It was midway through Easter Sunday when I noticed my phone line wasn't working; I'd been awaiting calls from chums filling me in on the wherefores and when's of our planned visit to the pub to down a couple of cold ones, all in the name of celebrating Easter (and the fact we didn't have to go to work on the Monday). When those phone calls failed to transpire I picked up my phone to be greeted with a monotonous drone bearing no resemblance to a dialling tone, more like the equivalent to a telecommunication death rattle. A quick call (on my mobile phone) and some stern words to the powers that be at BT resulted in a man in a van being despatched in haste to fiddle with the cabling at my local exchange. To give him his due he did a sterling job of cable fiddling, but in coaxing my telephone line back to life he inadvertently fiddled my internet connection out of existence. Unfortunately this was where the matter got complex, not to mention annoying - because my Broadband supplier is O2 the BT chap was not allowed to fiddle with their section at the exchange, a situation made ten times worse when O2 informed me that my broadband connection would have to be setup from scratch, a process that could take over a week to complete. After much shouting and moaning about BT I set about securing some kind of internet connection for my home; after all, a day or two without broadband is manageable, but a week! That's very nearly a lifetime in the online world!
I toyed with the idea of crossing over to the dark side and returning to the bad old days of dial up internet, but the thought of having to source a dialup modem, fit it in my computer then suffer the mind numbing crawl as pages take minutes rather than seconds to load was a backwards step too far, and one I was not prepared to take. It was then that I remembered when I switched from AOL to O2 last autumn there was plenty of talk and buzz about a new product on the market, mobile broadband. Thinking this could be the answer to my problems, I hot footed to PC World to peruse and compare this new and clever way of connecting to the net. The choices were sadly limited; they'd sold out of the O2 option and the '3' was quickly eschewed when I remembered my neighbour bemoaning the fact his '3' network phone was all but unusable due to poor coverage. That left Vodafone and T-Mobile, and for no other reason than I knew a mate of mines phone was with Vodafone and I'd seen him use it - and thus get a signal - in my very own front room, I went for that option. I chose the Top Up and Go above the pay monthly option purely because I wasn't overly keen in getting into a contract for a product I hoped to be using a matter of days, or a week tops. For £39 my dongle came preloaded with 1GB of Data usage (£15) so I could plug it in and start using it immediately, then when the balance dropped a simple top up keeps things moving.
So what's mobile broadband then?
Well, the clue is very much in the name. Mobile broadband is a broadband connection for your laptop or PC, using the mobile phone providers wireless 3G network rather than traditional wires and cables. Basically you plug a dongle into your computer and it acts like a modem transferring and receiving data as a normal router or modem might, but it has a SIM card in it which gives it its identity, much like a mobile phone. Depending on whether you plump for a contract dongle or the pay as you go alternative you pay either a flat monthly fee for unlimited data transfer, or you top it up with vouchers or a credit card much as you would a non contract mobile phone. Download and upload speeds are stated as being on a par with a 2MB broadband connection, although it is fair to say there are fluctuations depending on mobile phone coverage availability where you are - if you struggle to get a mobile phone signal then you will struggle to get a meaningful connection with the dongle.
What's in the box?
Firstly, and of course most importantly, you get the dongle itself - A vision of white shiny plastic with 'Vodafone' writ large along its shaft. It is about the size and shape of a chubby thumb and has a MicroSD memory card slot to the side so you can use it as a card reader as well as a mobile modem. Pulling the cap off one end uncovers the USB plug, ready to be slipped into your PC's warm and willing port. You also get an extension cable, so that if the only spare USB port you have is to the rear of your computer you don't have to rummage blindly every time you wish to slip the dongle home. A couple of pamphlets explain in basic terms what to do when using the dongle for the first time, as well as helpful numbers and information pertaining to top up's and general care to ensure your dongle has a long and fruitful life. If for any reason this doesn't happen, a warranty sticker explains in over complicated legal jargon that the dongle is covered for a period of two years from the time you first plug it into your PC.
