Mobile Broadband Genie Road Trip 2012: overall analysis

Editors note: We recently published the outcome of our latest Road Trip, a test of the UK’s mobile broadband providers which aims to put mobile internet under scrutiny in real-world conditions.

Here you’ll find a full analysis of the road trip 2012 results. For individual write ups on each network, scroll to the bottom of the page.

The route from King’s Cross to Exeter was over 2 ½ hours each way and went through large towns and cities as well as plenty of countryside, which is always a challenge for mobile connectivity.

Taking advantage of the full strength of the Genie team to try something different we teamed up with Three to experiment with more than just dongles, adding an iPad and tethered Galaxy S2 smartphone to the road trip and testing four top smartphones in a geographical treasure hunt around Exeter.


Each UK network (and major MVNO) was approached and the following devices were supplied:

O2 - Huawei E173
Orange - Huawei E367
T-Mobile - Huawei E173
Three - Huawei E367
Vodafone - Huawei R205
Virgin Mobile - Alcatel X220S

Huawei dominates yet again. T-Mobile and Three are using the same hardware as last year but since the E367 supports the fastest data connection currently offered by Three this isn’t a concern. If Three does get round to its promised DC-HSDPA upgrade later this year then a new dongle will be needed. The Vodafone R205 is an oddity as it’s a Wi-Fi hotspot unit (commonly referred to as a MiFi) but for the purposes of the Road Trip we used it over a wired USB connection to match the other devices.

Virgin Mobile was the only MVNO to provide a review sample. Mobile broadband is not a priority for BT or TalkTalk right now and both turned down the invitation.

Mobile Broadband Genie speed tests

Throughout the journey we made frequent use of the Broadband Genie speed test tool. This was run at various intervals all along the route to give a good range of results in both rural and urban locations.

Following on from its strong performance last year, Three completed more speed tests than any other network with 12 successes, followed by Vodafone (9) then T-Mobile (7). Completing 5, Orange was only just ahead of Virgin and O2 which each managed just 3 of the speed tests.

Download top speed: Last year not a single dongle managed to break 3Mb but there was a big improvement this time round. Vodafone hit 3.08Mb, Orange managed 3.21Mb and Three stormed into first place at 4.44Mb, the fastest speed we’ve ever seen from a mobile broadband service. Of the other networks O2 and T-Mobile were close behind at 2.9Mb and 2.69Mb respectively. Bringing up the rear was Virgin Mobile at 1.38Mb, but it did at least manage to get over 1Mb. Overall this was a positive outcome for all involved, showing that if you’re in an area with strong coverage then dongles from all the networks are capable of providing very respectable speeds.

Download average speed: An increase in top speeds naturally brought with it some slight improvement in the average. Three came top dog here as well with 1.93Mb, which is about the best average we’ve ever had, though that random 4.44Mb high will have had some impact. Most other networks were doing well by getting over 1Mb; Orange recorded 1.66Mb average while T-Mobile got 1.49Mb, Vodafone 1.31Mb and O2 was lagging behind slightly at 1.2Mb. Virgin Mobile got just under 1Mb with an average 0.97Mb.

Upstream top speed: Orange topped the upload charts with a bizarrely high 3.1Mb, which would be good even for a home broadband connection. It was only this errant figure which stopped Three from coming in first again, as it managed 2.17Mb, itself a very strong result which is significantly better than any other previous upload result. And the other upstream speed numbers were relatively respectable as well. In descending order: Vodafone (1.57Mb), T-Mobile (1.39Mb), Virgin (1Mb) and O2 (0.85Mb).

Upstream average speed: To no great surprise the providers ranked in a similar order for average uploads as they did for the upload top speeds, though Orange’s 3.1Mb high did mean it got an excellent 1.93Mb upstream average but Three completed more speed tests and got a decent 1.09Mb. Following that were T-Mobile (0.93Mb), Virgin (0.83Mb), Vodafone (0.75) and a poor 0.37Mb from O2. 

In addition to the upstream speed tests we also manually uploaded two photos to Facebook. T-Mobile had the single quickest result with 32 seconds but only completed it once. Vodafone was just marginally slower at 34 seconds but completed both uploads, while Three actually had the slowest speed, taking a hefty 2 minutes 11 seconds to upload one photo. Virgin and O2 failed all the tests.

Streaming and download tests

In addition to the speed tests we undertook a variety of tasks designed to emulate real-world usage. This included streaming video from the likes of YouTube and Vimeo, audio streams from Spotify and a number of download tests which included the Firefox installer and a BBC podcast.

