The great thing about USB dongles (apart from the name) is the fact that you can plug them into the side of your laptop and zip about the internet at broadband speeds, as long as you're within operator HSDPA coverage.
There are no complicated setup procedures. All you need is a laptop with an up-to-date operating system, a USB port and a data deal from an operator with a mobile broadband (HSDPA) network.
A few weeks ago we let the Mobile Choice ad team borrow our 3 dongle so they could show clients our company websites. Suffice to say, this was the first time the sales guys had ever tested a USB dongle... and we're still waiting for them to give it back.
Which operator should you choose?
Your dongle is only as good as the network it connects to. So, when choosing your USB modem or stick, the three chief criteria are network coverage, speed and price.
Operators are rolling out their HSDPA networks throughout 2008, so most of the country should have coverage by 2009.
Dongles come in a range of shapes, sizes and colours. There are two basic options available: - USB modem - this style of dongle is lozenge shaped and features the USB connection at the end of a short cable
- USB modem ‘stick' - this dongle is smaller than the basic USB modems and plugs into the side of the laptop without the need for a cable. This can be a little restrictive if you're working in a tight space, but some come with a separate cable
With the rollout of its Turbo Network, 3 can now offer customers HSDPA speeds of up to 2.8Mbps of its 3.6Mbps network. 3 says that 90% of the UK population now lives within its ‘Turbo Network' coverage, and this will keep increasing in 2008, with an eventual upgrade to 7.2Mbps. In addition to its HSDPA coverage, 3 also has the most comprehensive 3G coverage in the UK.
3's USB modems come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The lozenge-shaped dongle comes in a choice of white, pink or black, and the ZTE is a slim, rectangle-shaped dongle which comes in black with a green trim. There is also a range of different ‘skins' available.
The USB modem stick is 3's most recent entrant into its dongle range. It's small and sleek and will auto-install on a PC or a Mac without the need for any CDs or discs.
There has been some controversy recently over SPs charging consumers double to use VoIP services with a mobile broadband package. With 3's packages, there are no extra charges.
3 currently offers three basic mobile broadband price plans: Broadband Lite (1GB), Broadband Plus (3GB) and Broadband Max (7GB). A 50% discount applies to the contract price plan shown opposite when customers also take a phone on contract. 3 is one of the few operators also to offer mobile broadband on pay-as-you-go. Pricing for data purchases are the same as for contract customers and dongles are available from £49.99.
Vodafone currently offers the fastest speeds of any of the UK networks in areas with 7.2Mbps network coverage, although actual speeds will be nearer 4-5Mbps. It's currently the only operator to offer HSUPA, which enables users to upload photos, videos and content to the internet.
USB Modem Stick - Vodafone's Modem Stick (left) is the smallest of its dongles and capable of download speeds of up to 7.2Mbps and 1.4Mbps uploads over HSUPA. Unlike other USB modems, which are attached to a cable, the Stick plugs directly into the USB port on your laptop. You also get a cable in the box.
USB Modem - although a tad larger than the Stick, the USB Modem plugs into your laptop via a USB cable. It's capable of download speeds of up to 3.6Mbps.
Vodafone Pebble - otherwise known as the Modem 7.2, the Pebble is available to business customers and offers 7.2Mbps download speeds and 1.4Mbps upload over HSUPA.
What you'll need:
Windows XP or Vista n Standard USB interface n At least 100MB free disk space and 128MB RAM
OS X Panther 10.3.9 or higher n A standard USB interface n 50MB free disk space and 128MB RAM
Vodafone's mobile broadband is priced according to the modem you choose and the number of gigabytes (the download limit) you require. Most of the broadband deals are available on either a 12, 18 or 24-month contract. However, there is one deal available which lets you cancel within 30 days.
O2 is the last of the major operators to launch its mobile broadband dongle which enables users to surf the web from laptops via the mobile network and the Cloud's 7,500 Wi-Fi hotspots. O2 has been a little hazy as to just how extensive its HSDPA coverage is; however, when you fall out of HSDPA coverage, you'll pick up 3G, then EDGE, then GPRS. There's a colour-coded LED panel on the dongle which indicates which network is being used. There are two O2 UK plans, which are only available to existing customers. Remember, actual speeds are always lower than those advertised.
