Product Review: USB broadband modem

29 Jan 2008

What are those little white yokes that seem to hang off every second laptop these days? John Kennedy reviews the latest USB broadband modem from 3.

It is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of the Irish broadband market is one where subscribers don’t have to pay line rental for the privilege of just getting broadband. That said, the segment is still in its infancy and has some hurdles to overcome.

What am I talking about? Well, those little white yokes that seem to hang off every second laptop you see today. These contraptions are actually USB modem cards for broadband which use a standard called high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA), and they’re capable of bringing in broadband speeds of up to 3.6Mbps (on a good day).

They are proving popular with a mix of residential and professional users who want broadband, a fundamental right in 21st century western Europe, but aren’t prepared to wait for their 20th century local exchange to be unbundled at some stage in the future.

These include students, new home owners who want to eschew physical wires entering their homes and office workers and other professionals such as engineers and construction workers who want to work wherever and whenever they want.

But nothing’s perfect. The 3G HSDPA networks, provided by 3, Vodafone and O2, currently only cover up to 85pc of the population. So they aren’t the silver bullet to Ireland’s broadband problems just yet.

Hutchison Whampoa-owned 3 was first off the marks in this growing marketplace in late 2006 with a modem card that slid into laptops, followed by one of those white yokes that O2 and Vodafone also sport.

Having reviewed all three services, there was little to distinguish them in speed and, if anything, they all suffered the same malaise of connections that led them to inexplicably just drop when least needed.

When I was promised that 3’s latest USB modem, the ZTE, would be more resilient, I was sceptical. Apparently it sports an intelligent technology called receive diversity, which locks onto the network very efficiently by selecting the strongest available signal.

The nice thing about the ZTE is that it is a complete departure in design from the white ‘samey’ devices which 3 and its competitors issued to the market last year. The ZTE is a discreet card-like device with a stylish green trim that doesn’t stand out too much.

I just connected the device to my laptop and in seconds it had uploaded the required software onto the computer and off I went. The device comes with a snazzier user interface than its predecessors and I was surfing the net in no time.

Having subjected the modem to the standard barrage of YouTube downloads etc, I found that after leaving it online for about five hours (sorry 3), it was still doing its job. The connection was very resilient, it didn’t drop once.

This might make it ideal for the kind of services having a mobile broadband connection should allow for, such as making Skype internet calls via your laptop.

Ostensibly the device is supposed to be capable of speeds of 3.6Mbps but I wasn’t totally convinced it achieved that actual rate. But nonetheless it certainly is broadband and I found it capable of downloading at speeds faster than my office network, so it can’t be dismissed lightly at all.

The new ZTE 3G modem from 3 Ireland is expected to be launched in the coming weeks and will be available online from 3 Ireland for €149.

Pros: Very solid, resilient connection

Cons: Speeds seem standard

Price: €149

By John Kennedy