Marramgrass

And he shall have internet wherever he goes.

(Here's another one of those occasional exceedingly geeky gadget posts. Feel free to skip it.)

For a long time now I've been keeping an eye on ways to get a laptop online using the cell networks. I've struggled along in the past with bluetooth links letting a computer use a regular mobile phone as a modem, trickling data over GSM dial-up and GPRS services. (If you want to know, I've found the Motorola phones, specifically the RAZR and SLVR, to be very amenable in this regard. I've also had some success with Nokia phones in the distant past, but it's a long time since I've had one of them to play with.)

Recently, sparked (I think) by 3, USB dongles that act as a cellular modem for a computer have become pretty popular. Also they have a tendency to make 3G, or even HSDPA, speeds available. The downside has been cost: hardware with a more-than-negligible cost plus not-quite-painless monthly subscriptions have kept me away.

A while ago 3 started advertising their pay-as-you-go dongle options, and the prices weren't bad. Those prices have become even keener, and now things are interesting. So I bought one.

Why?

Good question. I have broadband at home and at work, I have a nice speedily-connected iPhone, why would I want another form of net connection?

Basically, great as it is, the phone is only good for so much, and I spend a lot of time sitting in cafes either before or after meetings with people, and while that's generally pretty productive time for me, an internet connection could make it more so. Add to this the fact that not all of the cafes I frequent have free wi-fi (I don't want another subscription, you see, especially for occasional use), and my favourite one doesn't have any. <!--more-->

What is it? And how much?

3 have a few options for the modem. The 'soap on a rope' Huawei E220 is £50 on PAYG and the USB-stick-style Hauwei E160G and E169G are £50 and £100 respectively. As far as I can figure (including by asking in the shop) the E169G offers no advantages over the E160G, so I went for the £50 dongle. Also, it can act as a MicroSD reader and has a jack for an external antenna. Nice options to have, just in case.

Data-wise, the basic cost of £1 per MB is rubbish, although better than the other networks' costs. The fun bit is how you can spend £10 of your top-up on 'Add-Ons' to get 1GB good for 30 days, £15 for 3GB and £25 for 7GB. Obviously more expensive than ADSL or cable costs, but still pretty keen. Keen enough for me, any way.

Upsides: no subscription, so for occasional use it's a win; pretty good costs.

Downsides: your Add-On lasts 30 days, no carrying unused data over; if you use up your 1GB in less than 30 days, you need to buy a whole new Add-On — no making it up to the £15 option.

The key for me here is the PAYG nature of the service. If I have a month where I don't use it at all, I haven't been hit for a subscription. If I have a month where I use it loads, the rates still compare very well to 3's subscription costs.

An aside.

You may (or may not) be interested to know that I'm drafting this post sitting in Starbucks on Grafton Street in Dublin. I'm using my UK-bought and registered dongle to connect to 3 Ireland's network. The dongle not only roams, but if you roam onto another 3 network you don't pay any more than you do at home and you can still use your add-ons and allowances. They call it "3 Like Home" and it's a major winner. I wish O2 did it, or I wouldn't be twittering from my iPhone at £3/MB...

The hardware.

The Huawei E160G looks like an oversized USB key drive. (I got the black one.) As mentioned above, it has a MicroSD card slot and a jack for an external antenna. You can get an antenna pretty cheaply, so I may get one just in case it ever comes in useful — it may well. The dongle is bit big and heavy for me to be terribly chuffed about having it hanging off my MacBook's USB port, but it comes with a well-made USB extension cable that does the trick nicely.

The dongle has an LED that indicates network speed (GPRS, 3G, HSDPA), but it's almost impossible to make out in daylight. I thought the instructions were wrong and my model had no light until I saw it in our dimly-lit hotel room yesterday evening!

In use the unit gets warm, but not hot, to the touch. It also has a small yet noticeable effect on the MacBook's battery life, but certainly not to the point of being restrictive.

The software.

When you plug the dongle into a Windows system it will automatically install 3's drivers and dialer. On a Mac you need to download them from the 3 website.

The Windows software can also send/receive/manage SMS messages, but the Mac software can't. This is a slight problem as if you want to register for 3's Customer Service portal (My3) you need to receive an SMS. I got round this by installing the unit in a Windows XP virtual machine on VMware Fusion first.

Happily, on the Mac, once it is installed you can use the OS X dialer software and forget about the device specific dialer (although you still need to install it to get the drivers and get the connection details correctly set). I've found roaming to be the exception to this — I've needed to use the downloaded dialer to get it to connect here in Dublin.

The service.

This is the bit that really matters: does it work?

Yes. Oh yes indeed.

I haven't yet had any trouble getting a connection. Speeds are dependent on what reception is like where you are, which is affected by all kinds of factors up to and including the construction of the building you're in.

Some speed measurements, all made using the speed tester at thinkbroadband.com:

LocationDownstream (kbps)Upstream (kbps)
Our house in Culcavey683.00 
My parents' house in Four Winds97.9824.55
My office in York Street174.38123.66
Common Grounds746.50229.15
Starbucks Elmwood Avenue560.27111.78
La Stampa, Dawson St, Dublin119.3826.95

Pings to www.bbc.co.uk have been in the region of 120-150ms. I expected a mobile network to have even higher latency, so that was a nice surprise. In browsing it generally feels snappy enough — noticeable, but not more than that.

I find it interesting that at our kitchen table I get a service half as fast again as the first ADSL connection we had five years ago.

It's also worth noting that my parents' house is a sink for any kind of mobile signal, so I actually found this result reasonably impressive.

I've found 3's 3G coverage to be a bit better than O2's for my iPhone.

On the whole these speeds cover a wide range, all better than old-fashioned dial-up. In some locations I definitely wouldn't want to have to be pushing too much video (though that would burn through the data pretty quickly, too), but for email, blogging, browsing, some site maintenance and general work-related tasks, it does very well indeed.

Conclusion.

For my requirements this is a brilliant little bit of hardware and an excellent, good value, service.