking and solid-colour green and blue tones indicate data networks being searched for, found or connected. Nirvana is a solid pale-blue light, which indicates that you're on a high-speed 3.5G network.
The USB Modem Stick is also white with a red band around it, although this time the band does not offer the 'breathing effect' when data is being exchanged. The stick shares the USB Modem 7.2's status light system, ranging from green to pale blue — this time, though, the LEDs are on the end of the stick, making them visible when the modem is inserted in a notebook's USB slot.
The USB Modem Stick looks like a large USB flash drive. It can slot directly into a USB port on your notebook, or it can be attached using an 80cm USB extension cable like the Pebble's. The USB connector has a protective lid, which is tethered to the main unit by a red cord. Your SIM slots into a caddy next to the USB connector, so it's protected by the lid when the stick is not in use.
The USB Modem Stick measures 25mm wide by 86mm deep by 12mm thick. When connected directly to a notebook it can obstruct any adjacent USB ports, so we'd prefer to see it bundled with a shorter USB cable like the USB Modem 7.2. As it is, you may need to carry the longer USB cable just in case it's needed.
The Vodafone Mobile Connect software which comes with each of the modems is essentially your control panel for connections. You can use it to connect to and disconnect from the network, and it gives a visual display of current data exchange rates.
Vodafone Mobile Connect includes an SMS module with a contact manager, and displays data usage in terms of both volume and time for both the current and previous month. The latter could prove handy, but is a little lacking in features: for example, if you swap your SIM into another device such as a mobile phone, usage there is not added to the tally. This could cause problems if you need to avoid overstepping a usage cap. Similarly, the software does not issue usage alerts, so it's up to you to keep an eye on how much data you use.
The real drawback at the moment, though, is network coverage. Vodafone has rolled out its 7.2Mbps network in a select — very select — number of locations. Unless you're in a few central districts of London, or at an airport, you're going to have to wait to take full advantage.
At the launch of the USB Modem Stick Vodafone said that coverage was being rolled out in the following London postcodes: E1, E1W, E14, EC1, EC2, EC3, EC4, NW1, SW1, W1, W2, W8, W9, W10, W11, W14, WC1 and WC2. In addition, airports with coverage at launch include Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, London City, Southampton, East Midlands, Liverpool, Manchester, Belfast City and Belfast International. To be added shortly are Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham, Stansted and Norwich airports.
We asked Vodafone for a comment about rollout down the line, and received this somewhat vague response: 'Vodafone UK is in the process of upgrading its mobile broadband network to support download speeds of up to 7.2Mbps in central London and major airports. Further upgrades to the network will take place over the next 12 months according to customer demand'.
Performance We can’t fault either of these modems for ease of use. The plug and play system works smoothly (although Mac users may be less happy about having to install software first). The fastest available connection is quickly found and latched onto, and even when data transfer is down to GPRS speed the modems both work as expected.
If we had to choose between the pebble and the stick, we’d go for the USB Modem 7.2 thanks to its looks. But if you need to minimise what you carry around and are not bothered by obscured USB ports, then the USB Modem Stick may be the better choice. However, it's unfortunate that these modems have appeared long before widespread 3.5G network coverage is available.
Mobile broadband can now deliver better throughput than many people can get via ADSL, so we can only hope Vodafone and other network operators deploy the technology quickly. Get the tariffs right and they could seriously challenge the existing fixed broadband market.