Orange has not been promoting its mobile broadband deals and services as heavily as 3, Vodafone or T-Mobile, but there is a dongle and a price plan available if you look hard enough. Orange's HSDPA network is currently centred around London and runs at 1.8Mbps. Orange is in the process of upgrading to 3.6Mbps, with 7.2Mbps download speeds coming later in 2008. Although, as with all operator services, actual speeds will be lower than those advertised.
Orange has two USB Modems on offer. The Option Icon 2 is of the direct plug-in variety and, like the USB Modem Sticks from Vodafone and T-Mobile, comes boxed with a USB cable. Design-wise, the Modem's no-nonsense black plastic finish looks functional and a bit boring, but it works well enough. The Modem is futureproof though, because it will enable 7.2Mbps data speeds when Orange's network allows. Orange's other dongle, the cigarette lighter-shaped Option Globe Surfer 225, is a little better looking than the Icon 2 and also offers maximum data speeds of 7.2Mbps.
T-Mobile launched its HSDPA network in the UK in August 2006 and it's currently enabled for 3.6Mbps, with plans to introduce 7.2Mbps in the summer. T-Mobile says users can access realistic speeds of between 1Mbps and 2Mbps. While stats for its HSDPA coverage are currently unavailable, T-Mobile says its 3G coverage is set to rise to almost complete population coverage by the end of 2008.
T-Mobile has two dongles in its portfolio. There's the Web‘n'Walk USB modem (which is the same device as Vodafone's USB modem and 3's e220) and the Web‘n'Walk USB Stick. As with Vodafone's USB Stick, this modem plugs directly into a laptop's USB port without the need for a cable.
T-Mobile currently offers two basic plan options, available on either 12-month or 24-month contracts.
n Web‘n'Walk Plus gives you up to 3GB of downloads, although this doesn't include internet calling services like Skype.
n Web‘n'Walk Max gives you up to 10GB of downloads, and includes internet calling services like Skype.
If you're planning to access mobile broadband abroad with your HSDPA phone or dongle, check the prices before you go to avoid bill shock upon your return
Although the major operators offer unlimited browsing for a set fee when you're using your mobile broadband in the UK, some charge per megabyte when abroad. So, it's worth checking your service provider's data roaming charges before you travel.
It's also worth checking to see if your operator offers a roaming data bundle, which would consist of a megabyte package for a set monthly fee.
As with the UK, many countries are still rolling out their HSDPA networks so mobile broadband coverage could be patchy.
You can use your dongle in countries where 3 has a network, for example Ireland, Italy, Hong Kong and Australia. Usage will be charged just like you are in the UK. Roaming where 3 doesn't have a network will cost £3 or £6 per megabyte. 3 is currently campaigning for data charges to be reduced across all UK operators.
As with the majority of operator data roaming options, the Orange deal can work out very expensive.
Orange charges £4.11 per megabyte for data roaming in Europe and £6.46 per megabyte for data roaming in the rest of the world. As yet, there are no data roaming bundles available for Orange.
T-Mobile charges £7.50 per megabyte when using mobile broadband abroad in any country whether you're using a laptop or a phone. Compare that to £7.50 for unlimited browsing on a handset or £15 for unlimited browsing on a laptop with dongle and you're talking about a serious hike in price. We recommend only data roaming with T-Mobile if you really have to.
Vodafone's mobile broadband roaming charges are different for mobile and laptop users.
HSDPA phone users
If you're browsing from your phone, Vodafone charges £5 per day for up to 15MB when you're travelling in Vodafone Passport countries and £8 per megabyte for non-Passport countries. Visit Vodafone's website to see Passport countries.
Mobile broadband with a dongle
-£9.99 per 24 hours in selected countries
-£4.99 per megabyte in other countries
-Visit vodafone.co.uk/goabroad for more info
O2's charges for data outside of the UK are £3 per megabyte in EU countries and £6 per megabyte for countries outside the EU. That's less than T-Mobile, but still expensive.If you are planning a trip abroad and wish to take your mobile broadband service with you, O2 recommends a Data Abroad Bolt-on to avoid nasty bill shock upon your return.
- Data Abroad 10: £20 per month for 10MB of data
- Data Abroad 50: £50 per month for 50MB of data