Video streams were played in various resolutions, as well as standard definition we also upped the challenge by attempting to view 720p and 1080p HD content, with mixed results. File downloads included a 70MB Avast Anti-Virus installer and something new this year: a BitTorrent test from (totally legal) torrent site ClearBitz.

Streaming: A very mixed bag on the streaming front. Not one of the dongles managed to complete all eight tests, though of the streams which were successful there wasn’t too much waiting around for that buffer bar to fill. Three once again put in a stellar performance, allowing us to finish five of the streams. This included two of the best results, though one stream needed double the length of the video to buffer.

Both Vodafone and T-Mobile came second with four successful. Vodafone’s effort was middling in speed but fairly dependable, getting there eventually despite adding 30-40% buffering to the streams. T-Mobile had several excellent results with the video and audio streaming almost immediately but we ran into a signal black spot at one point and it took four times as long to buffer.

Orange and O2 were acceptable when they worked, but with just three of eight completed you’re going to struggle to catch up on TV if your travels take you through anywhere with less than brilliant network coverage. Virgin was unable to complete any of the streaming tests. Generally though we were pretty pleased with the outcome, given that we were travelling through the patchy west country many of the dongles still managed to deliver HD content without too much stuttering.

Downloads: Once again Three’s mobile broadband excelled, downloading all but one of the five files and with the fastest times in three of the tests. T-Mobile also completed four of five, even if it was slower in most cases.

Vodafone, Orange and O2 each managed three successful downloads within reasonable timeframes, which included Vodafone and O2 being the only ones to finish the BitTorrent test. Aside from Virgin which completed only one, the networks managed quite well on this front. Few reconnects were needed, with the downloads generally finishing once they started, and we saw some quick results. Three grabbed the 3.7MB CCleaner in 10 seconds (compared to 1.2 minutes on O2), while T-mobile nabbed a 50MB Adam & Joe podcast in just 3.4 minutes. 

Apple iPad and tethered Samsung Galaxy S2

Trying something a little different this year, we also included a iPad and Galaxy S2 in the Road Trip. Beyond a list of the tests we provided no instructions to our testers about how they went about completing them. This was more about the experience and aside from it being interesting to see whether there were any glaring differences in speed between a tethered smartphone, tablet and dongle the results were not compared to the other devices. Both devices were connected to Three.

Apple iPad: The iPad’s lack of support for technologies like Java and Flash caused an immediate issue as our speed test relies on both. It would never work. Instead our tester had to download the app. It took less than a minute though at that point we hadn’t left King’s Cross.

The speed test recorded an average 0.98Mb with a high of 2.66Mb, which isn’t astounding, however it managed to complete every single run, which we’d put down to it not having to load Java and Flash beforehand. Upstream was just 0.11Mb average. The iPad fared well with streaming but external apps were required. YouTube was already installed but we also had to grab Vimeo and Spotify, though neither were large installations.

Largely the iPad 3G successfully manages to do its job by providing mobile entertainment and web browsing with limited hassle, though it was never as quick as a dongle. The only big issues come from a lack of Flash and other plug-ins which may restrict access, though often an app provides similar functionality.

Tethered Samsung Galaxy S2: Tethering turns a smartphone into a dongle. With Android you can use either USB or Wi-Fi hotspot mode and we opted for the latter. Setup was dead simple. Once you’ve tracked down the option in the setting menu it just needs a network name and password, and you’re away.

While setting it up was easy performance was unfortunately quite disappointing. Despite being on Three’s winning network the S2 failed a large number of tests, though it did okay at some speed tests with an average 1.37Mb and impressive high of 4.04Mb, and struggled through the file downloads with a few completed albeit at very slow speeds. Streaming didn’t work at all.

Tethering is really useful if you need mobile net access on a laptop or tablet right now and don’t have anything else to hand but for regular use a dongle is the better option. Its big advantage is that no additional software or hardware is required, provided you have a smartphone capable of tethering you can link it up to any device with wireless network support.



  • unhappy

    by Trash Bin at 17:11 on 11 Sep 2012 Report abuse

    anyone in the South Leamington / Tachrook Park or Warwick gates area of CV34 / CV32 / CV21 served by the THREE mast No CV0276 should steer weel clear of this network till at least after Christmas. I went into the Three shop in Leamington Spa & they confirmed the Mast is currently shown as DOWN. The Excutive office cancelled my contracts last week due to the repair required being a major ugrade which wont be completed before the end of the year.

  • happy

    by David at 13:06 on 13 Sep 2012 Report abuse

    Hi Matt, good to see the UK operators are upping their 3G speeds. Given the EE 4G launch, I thught you might be interested to see what 4G will bring us. Here is a link to our 4G Customer Experience study performed mainly for Asian Mobile Operators.

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