Setup really is a breeze, thanks to the fact that all the relevant software and drivers are already on the dongle just waiting to install onto any computer it is plugged into. Windows Vista and XP are supported, with installation on the former taking around five minutes and the latter about seven. There is really no user intercourse needed save for agreeing to the end user agreement as installation reaches its climax. To use, you simple plug the dongle into a USB port whereupon the Vodafone Mobile Connect software springs into action and scans the airwaves for any available mobile phone coverage. This being a Vodafone dongle it finds the relevant Vodafone UK service and invites you to connect. It really is that simple and takes around thirty seconds from dongle insertion to a working internet connection. The Vodafone Mobile Connect software window can be left open or closed depending on personal preference, personally I leave it maximized as it displays useful information such as upload and download signal strength, time spent online and the amount of data in MB used. A series of buttons also offer options to check your available credit as well as options to top up using a credit card or voucher. The whole experience is geared to be as user friendly and intuitive as possible, and in that respect it delivers admirably. Finally, when you've finished your web browsing session, clicking the disconnect button closes out the signal, so you don't waste credit when not online.
As mentioned above, the setup and installation of the dongle is amongst the simplest of any software/hardware I've known - one button press to accept the terms and conditions and you are all set. And because the dongle has its own identity in the form of a SIM card you can use it
much as you would a mobile phone, by sending and receiving texts - albeit via your PC screen. And if you have a separate Vodafone phone you can slip that SIM card out and use it instead. The fact that you can buy vouchers from shops that sells phone top ups means you don't need a bank account or a credit/debit card to get online, great for those reluctant - or unable - to gain credit. This is also a great way of getting online if you are only an occasional internet user - why get stuck in a year's contract when you can simply plug this dongle in and browse as infrequently as you wish, as long as you plug it in at least once every one hundred and eighty days you will not lose any credit sitting on the dongle.
Inevitably there are a few niggles that impact on the use and effectiveness of the dongle. Firstly, because the relevant software and drivers are preinstalled on the device, every time you plug it into a USB port it tries to start the reinstallation process all over again, even if the requisite software is already sitting on the computer. This process can easily be halted with a mouse click on the cancel button, but it can get a little tiresome. Also, despite being compatible with Windows XP as well as Vista it just doesn't seem to perform that well on the former operating system, with page errors and dropped connections occurring far more frequently than when running under Vista. And then of course there is the cost; the convenience and ease of use comes at a premium, with the dongle itself costing close to £40, and top ups weighing in at £15 per GB of data. A GB may sound like a large amount to play with, but once you get online it's shocking to see just how much is used up with simple browsing and email use. Safe to say that resource hungry sites like YouTube and applications like iTunes should be avoided at all costs, ten minutes video watching will eat heavily into your credit. Finally, and probably the issue that irked me most, is a facet called Vodafone content control. Basically this stops any sites of a questionable nature being displayed on your computer. Great - in theory - except that Vodafone classes sites like Myspace, Facebook, Ladbrokes and many chat rooms as sites to be avoided, they even blocked the site I use to check my lottery numbers! Removing these content blocking measures seems unnecessarily complex to me, you can either link a credit card to the account (you have to be over eighteen to own one) or you can visit your local Vodafone shop with your passport or birth certificate! - So not at all time consuming then! And no doubt causing issues for people without credit cards who would possibly gravitate towards this method of getting online in the first place simply because there was no need for credit/debit cards, or a credit check.
It wouldn't feel prudent to wrap up this review without some sort of solid speed/data transfer tests, just to give a true reflection of the performance that can be expected. Although earlier I mentioned that downloading files from places such as ITunes would eat heavily into your credit, it does offer a solid benchmark on how long it takes to download a song, and how much credit it eats up. I elect to download the free single of the week, the intriguingly titled 'Dangling threads' by Howard Elliot Payne. The 5.5MB start to download at a good speed, and continues to do so, only stuttering slightly in the last few seconds. From start the finish the download takes 40 seconds, and uses nine pence of the dongles credit. So, not too bad either speed or cost wise, but you should probably still avoid downloading whole albums if possible. A further test of the upload and download speeds find me at thinkbroadband.com - a handy little site that accurately monitors the speed of any internet connection. A quick mouse click and the upload and download tests begin in earnest, with the site uploading and downloading a set amount of data to gauge connection speed. Download speed topped out at a fraction over 1 Mbps (1009.60 Kbps) while the upload speed sat steady at 0.3 Mbps (304.41 Kbps). Bearing in mind I tested at what is traditionally a busy time for internet traffic (Saturday afternoon) I was fairly happy with these results, which are more than ample for light browsing and occasional music downloading.
So, all things considered I recommend Vodafone Top Up and Go Mobile Broadband and award it four stars out of five. Ultimately this is an expensive way to connect to the internet long term, but for those instances when you've just moved house or changed Internet service provider and are waiting for your new broadband to be switched on it offers an intuitive and stress free alternative to pulling your hair out waiting to be connected. And of course it removes BT from the loop, which judging from my recent experiences cannot be a bad thing.