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3 mobile broadband: Huawei E169G HDSPA, E220 USB modems review - first impressions

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
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Thanks to 3mobilebuzz I have been testing 3's new Huawei E169G high speed mobile broadband USB dongle for portable computers on a short term free trial of 3's mobile broadband service.

Here's a pic of what you get in the box:

You remove the USIM card (like a SIM card for mobile phones) from the plastic card and bung it into a removable USIM holder in the stick. Remove the end cap and insert the dongle into a spare USB port (there's a short USB cable too if your port's in an awkward place). It installs itself, at least with Windows (XP, Vista, 2000) and it's also meant to be compatible with Mac OS X. With Windows you get some software installed; I'm under some time pressure to get this first post up so I'll try to add screenshots another time.

The specs on the back of the user guide match the Huawei E169 specifications on the Huawei site (except I couldn't see any microSD slot) so it's:
  • HSDPA / UMTS(900/2100MHz)- for non-techies, that's 3G or fast(er) speeds i.e. mobile broadband
  • GSM / GPRS / EDGE(850/900/1800/1900MHz) - that's standard slooowww (or rather, normal) mobile phone speeds.

Pricing, tariffs

This particular model seems already to be available on the Three website (in black or white) for free on a £10 a month 18-month contract. For full details of deals see the 3 mobile broadband dongles page - Lite £10, Plus £15 and Max £25 a month with data allowances of 1, 3 and 7 GB respectively; for a 12-month contract on Lite you'd have to pay £49.99 for the dongle. (I have to say I don't see why anyone would sign up for a 24 month contract when the monthly payment's no less than for the 18-month but you're tied in for longer).

It looks like you can even get the modem on Pay As You Go, in white at least, though then you can't get it free). I don't know if the E169 is available via the shops yet.

Existing 3 mobile phone customers can add mobile broadband on 18 or 24 month contract for half the standard line rental rate, i.e. £5 a month in the above example, and keep paying the half price rate for as long as they have another 3 contract - with the dongle being free if they order before 31 May 2008 (unless Three extend that date of course).

This promotion to existing customers makes a refreshing change from the more usual practice of offering new customers discounts to lure them in, but zip to existing loyal customers (helloooo T-Mobile, the Non-Listening Network? New web n walk Plus or Max customers will get free wifi at T-Mobile hotspots, they announced in Jan 2008, but existing customers won't get that free wifi even if they upgrade to Plus or Max. Or so their customer "services" people, the ones who'd even heard about that offer for new customers anyway, told me after over an hour of waiting on the phone. /rant)

3 do seem to offer that special promotion discount to new customers as well as old (why not make both types of customers happy, eh?) but you'd have to sign up for a 3 mobile phone contract too.

I had in fact signed up for mobile broadband with 3 just a few weeks ago, the full £10 a month deal with free Huawei modem, but then they just had the older Huawei E220 model. Timing 'r' us, not! At least this means I can compare the two Huawei modems for your benefit. (3 also offer another brand of modem, the ZTE - but I'd avoid that if you're ever thinking of using a Linux notebook like the Asus Eee, as I gather you can coax the Huawei into Linux compatibility, which is why I chose it, but I've not heard that you can do that with ZTE. Does anyone else know differently? By the way: the sales people in the 3 Shop didn't even know what Linux was.)

First impressions

By mobile broadband, people mean getting high speed internet access on the move via your laptop or notebook computer or UMPC, rather than your mobile phone. Some people are even opting for "go everywhere" mobile broadband instead of fixed line Net access.

I'd recommend you look at 3's mobile broadband FAQs before you dive in -they're pretty informative. In particular, they say the speed available is "2.8 Mbps in our Turbo coverage areas, and at 384 Kbps in our Video coverage areas." (They split the country into areas; obviously you get higher speeds in a "Turbo" area than in a "Video" area.) You can even check their coverage in your postcode - and you should. Even if you're supposed to be in a Turbo area.

But - it's slower than top ADSL/cable broadband speeds, and you're very dependent on how good the signal is in the EXACT area where you want to use it.

If it's getting fast(er) HSDPA, the modem LED glows blue. Blue is nice. I like blue:

If it can only get an old slow GSM signal, it goes green. Green is not nice:

Even more strongly, I'd recommend that, if you can, you should get the dongle from the 3 website and not from a 3 shop. Why? Because of the much better returns period.

At the time of writing anyway, if you get it from a shop you have only 3 days (including the date of purchase) to try it out in all the places where you might want to use it, especially if you travel a lot. If you order it online, you have 14 days from the date of delivery -but you can't return it if you've used it on more than 3 separate days during those 14 days, so you'll need to plan your trial - use it in place A, drive or train it to place B on the same day and try it there phew, the next day go to place C, try it there, go to place D etc. 3 days only, restrain yourself! Obviously if it works fine everywhere you need it, you don't need to return it and you can use it on as many days as you like.

You can tell I don't think much of that returns policy. The whole point is that 3 should be targeting and marketing mobile broadband to people who are often on the move and need broadband access on their laptop in a number of different locations. Imagine how annoyed and frustrated people will be if they tie themselves into a 12 or 18 month contract, then find they can't get the speed they thought they were paying for.

