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Vodafone Mobile Connect review: Vodafone Mobile Connect

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The Good On-the-fly file compression. Fully featured software. Unlimited downloads plan.

The Bad External antenna clamp doesn't fit all notebooks.

The Bottom Line Aggressive pricing, a slice of speed-boosting tech and a tempting 'unlimited' downloads plan puts Vodafone in pole position in the race for 3G datacard customers.

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Vodafone mopped up a large pool of mobile customers with its GSM-based Vodafone Mobile Card (VMC). Having flicked the switch on its 3G network, the red-badged carrier is out to woo its own customers and win converts from the competition by stacking an aggressive mix of speed and greed behind their new 3G VMC package.

The speed comes from Vodafone's use of server-side compression to shrink files to a fraction of their size before being downloaded onto your notebook, where they're decompressed to their original size. It all happens on the fly and without you even noticing any lag.

Wile this has no impact on files which are already compressed (such as ZIP and RAR archives) or optimised 'pre-compressed' formats such as MP3 and JPEG, beefy Office documents (which are the mainstay of corporate computing) and Web pages are a prime candidate for the big squeeze. This can boost overall throughout to well above the standard 3G rate of 384kbps, and because the usage meter counts only the transmitted data, you could end up downloading well above the monthly limit of Vodafone's $30 (100MB) or $50 (300MB) plans without being slugged the $2/MB for excess usage.

But if you choose Vodafone's $100/month 'Data Unlimited' plan, you're unfettered by download caps, and that's where the 'greed' factor kicks in - although the carrier sounds a nebulous warning that its 'fair use policy may affect usage over 1GB per month'. To further sweeten the deal, Vodafone promises three months of free usage for customers who sign onto the $100 plan before years' end.

The VMC card itself carries a price tag of AU$399, which can also be spread across 24 months (at $16.63 per month).

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Like other cards on the Australian market, the VMC is equally at home on Vodafone's 3G and GSM networks. The card performed well enough on the aerial tucked into its red hump that we found little need to fit the supplied external 'paddle pop stick' antenna, which connects to the card through a 40cm cable and can gain a height advantage by snapping onto your laptop's display (although the clamp wasn't wide enough to cater for the extruded bezel around the display on our ThinkPad X31 test notebook).

We were impressed by the VMC's software, which smoothly progresses from a painless wizard-driven setup into the most fully-featured front end for all these cards. Available for both Windows and Mac OS, the software includes programmable buttons for the user's email, Web, instant messaging and VPN clients (the email program can also include Web-based services such as an Exchange Webmail client). There are also screens for composing SMS messages which can be addressed from a phonebook (created by importing contacts from a SIM card or CVS text file) plus charts for monitoring data usage, including international Vodafone networks for those ready to roam.

Users can also fine-tune or disable the compression settings and also block bandwidth-bloating elements such as video, audio, animation and Web applets.

Vodafone's 3G network covers the 'metropolitan areas' of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra as well as airports in all capital cities except Darwin and Hobart. The metro hubs of Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth plus selected regional areas are due to come under Vodafone's 3G wing next year.

Judged purely on bytes-per-buck, Vodafone's $100 unlimited plan is the clear winner in the competitive datacard stakes and will prove hard to resist if your movements mirror Vodafone's current 3G coverage zones.

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