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O2 mobile broadband: A real-world test

We've spent three months paying our own money -- we know, it's unheard of -- for O2's mobile broadband. Should you bother forking over the same cash for the same service?

Tech journalism comes with a list of perks. Hot pop-star girlfriends, sacks of cash, Hertfordshire mansions -- none of these are on that list. But I do get plenty of free tech, much of which tends to stick around. And by 'stick around', I mean 'gets taken home'.

Not always though. After three months of paying my own money for O2's mobile broadband service, I decided I should report back -- as a customer, not a reviewer -- on how the 3G broadband performs, and whether you should bother.

 

What do you get?

O2 offers a choice of contracts -- one, 18 or 24 months -- each with 3GB or 10GB monthly usage allowances. For 18- and 24-month plans, the 3G USB modem is free.

I opted for the 18-month contract. For £14.69 per month, I got a free USB modem, 3GB of monthly data, plus -- and this is what clinched the deal from rival 3, which offered a larger 15GB of data a month for £20 -- unlimited Wi-Fi usage at The Cloud hotspots.

 

Speed and application

After whipping your dongle out for the first time, you'll be online within 2 minutes, max. It's a dead-easy plug and play setup. We used an aluminium 2.4GHz Apple MacBook running OS X Leopard, but it's also compatible with Windows.

Network speed depends massively on location, your surroundings, and how many other folk are logged to the same cell tower around you. Given a good location, however, I've seen download speeds of around 6Mbps, and upload of 2Mbps.

In fact, I tested this just now using BitTorrent to download Linux. I was downloading, on average, at around 600KBps. Then, using FTP to upload a 200MB MPEG-4 video file to a UK-based Web server, I uploaded at around 200KBps. That's fast even for home broadband, let alone mobile broadband.

Note that these tests took place over the fastest connection possible on the modem -- HSPA. Below this is 3G, then EDGE, then GPRS. 3G still gives excellent speeds, though uploads are much slower than HSPA, but EDGE felt like dial-up. If you only get GRPS, you might as well not bother -- it's just too slow to be considered useful.

Stability

Over the last three months, I've been coloured a remarkably excited shade of chuffed, experiencing almost no dropped connections, at least in London.

Even on a Virgin Pendolino train journey from London Euston to Manchester Picaddilly one evening, I held down a 45-minute IM conversation and Web browsing session with only occasional drop-outs. Most of the time I was connected to O2's slower EDGE network rather than 3G, but for IM and email this is fine.

 

Problems to be aware of

O2 compresses your data before it's sent over the network (to keep file sizes down), so JPEG images can look rather shoddy compared to their wired Internet counterparts. For the most part, this isn't an issue. But if like me, you occasionally need to download high-quality images for republishing or printing, it's something to be aware of ahead of time.

To demonstrate the difference in picture quality, I took a high-resolution photograph and downloaded it once over Wi-Fi, once over O2's 3G network. The original photo (here) is just over 300KB. But over 3G, the compressed version (here) is just 26KB, and looks pants.

Another major annoyance is O2's own Web site. You'll need this for checking how much data you're consuming from month to month. Except it appears O2's mobile broadband connection, for whatever reason, doesn't like the data-allowance page on O2's site, and refuses to load it over 3G. I've raised this as an issue with O2 and am awaiting a response (at the time of publication, an O2 spokesperson told me the issue was with the engineers, who are looking into it).

 

Overall impressions

They're good. Image-compression aside, I don't begrudge O2 the £15 a month I'm paying. The bundling of access to The Cloud hotspots is a massive bonus, particularly when 3G reception isn't available and podcasts need to be downloaded for the train journey ahead.

If you live out in the sticks, unless you know you get good reception, mobile broadband isn't advisable if you want to browse the Web and fixed-line broadband speeds. Relying on an EDGE network (or God forbid, GPRS), gives a dial-up experience at best.