Isn't it better to give everyone a 14 day returns period, let them try it out as often as they like during that period (as long as they pay for the data used if they end up returning the dongle), and let them return it if it doesn't work where they need it? Then, they'll think "What good customer service and what a customer orientated network, I'll tell my friends, & next time I'll try them again" - rather than "Pah, I now have to pay over the next year for a service I can't use properly, I hate 3". They should be making it easier for people to test it in different places, not hard.

The reason I'm going on at length about trying it out everywhere, or at least the 2 or 3 places where you're most likely to need it, is this: you can't necessarily assume their postcode checker is definitive - coverage isn't as good as I'd hoped, and you need to check it out before you get stuck with a contract for a service that you can't in practice use.

I live in London, pretty centrally. That's Turbo if anywhere is, and so their postcode checker said. But with both the E169G and the E220 modems I'm lucky if I can get 56k (yes, that's dial-up speeds) in my living room, even though T-Mobile's web n walk on my mobile isn't web n crawl (for a change) in the same room. I couldn't go anywhere at 56k on my notebook via the 3 connection, even in the lightning fast Opera browser. Through experimentation, there's only one room where I can get broadband-like speeds, and then only if I'm right by the window. The E169 does maintain broadband speeds if I then move to the next room - but the E220 doesn't.

In my office in the City it's even worse, but then my building seems to be in a mobile black spot anyway (see my BarCamp moan!). Yes their postcode checker had said I'd be OK there, but I wasn't.

Both modems are fine at the South Bank complex however, at least if you're not in a lower ground area - not that I've tried every single lower ground area there, but you get my drift.

I'll be testing it at various other locations as soon as I can, including outside London.

There's meant to be a 3 Web Accelerator to speed up usage for Windows computers Again, I've not had time to download or try it out yet.

So, that's my first impression - how well it works is very, very dependent on the exact few feet (or metres) where you want to use it. So you need to try it out before you buy, in the places where you'll be needing it. Initial niggle - when you remove the end cap which protects the USB connector on the E169G, you have to find somewhere safe to keep the cap, as it won't fit over the other end of the dongle; not very good design, that, it would have been so easy to make it fit.

When (or rather where) it works, it's good, much better than GSM, though not as fast as wifi. More on the nuts & bolts of 3 mobile broadband in use in my next post.

Full disclosure

3's PR people at 3mobilebuzz have set conditions on lending me this dongle:
  • I can use it free for about 3 months
  • I have to blog about my experiences with the modem - good or bad (which I would do anyway)
  • In my first post I have to drill down into some specifics around the pricing structure and link to their pricing page.
They specifically wanted to know "if, as a blogger, you think their pricing/tariff will make a difference to how, and how much, you blog. Their plan means that, if you use 3 for your phone contract (either as a new or existing customer), you get any of the 18 or 24 month mobile broadband packages half price before the end of April [Imp note: now, end May]. Do you think this would encourage you to blog in a more mobile way? And how important are text plans to you as a blogger - for example, is 3's new unlimited text deal a big hook, so you can feel free to update Twitter or Jaiku as much as you want? Or is the fact you can IM for free on 3 mobiles using MSN and Yahoo! Messenger more important? what you think of the USB stick and whether you think it could make a difference to yourself and your readers. Do you think it could help you as a blogger? Does it make blogging easier while on the move?"

Follow up post - to follow!

Regular readers of ACE and those familiar with my LG posts will be expecting a more detailed, practical post than this.

Well, you'll be getting one. I really don't feel I can review any gear properly without fully testing it, and a week or two just isn't long enough. As I can use the E169 modem for 3 months, or rather less than that at this point, I'll be trying it out at different locations and will report further when I've done so, and I'll also give my views on choosing mobile broadband in the UK generally, and compare the two Huawei modems more fully, plus relate my experiences with trying the 3 Web Accelerator.

If you're impatient and can't wait - go for the E169G, not the E220. Personally I chose 3 for mobile broadband rather than Vodafone or T-Mobile, and I made that decision and signed up for an 18 month contract with 3 before I'd even heard of 3mobilebuzz - I'll explain why in my follow up review, as well as why I chose the particular plan I did.

Also, I am in the queue for an Asus Eee PC 900, the 8 GB version, which I hope to get in May. I'll be testing the E169G with the Eee then, and obviously checking its Linux compatibility and reporting back on that.

In my next post I'll also answer 3mobilebuzz's questions about my views on their pricing, text plans etc and their implications for bloggers - and, I think more relevantly for readers of ACE, people generally, not just bloggers. If you have thoughts on those issues too, do please let me know.

If any Mac users would like to offer their laptops temporarily for a quick trial of the dongles on a Mac (maybe at a London Geek Dinner or coffee?), again please let me know.

Finally, dear readers, where in London would you like me to try it out and report back? Free location tester here, take advantage of me while you can. Within reason... I'm not going to the top of the Millennium Wheel or hanging out of the Tower of London with laptop & the USB stick! Well, not unless someone's willing to pay for m'ticket...

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1 Comment(s):

I'm also part of Three's trial, and have a Mac. Well, actually I have several Macs. It looks like there are problems using the dongle under Tiger, but it works okay under Leopard. Including, perhaps surprisingly, Leopard running on a Power PC Mac.

(By Blogger Al., at Thursday, April 24, 2008 2:59:00 PM)  Edit Comment

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